Talent Acquisition

How to Get the Real Scoop on Candidates: Back Channel References

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A candidate is much more than just their resume. We use tools like speaking to references to gain a more full-bodied, in-depth picture of the person we’re looking to hire. References can speak to the strengths of a candidate and give examples of their successes and growth. But there’s also a catch. Since the candidate has chosen each reference – and most likely groomed them for the call as well – the references are unlikely to deviate from singing praises of the candidate. So how can you create a holistic picture of the candidate’s performance?

One way to foresee a candidate’s potential pitfalls in the role you’re recruiting for is through back-channel references. This means reaching out to people who have worked with the candidate who are not on their official reference list. These people can give you the inside scoop on the candidate.

Why, exactly, would you want this type of information? For one thing, a number of surveys point to the prevalence of applicants fibbing in their job application. According to a 2017 OfficeTeam survey, almost half of workers know someone who’s lied on a resume. In addition, this is can be a more effective means of getting background information than another common practice: making judgments based on the candidate’s social media presence. According to CareerBuilder’s 2017 survey, 70 percent of employers use social media to screen candidates.

And keep in mind that back-channel references certainly aren’t a must for every candidate. Rather, these type of references can be helpful in a situation where you feel like there’s more to the story. For example, if the candidate says they voluntarily left a job, but you believe they may have been fired. Or if there are areas on their resume that don’t quite add up, like a four-year stint at a company that they don’t provide a single reference for.

[Related: The Ultimate Screening Checklist]

With all this taken into account, here are a few tips on how to perform a back-channel reference:

1. Use a social network to see if you have any mutual connections. If these connections are someone they’ve worked with in the past (never, ever ask for a reference from someone they just know socially), you might consider reaching out to them to gather further information on the candidate.

2. Google search the candidate. See what organizations they might be involved in, and look for information about people they’ve worked with in the past. However, it’s advisable to only contact people you also know – back-channel references you cold call most likely won’t give you in-depth information about a candidate, and you’re less likely to know the context that the reference is coming from.

3. Set your target on specific information about the candidate. Don’t just do a back-channel reference just for the fun of it. Rather, go in with the questions you have about the candidate – like why they left a certain job, or how they perform on team projects, and look for the people who can answer those specific questions. In addition, ask pointed questions that will lead you to the information you’re looking for – questions you’ve prepared beforehand.

[Related: How to Screen for Retention]

In addition, when performing any back-channel reference check, it’s very important that you tread softly, taking careful steps to not make the process feel invasive to the candidate. Make sure to keep in mind:

1. It’s not a strict rule, but for the sake of transparency obtain consent from the candidate – preferably written – before you start your back-channel search. Make sure that they’re okay with you speaking to people they’ve worked with in the past. And if they aren’t, it might be a sign that they’re trying to hide something.

2. Be positive with your questions to back-channel references. Don’t ask questions that make it seem like you’re trying to find dirt on a candidate (which shouldn’t be your goal in the first place). These references should be used to uncover aspects of the candidate’s behavior and potential for performance that you’ve been unable to discern from their resume, references, or previous conversations. Frame questions as “is there something X candidate could have improved?” instead of “what did X candidate do wrong?”

[Related: Effective Exit Interview Templates]

3. Take every back-channel reference with a grain of salt. Maybe this person had a feud or disagreement with the candidate in their previous position, which is coloring their remarks. Don’t take negative references at face value – dig deeper, and also consider the context of the situation. It’s possible that the negative behavior simply wasn’t the candidate’s fault, rather they acted in reaction to a micromanager, unrealistic expectations, or a toxic colleague.

4. Never ask for information that could be used to discriminate, including age, ethnicity, marital status, or other pieces of information that could unfairly sway the hiring process.

5. If they’re applying from an existing job, be very careful when asking for back-channel references at their current company. Perhaps only speak to people at the company who you know personally. The reason for caution? The candidate may not have told their co-workers yet, which could spell an awkward situation for everyone.

Back-channel references can be an essential tool for gaining insight into a candidate’s potential for performance. Just remember to tread carefully along the way.

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