Why Backdoor Reference Checks Do More Harm Than Good

Plus tips for making the most out of traditional references

by Danielle Gauthier

Posted December 7, 2022

What is a backdoor reference check? Backdoor or backchannel reference checks are references that are conducted without the candidate’s explicit permission. This is in contrast to traditional references where the candidate gives written permission for a prospective employer to contact former and/or current supervisors, colleagues, or others in their network.

Backdoor reference checks can be tempting to employers who worry that a traditional reference check may be biased and will only focus on the candidate’s strengths and/or when they already know someone in the candidate’s network. However, backdoor references come with risks that should not be ignored.


3 Reasons to Steer Clear of Backdoor Reference Checks

1) Backdoor referencing can provide unreliable information that is hard to assess.

There is a wide range of reasons why the candidate may not list someone as a reference. Perhaps they didn’t work together closely, maybe they worked together before the candidate gained the skills they possess today, or maybe their relationship ended poorly, due to no fault of the candidate’s. When you receive information from a backdoor reference, it is difficult to know  if it’s credible – and there’s no easy way to assess it. It can cause concerns which are difficult to address.

2) Backdoor referencing breaks trust.

For the recruitment process to be successful, there needs to be mutual trust between the prospective employer and the candidate. Once a prospective employer decides to pursue a backdoor reference, that trust is broken. Even if the backdoor reference is positive and the employer is pleased, the candidate still may choose to withdraw their application because they no longer feel respected in the process. It’s just not a risk worth taking – especially if you are very interested in the candidate!

3) Backdoor referencing can jeopardize the candidate’s current job.

Of course, you should never reach out to the candidate’s current coworkers or supervisor without permission beforehand. But even if the informal reference you contact isn’t a current coworker/supervisor, it’s still possible that it could get back to the candidate and their current employer. If this happens, it will undoubtedly put your candidate in an uncomfortable position.

If you know someone who could speak to the candidate’s match for the position you are hiring for who is not listed as a reference, you can always ask for the candidate’s permission to contact that person. Securing permission is the key to maintaining the trust.

So, if backdoor reference checks are not advisable, how can you ensure traditional reference checks are effective? Consider these tips…


3 Ways to Get the Most Out of Traditional Reference Checks

1) Always ask about the reference’s relation to the candidate.

Whether the reference was the candidate’s supervisor, colleague, or a personal connection/friend makes a difference. It should influence the questions you ask, and it will also put their answers into context.



2) Ask open-ended, specific questions that cover a range of topics.

Think about the hard and soft skills the candidate will need to succeed in the role. For each, ask a pointed but open-ended question. For instance, if you are hiring a new Director of Individual Giving, one of your questions could be, “Could you describe some of X’s most significant strengths that impacted their ability to secure support from individuals? Were there challenges that prevented greater success in this area?” Questions like these—which offer room for input without leading the reference—will provide you with real insights into the candidate’s contributions, experiences, and areas for growth.

3) Seek advice on how to best partner with the candidate.

A reference check shouldn’t just be about assessing the candidate. It should also be an opportunity to better prepare yourself to work beside and/or manage the candidate. Ask, “What advice would you offer me/us to work successfully with X?” This will help prepare you to build an effective and supportive relationship with the candidate from day one.


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