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Backdoor Guests Are Not Always Best

You’ve
found your perfect candidate, the interviewers all came back with
glowing reports, and compensation expectations seem to line up. All
that’s left is to speak with the candidate’s references, so you can
verify that this candidate is the dream-come-true you’ve been looking
for. The most straightforward approach to references is to ask the
candidate for a list. Of course, one can be hardly surprised that
references provided by the candidate would be friends and staunch
advocates. Last fall, my colleague and fellow TAG blogger Amanda Brady
provided great tips on how to get the most relevant and useful
information from that list of cheerleaders. But what about going off the
list, and speaking with others that person worked with or reported to
in the past to get an off the record reference, or “backdoor reference”?

We’ve
noticed an increase in clients asking us for these off-the-record
references, and truth be told, it makes me a little uneasy. Let me tell
you why.spy

1.
You can put a candidate’s current employment in jeopardy. When you
contact someone out of the blue as a backdoor reference, you have no
indication or control over whether this person will turn right around
and give the candidate’s current employer a heads up that they are
interviewing. Very often industry circles are small, and people chatter.
Even if they don’t lose their job, if they don’t end up getting an
offer or don’t make the jump, now their current employer suspects that
they aren’t 100 percent invested in the company and their position. Not a
good situation. Even worse? A potential law suit if that person is
terminated by their current employer without an offer in hand from the
prospective employer.

2. Let’s say you decide to go to LinkedIn
and find a shared connection that also worked with your candidate, and
give them a call. But be honest… how well do you really know that
person, and how much weight should you give their words, positive or
negative? Perhaps your backdoor reference is someone who had a personal
issue with your candidate, or was passed over for a promotion. We’d like
to think that a true professional would be circumspect and never drink
the sour grapes Kool-Aid, but it does happen. And typically a backdoor
reference is done “off the record”. If a negative report comes back,
your hands are tied when it comes to getting their side of the story.
And the shroud of anonymity has led more than one person to let the
venom drip. Just look at any comments section of a heavily-trafficked
blog or message board. (Not ours! Yet.)

3. References from too far back in their employment history just focus
on the wrong things. We’ve had clients ask us to comb over every single
job move, dating back 25 years. We’re not sure how important it is today
the reasons our top flight CFO candidate moved from one public
accounting firm to another when they were two years out of school,
especially if this person hasn’t been a job hopper through their career.

If
you are really driven to get more information about a candidate and
want to speak with a former co-worker or manager of theirs, stick to
people you or someone at your company knows personally. Furthermore,
make sure it is someone who worked recently and closely with that
individual. That way you can vouch personally for that backdoor
reference’s credibility, memories won’t be clouded with time, and the
information will be current and relevant.  And you can always ask the
candidate for more references and even names of co-workers with whom he
or she didn’t always agree.  Remember, reference reports, especially
back door references are not an exact science.  Good ones and not so
good references should not be evaluated in a vacuum.

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