Provided they are conducted in an ethical and legal manner, backdoor reference checks – asking for information about a candidate from someone not listed as an official referee – can give you a deeper insight into the personality and performance of a potential employee.
There are some potential land mines waiting for you if you step in the wrong spot, however. Here’s what to watch out for to ensure your backdoor reference checks are legal, productive, and don’t cause any damage to the reputation or the careers of either party.
1. Never reference check without consent
To do any formal sort of reference checking, backdoor or otherwise, you must have the written consent of the candidate.
Unless they specifically state that they do not want you to use any other sources to confirm their suitability except for those referees they have provided, you are within your rights to look for references on candidates through any method you want to, provided they have confirmed you are allowed to run references checks on them. If a candidate doesn’t want you checking with anyone else, it’s a warning sign that they’re trying to hide something.
2. Never cold call or email someone you don’t know
Randomly emailing a ‘2nd degree’ (or even more remote) connection on LinkedIn looking for information about someone they worked with a couple of years ago is a big no-no. If you want to get in touch with them, try to get introduced or recommended via a mutual connection. If you absolutely must make it cold, do it by phone (rather than email or InMail), where you can properly explain your intent or be vague enough in order to protect your candidate’s reputation.
3. Never ask for information that could be used to discriminate
The same laws apply to reference checking as to employment – you cannot ask about age, marital status, ethnicity, sexuality, or other characteristics that do not relate to the person’s ability to perform the duties of them expected in their job. You could be sued for requesting this type of information.
4. Never check references from their current employer
Unless the candidate has specifically highlighted that it’s OK to contact somebody from their current place of employment, you run a huge risk of alerting their boss to the fact that they are actively looking for a new job. Do you really want to be responsible for that sort of devastation? It’s best to steer clear of anyone who may tip off their current manager. Consider connections on LinkedIn as well before you call. Perhaps your candidate’s previous manager knows their current manager?
5. Never consider the backdoor reference as ‘gospel’
You can’t know if the person you’re calling has a personal vendetta against your candidate or if they’re even really qualified to talk about them. Take everything said with a grain of salt. The person providing the reference knows it’s off the record, so they might be tempted to allow personal grievances or ambitions to come through. Ask yourself, ‘would they put what they said in writing?’ If the answer is no, discount the drama of what they said significantly.
6. Never make a decision without considering the circumstances
Often, negative feedback means that you drop a candidate instantly. Concurrently, positive feedback means that you mentally advance the candidate. Of course, this is the point of reference checks, but when you’re conducting backdoor reference checks, the information you receive can be a bit sketchy. Use the information you receive as ‘one part’ of the full picture rather than a ‘make or break’ situation. Which brings us to…
7. Never fail to dig deeper on a negative reference
If you get a negative reference, don’t write the candidate off immediately. Dig deeper and look for situational circumstances that could have put that employee at a disadvantage.
For instance, was there a cultural misfit? Is the manager a micromanager? Many successful professionals won’t stand being micromanaged and end up annoying their bosses. Are you being given ‘gut feel’ or situational examples rather than actual metrics? Many companies don’t actively measure the performance of their employees or use arbitrary measures that may not relate to actual performance like amount of time spent in the office. Look for reasons why the candidate received a bad review. Better yet, ask the candidate directly. Ensure you always get the full picture.
8. Never forward reference checks to a client that you wouldn’t forward to the candidate
This one is for recruiters. A candidate has the right to any reference check information that was forwarded to a client. If you don’t want to divulge what information you got or from whom, do not forward the information you received to an employer. This avoids situations where a candidate may sue for defamation if you’ve provided information to a third party that you will not release to them. If you need to get around this, have the employer call the reference directly.
9. Never assume people stay the same
Most reference checks can go back 10 years. 10 years is a long time. Just because someone had difficulty with an issue then doesn’t mean that they still behave that way today. If you’re concerned about something, ask more recent referees for specific examples of how the employee may have changed. For instance, if an older reference admits the candidate had trouble getting along with other people in the office, ensure you include a question for more recent referees along the lines of, ‘Can you give me an example of how Melanie got along with other people in the office?’
Backdoor reference checks are an important part of confirming a candidate’s suitability for a role, but make sure you do them with consideration and stay within the bounds of the law!