Back-door References Raise Some Big Questions

Anyone who hires employees is guilty of it, whether directly or indirectly … that dirty little secret no one ever talks about: back-door references.

It goes like this: You actively recruit candidates for a position, and after pop out to you early on, you do a little digging, millennial style.

You immediately go to Google and type their name in. Whoops. here are over 500 results for “John Smith” in Seattle. Off to Facebook, where you add keywords like the college John went to, and boom, you find him, and start scrolling through the pictures he has unwillingly left posted in “public” status to figure out what this guy is all about.

Collecting information on a potential employee is nothing new. It has been going on since the early days of hiring, when ambitious cavemen would recruit the less-ambitious ones to help them move rocks for their neighbors in exchange for animals. “Asking around” is always part of the game. Who do you know who knows this person? What involuntary information can you dig up to start shaping your own view of someone you haven’t met, but only know from the text on the resume they’ve sent you. That’s where the reference checks come in.

A reference is only as valuable as the reference that is giving it.

LinkedIn recognized this effect early, and has built it into its “Recruiter” product so well you probably didn’t even know it existed. When you view a candidate profile in Recruiter, LinkedIn shows you all of the people you know in common with that person, and a “call to action” button that invites you to “Ask for Opinion.” In other words, conduct a back-door reference directly from their platform.

On one hand, this is amazingly powerful stuff. I can flip through a list of (in this case 17) “references” who apparently know the person I want to know better, and in a few clicks, fire off an email to see what “un-offered” or “un-supplied by candidate” information I can dig up. Or perhaps, I’m just looking to get a little perspective.

But this workflow raises many questions:

  • How credible is the reference I’m about to ask for information on this person?
  • What is my relationship to the reference?
  • What was or is the reference’s relationship to the candidate I am interested in?
  • What would the 17 people I have in common with the reference say about them in a back-door reference?
  • What might be their hidden agenda when providing a reference?

There are many other questions to ask in this case before you simply “Ask for Opinion” and take it at face value.

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I’ll give an example of a real-world scenario I found myself in at one point:

I “Asked for Opinion” on a candidate I had discovered and interviewed on my own, and felt good about. The back door reference I received was very poor. And once I had received that information, the entire relationship was poisoned, because I could not get that negative information out of my head.

Should I have conducted this reference in the first place?

In hindsight, the reference ultimately revealed to me at least one hidden agenda, and likely more. Not to mention, in the context of life, the reference knew the candidate for such a brief time, and under very unique and specific terms, that the reference given could in no way measure up in terms of credibility to references from people closer to the candidate and without a similar agenda.

But context matters, and in this context, once I had received the negative information, I could not get past it.

If this post sounds like a weak attempt to reconcile my mistake for the back-door reference I probably never should have made, it likely is that. But it’s also an opportunity to encourage you to think twice before you conduct the back-door reference and remember that context is everything when checking a reference.


6 Comments on “Back-door References Raise Some Big Questions

  1. Nice one Scott, thanks. I can envisage a few ethical dilemma’s here and well just seems so “sleazy” in any event. I think recommendation’s and LinkedIn functionality great however always sceptical re “gossip columnists” voyeuristic type syndrome which could originate from Facebook, Instagram etc . Just my pennies worth.

    1. Thanks John – I’ll admit, I’m guilty of it myself – hard to resist the temptation to peek behind the curtain at whatever candidates make publicly available on social media sites. It can tell you a lot about them (maybe more then you want to or should know!)

  2. Another big reason NOT to do back-door references is the potential impact to the candidate. If I was looking for a new position and didn’t want my current employer to know, but someone at my company found out because a recruiter called someone without my permission and that person then told someone else they heard I was looking for a new position, I’d be pretty livid. Couple that with the fact that reference checks have little impact on quality of hire and I would say we all have better things we could be doing with our time.

    1. I agree with Brad, it is bad form to jeopardize a candidate’s current job just because you want more information on them. Get better at talking with the candidate and building rapport. Get the candidate to open up.

      Also, everyone has something they would rather not tell you. Back in the corporate world (I been self employed for a long time now) I didn’t volunteer that I had 3 children because it ‘mommy tracked’ me.

    2. Spot on Brad, not to mention how you damage your own brand in unethically trying to get people you probably don’t know that well (it’s social media after all) around a camp-fire to tittle-tattle on a person who as Brad mentions, has entered into this relationship with you on the auspices of it being confidential. I’d personally and professionally tell you to do one unless we were pretty close…

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