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Backdoor References

By Joyce Bethoney on

It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it. 

-Benjamin Franklin 

In the business of hiring, there is an increasingly common practice called “backdoor references.” A backdoor reference is when a hiring manager or team member knows someone at a company that a candidate has worked for previously, and puts in a call to gain information. Unbeknownst to the candidate. It happens all the time. 

There is a right way and a wrong way to conduct, and apply information from, a backdoor reference. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

Always consider your source. When it comes to backdoor references, make sure you are not reaching out to someone with an ax to grind. And if you're the one providing the reference, be sure you are forthright and include background to support your opinion. Sadly, I have seen instances where a competitive, sour coworker or an off-the-cuff comment cost a solid candidate the opportunity to advance in an interview process or to secure a job offer.

As the hiring manager, you need to take all comments somewhat with a grain of salt. Be sure you aren’t prioritizing the backdoor reference above all other information gathered during the recruiting process.

Cover your bases. The backdoor reference should not be the only reference you secure. Ask for at least two to three professional references so you have a breadth of perspective. I had one candidate in the midst of a great interview process when it was abruptly ended because a team member at the hiring company, who worked with them years ago said, “drama,” when asked their opinion of my candidate. That was it. And the company was unwilling to check additional references. Luckily, the candidate went on to work for another firm and is doing wonderfully.

Use your findings wisely. Finally, I had one rock star candidate on her third round of interviews, when the client admitted to me, “We talked to someone who knew someone who worked with [candidate] at a prior company. They said they heard she was overbearing and too aggressive.” My candidate’s response was, “Well, I suppose if being the #1 person on my team and generating over $1 million a year for the company makes me overbearing and too aggressive, then I guess I am. And, by the way, the person who spoke so poorly of me never made their numbers.” My candidate was ultimately offered the job, but declined.

In some circles, particularly within creative/marketing and interactive world here in Boston, it is a small town and people inevitably know someone you may have worked with. So, for candidates, assume backdoor references are a given and consider how you come off in all situations. And, if you are a hiring manager, while backdoor references can provide valuable perspective, also keep in mind that if you dig deep enough, you can find dirt on anyone.