The downside to conducting backdoor reference checks


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We all have people we know and trust from our personal network. And while a solid and broad network can prove to be helpful in terms of conducting business, and also may help us discover potential future employees, our network may not be the most appropriate source of data when we engage in Candidate discovery as part of a hiring process.

During the normal course of interviewing, we ask for professional references to learn how Candidates operate in a business context. These references are considered “Candidate approved” and, if queried appropriately, can yield a wealth of information not only related to successes and failures but also to clues regarding how to best manage the individual (i.e. how s/he manages up, down, and laterally; how s/he handles stress; what his/her biggest accomplishments and development areas are, etc.). Naturally, yet erroneously, we assume these references always err on the side of positive bias and will provide only glowing performance and behavioural feedback. That said, some will offer a balanced view into a Candidate and other, ill-chosen references, readily will point out short-comings and negative facts instead.

With that, as we conduct reference checks, it is incumbent on us to probe into areas of particular interest and, then, to form an independent opinion based on the aggregate feedback gathered and should be viewed as a tool to help the Hiring Manager best onboard and manage the successful Candidate rather than to unearth potentially negative information (background checks serve that purpose).

If we assume Candidate references provide mostly net-positive opinions, naturally we might ask why we wouldn’t rely on our own trusted network for insights instead. The answers to this question are simple and varied:

  1. By definition, “backdoor references” are people in our network and may not be in the best position to comment on, based on any direct exposure to, our Candidate’s work product or interpersonal skills.
  2. The feedback offered through our network may be obsolete and/or irrelevant as the reference may be dated or too distant to provide any meaningful insights.
  3. Perhaps most importantly, backdoor references are not “authorized” by our Candidates, which leaves us exposed legally should we make a hiring decision based on a negative reference.

Keep in mind, a Candidate may have already given notice to her/his employer operating under the assumption that s/he has a new career opportunity, only to be turned away by us based on “rumor” about performance. This last point should be noted as one of utmost importance since the now unemployed individual can sue for financial damages as a result of the rogue reference we solicited. This is particularly prickly in certain countries where professional references are not the norm.

So where do you go from here?

Ask your Candidates for 3-4 professional references which include previous Managers and feel free to explore areas such as performance, stress management, relationship management (internal and with Clients), failures and recoveries, successes and paths to success, solutions-orientation, ability to flex with changing business mandates, ability to excel in ambiguous environments, career potential and for advice in terms of how to best manage the individual to enable her/his success. These questions, and others you may devise, will allow you prepare for your new hire and should provide you with the information you need to benefit from a successful professional relationship with your new hire.

To learn more about recruiting and talent management best practices as well as the tools to help you succeed, learn more about human capital management here.

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