Backdoor Reference Checks: 

Backdoor Reference Checks

What is a Backdoor Reference Check? 

Backdoor reference checks are also known as backchannel, informal, quiet, or deep reference checks. In contrast to a traditional reference check, backdoor checks are conducted without the candidate’s permission. 

Why are backdoor reference checks performed?

Clients often tell me they don’t feel traditional reference checks will yield an honest result. The theory is that candidates only select references who are more likely to provide positive feedback. I understand the theory, although I disagree with it (you can see why here). 

But for today’s discussion, understand that many recruiters and hiring managers leverage their personal network to conduct a backchannel check on potential candidates. These recruiters and hiring managers have a misguided hope that this methodology will obtain a truer and more honest insight into the candidate’s performance.  

To be fair, I like to look at more than one data point when I am considering a candidate. Hiring decisions are often made by analyzing data from multiple sources such as interview results, assessment scores, traditional references, background checks, and gut instinct. But what I also find is that when a hiring manager makes an inquiry with a trusted person from within their network, negative feedback will almost always trump all of the other data. 

So while the concept of conducting backdoor checks is good, there are significant risks in going outside of the traditional candidate assessment process.

What are the risks of conducting backdoor reference checks?

The process of allowing the candidate to provide references is important. It will show you if the candidate can follow directions. You will also be able to see if he or she can self-assess enough to provide references who will give a positive referral. 

From my perspective, having employees who can follow directions and self-assess is a must. But if you are sneaky and obtain feedback from folks within your own network, you aren’t giving the candidate a chance to prove they have these skills.  

Additionally, information obtained from a backdoor reference may not be credible. Perhaps the referral isn’t in a role to provide suitable feedback. Or maybe your contact didn’t work with the candidate in a relevant capacity. Alternatively, perhaps your trusted contact competed with the candidate for a promotion and now has a biased view based on personal experience.

You should also consider that it is possible the candidate hasn’t told his current company that he is looking elsewhere. In this case, conducting these sneaky reference checks could put the candidate’s current job at risk. At a minimum, you could damage the trust between you and the candidate or between the candidate and his current employer.  

Are Backdoor Reference Checks Legal?

Yes…contacting folks within your network to conduct a backdoor reference check is legal. Have I done it? Yes…but only under extenuating circumstances.  

Two weeks ago we were conducting a traditional reference check on a candidate who had barely passed our qualification process. Her digital footprint was sparse and her references were highly suspicious. None of the references she provided had a corroborating digital footprint and the contact information she provided for each consisted of an unlisted mobile number and Gmail account instead of a verifiable company number and email address. 

This candidate had listed one of our clients as a recent employer (I am sure she didn’t know the company was a client). What was odd to me is that she hadn’t provided the monitoring manager we work with as a reference. Instead, she provided a reference that we didn’t know, representing him as the Clinical Trial Manager. On a whim, I reached out to my contact. 

He confirmed that neither she (the candidate) nor he (the supervisor ‘reference’) had ever worked with that company. Was I wrong in conducting this sneaky check? I don’t think so…and here is why. 

I was careful what I asked.

Regardless of whether the reference check is a traditional consented or backdoor non-consented check, there are rules regarding the questions you can ask and the information you can receive. If you are going to conduct a quiet check, I would keep it limited to what the government typically allows for employment verifications. 

  • Dates of employment
  • Title (including job classification such as contract/perm)
  • Salary/Compensation
  • Reason for leaving
  • Eligibility for rehire

Do not discuss anything of a personal nature. You do not want to get into a discussion that becomes saturated with gossip or opinion because this can leave you and your referee open to being accused of defamation and slander. 

You will also want to avoid questions that could lead to discrimination. And importantly, avoid contacting the candidate’s current employer without their permission. 

If you are the backdoor referee…be very careful how you answer.

If the candidate has given an employer permission to use you as a personal reference, you can go into details regarding the candidate’s job responsibilities, performance, goals, and integrity. But, if someone contacts you to conduct a quiet check, be careful what you disclose. 

Never answer questions that reveal personal information. Even if asked about the skills of the employee or their behavior at work, refrain from answering. I would recommend you stick to providing objective answers. meaning that you only reveal facts. For example, you can verify if the person actually worked with the company. You can also disclose your employment relationship with the candidate as well as their title. 

But never discuss subjective topics. When you offer your perspective based on your opinion, you run the risk of misrepresenting the candidate. The candidate could accuse you of defamation or invasion of privacy…and things can get very ugly very quickly. 

Other Things To Consider

If you do conduct a quiet check, keep this in mind: While you may have an extremely positive and respectful relationship with the referee, you do not have a clear understanding of that referee’s relationship with the candidate. Not knowing the context of the working relationship means you aren’t seeing the full picture. 

This means that if the feedback is positive, it is only another data point. Alternatively, if the input is negative, it is also just another data point. Don’t let this single point of feedback trump all the other data gathered from your extensive qualification sources such as interview results, assessment scores, traditional references, employment verifications, and gut instinct. 

Have Questions?

It can be difficult to keep yourself compliant when conducting reference checks. You don’t have to worry about asking the wrong questions…we are here to support you. Reach out with questions any time.