In talking with candidates about their job search prior to working with a recruiter, I often hear this story which leads me to believe that “back door” and unintentional references have sadly become rampant. They’ve gone on interviews, felt as if they’d aced the interview, were told “we just need to check references” and boom, they are out of contention for the job.
A “back door” reference is one where the employer picks up the phone and calls someone they know for the inside scoop. “Hi Paul, I am curious what do you know about Mary?” All this is despite the fact that Mary didn’t give Paul’s name out as a reference.
An unintentional reference could actually come from an unsuspecting spokesperson that worked with you 10+ years ago. As an example, they voice how you didn’t have any real “leadership” qualities at the time. Of course over the past 10 years since you left that company, you had been in roles where you’ve developed your leadership skills and mentored others. Sadly, they aren’t commenting on the ‘you of today’. Unfortunately, the prospective employer still takes the reference as a viable piece of information.
As a recruiter, we have a confidentiality clause in our contract with an employer that we believe prevents this practice. We only check references that are provided by our candidates and only when the candidate has given us permission to do so.
If you’re providing a back door reference, please be careful. What you knew about the candidate several years ago may no longer be true.
Candidates, you should take your references seriously. Treat them liked valued clients, write them thank you notes and let them know their time is valued. Always contact them before the hiring manager and share with them the details about the opportunity so that they can address your strong attributes related to the role.
If a perspective employer is going to contact each former job and you haven’t provided a reference from that job for a reason it is always best to be upfront if there is a possible issue. “When you contact my former employers, you might find some back door or unintentional references at the company. If you check references with them, you may not hear nice things about my work. Let me explain why.”
Back door references can hurt candidates. Before you, as a hiring manager, listen to them, learn what you are listening for. Someone who wants to prevent someone from finding a new job? Or is it honest information? As a candidate, make sure you don’t take your references for granted.