Backdoor references have been a common practice in recruiting for years. This is when a hiring manager or recruiter reaches out to people they have in common with the candidate to learn more about the prospect hire.
I have never been a fan of the practice, but I value what can be learned about a person by talking with a broader set of people who have personally worked with the candidate. Official references will only provide one lens, while speaking with a number of individuals, to gain different perspectives, helps deliver a more well-rounded picture of the person you are potentially hiring.
Here's what I don't like about backdoor references:
- It can jeopardize trust: A great recruiting process gives candidates a clear understanding of who they will be meeting with, what the anticipated timelines are for hiring, and what the end-to-end process looks like. If a candidate hears through a third party that the hiring manager or recruiter was talking with others about their candidacy, it can leave a feeling of deception and potentially put in question the trust that was being built during the interview process.
- You can be disruptive to a candidate's job search: We often recruit people who are not looking to leave their position, and other times, we are talking to people who are quietly starting to think about what is next. Oftentimes, these candidates choose to have very confidential conversations with their trusted community, and at times, those conversations lead to somebody in their network actively recruiting the candidate themselves. It is unrealistic to believe you are the only company the candidate is in talks with, and it is presumptuous to assume that a prior peer, boss, or board member is not trying to bring your candidate into their own company. Everyone deserves the respect of a confidential job search, and it is important to recognize the impact backdoor conversations can have on people's confidential career discussions.
- What works in one company doesn't work in others: I've seen people thrive in one environment and struggle in others. Oftentimes, we interview a candidate for one company and decide they are "not a fit" because of the management, culture, size, or dynamic of the business, yet, we couldn't be more excited to place them at another company where we know they will knock it out of the park. As recruiters, we have the luxury of seeing inside so many different businesses, which helps us make the perfect match. When conducting a backdoor reference, you can miss the context of the situation the candidate worked in and may not get a full understanding of what made them successful or why they struggled.
- You don't know the relationship: As leaders, we must make hard decisions. This means letting people go, balancing your team's personal and professional needs, and managing through cultural and environmental shifts. Reaching out to a mutual connection where you don't have the background on the relationship means you may be getting misinformation. There are always two sides to every story, and understanding the relationship from both sides is where you gain the biggest insights.
- You set the tone wrong for the starting of the relationship: I would estimate over 75% of candidates inevitably hear that the hiring manager is asking about them in the market. Remember, if there is a mutual connection in common, and the person knows the other well, out of respect, they will alert them that the hiring manager called them to learn more. This can put your candidate back on their heels, wishing that the hiring manager had simply alerted them so that they can confidentially share with the reference that they are in conversations for a new role.
Here's what I think should be done instead of backdoor references:
Simply, be transparent.
Executive hires are often the make-it-or-break-it hires for a company. They are critical leaders who set the direction for the division and teams and make up the trusted advisory group for the CEO. They can define the products you create for customers, the revenue you deliver to shareholders, the brands people fall in love with, and more. In short, executive hires are a CEO's most important hires.
Because of this, deep reference checking is essential. There is zero reason to shy away from this, and hiring leaders and recruiters should speak to as many people as they can or want to about the candidate they are considering making an offer to. The way to do this, though, is not through backdoor conversations but by informing the candidate who they are going to call and asking them what to expect with the call.
Our approach is look through the mutual connections we have with our candidate and identify a handful of people that we think could be interesting to speak with about the candidate. We then share with the candidate that we plan to have a conversation with these people, as well as the formal references they suggest we speak with.
At times, we have been met with hesitation, but we explain the importance of the position we are hiring for and why we would like to speak with a broader set of individuals. We also ask the candidate what we should expect out of these conversations. Sometimes we hear stories of conflict, and other times we hear they are interviewing with that person as well. Mostly we are met with appreciation that we talked to them first, before reaching out. We always make the calls, and it is always productive. This is because our approach is honest, transparent, and in support of the candidate.
In the end, everyone wants to be respected for their work. You will never fail with honest communication and by running a transparent recruiting process, you build the foundation for a lasting and successful relationship.