On Our Minds

Working with so many organizations across multiple issue areas gives us a unique view into what’s happening in the social sector. This is where we share our insights and ruminations.
Sarah Grayson speaks in meeting while seated between On-Ramps employees.
Back-channel references: Why to avoid them, and what to do instead

by Sarah Grayson

The beginning of a search is an important opportunity for hiring managers and candidates to have a dialogue about the process of checking references. Unfortunately, many hiring managers often approach the reference stage with skepticism that references are only going to say positive things about a candidate, and not necessarily speak to areas of improvement. There’s certainly some truth to the fact that, when talking to a reference, you don’t know a lot—if anything—about them as a person. What biases and perspectives do they hold? Are they, themselves, considered a high performer? The desire for transparency and to talk to people you know and trust is natural. But it has led to a hiring practice that can often cause more harm than good: back-channel references.

Back-channel references are informal references that are solicited without the candidate’s knowledge, typically by leveraging connections through the hiring manager’s network. We recommend avoiding this practice for a number of reasons:

  • It fundamentally lacks transparency and therefore sets a tone of distrust. When you think about it, it’s ironic that one of the reasons for conducting back-channel reference checks is to get honest feedback from the people you’re talking to. By engaging in this practice, you are not being honest with the candidate either. There are so many ways that back-channel reference checks can get back to a candidate, too. Even if the reference spoke positively about the candidate, it’s likely they will feel frustrated it was done without their knowledge. By not being forthcoming, you run the risk of candidates feeling skeptical of not only the hiring manager, but the organization at large. 
  • It could compromise a candidate's confidentiality. Back-channel references can significantly compromise a candidates’ confidentiality about their job search. Should the information get passed to their employer, it could jeopardize both their willingness to stay in the process and their current position.  
  • You often get hearsay, rather than substantive feedback. Back-channel references are not always well positioned to speak about candidates, as they are often selected based on how well they know the hiring manager—not the candidate. This can introduce significant bias into the process. If a back-channel reference has no experience working with the candidate, they can only really share personal impressions that are often not relevant to the candidate’s ability to effectively perform the role. This leaves you with data that, positive or not, has many steps removed from what you’re looking for.
  • It introduces inequity into the hiring process. Not all candidates are going to have the same access to connections as you do in your network. In addition, for most of us, our networks are made up of people who look a lot like us in terms of identity and experience. Because of this, conducting back-channel references often ends up creating an uneven playing field, even if your organization is trying to build a diverse workforce. Speaking only to people you know can—and likely will—differentially help or harm people’s candidacies based on a factor outside their control.

So, what’s the alternative? One option is early, directed references. 
There are other avenues to getting the honest feedback you seek while also staying transparent with candidates. One alternative we recommend is requesting an early, directed reference. These are references that occur at an earlier point in the hiring process than formal references. They are “directed” in the sense that the hiring manager identifies a specific reference that they want to speak to—a former manager, someone who worked closely with the candidate at a previous organization, etc.—and then openly asks each candidate at a specific stage of the process to provide it. Using an early, directed reference allows you to go back to candidates and talk about the information you learned, because they already know you've had these conversations. By doing this with every candidate, you help ensure that your hiring process doesn't disproportionately benefit folks who may naturally have connections to your own network. If this sounds like a viable option for you, here are some tips on how to implement early, directed references:

  • Don’t ask for candidates’ current employers. Unless every candidate in your search has told you that they're out in the open about their job search, it’s best to hold off on talking with a current employer until a contingent offer is made. Most candidates are not open about their job search, so it’s also unfair to ask them to out themselves before receiving an offer.
  • Request the same type of reference for each candidate. Asking for the same type of reference—for example, the most recent manager from former employment—further ensures this stage of the process is equitable. 
  • Be prepared to collaborate with candidates. Chances are you will come across a candidate who, when asked to provide a certain reference type, feels they can’t do so because they were in a toxic work environment or experienced some other challenge at the time. It’s important to hear them out and have a conversation about how to move the process forward, whether that means determining how to approach this particular reference with questions or requesting a different reference altogether.
  • Have a face-to-face conversation with directed references. Whether in person or on a video call, having a conversation where you can see some of the body language and expressions of a directed reference can really help you better understand their responses to your questions. And it allows for one more opportunity to get at the transparency you seek.

The Takeaway
Conducting early, directed references is one way to gain additional insight into candidates, but it isn’t the be-all and end-all. What matters is that, regardless of the way you obtain candidate references, you follow an open and honest process with the candidates themselves. Transparency goes both ways in the hiring process. If you value receiving honest feedback and dialogue, you must be open to providing it as well.