How Companies Learn About You Outside the Interview Process
The concept of a back-channel may or may not be as familiar depending on how often you’ve been part of interview teams or interviewed yourself.
Put simply, “back-channel” refers to the conversations prospective employers might have with people who know or have worked with you that you have not proactively shared as references. These conversations can happen at any stage of the hiring process, from before they get on the phone to after an offer has been extended. Often companies take this approach to get the “real” story about you, as your official references are most certainly enthusiastic champions—and prepared ones at that! Like references, back-channel conversations are most often used to complement and validate existing beliefs about a particular candidate (mostly positive) and rarely change the course of the process entirely (though, it can happen) so don’t beware these conversations, but be aware that they might occur.
Not all companies will conduct back-channel references, but you can plan on it by reaching out to mutual connections between you and your interviewers that you discover via LinkedIn to give them a heads up you’re interviewing and might hear from the company. This is a good place to remind you that the world is small and people have a tendency to boomerang back into our lives at unexpected points in time. It’s not always easy, but it’s worth trying to preserve positive relationships and avoid burning too many bridges too spectacularly throughout your career (even if you don’t like working with everyone or have some tough relationships) as you never know if one of those individuals will be brought into a conversation about you at some point in the future.
People often worry, sometimes for good reason, about confidentiality when it comes to going public about their job search. If you have significant concerns around this, it’s best to be transparent with your recruiter or the hiring manager up front about the nature of those concerns and ask that they connect with you before engaging references of any sort. It’s not a guarantee, but can prevent awkward conversations, especially if there is a single individual or shortlist of people you’d want to touch base with before they found out you were interviewing. At the same time, interviewing is a common experience and most interviewers and references treat it with a level of respect for candidates’ privacy, recognizing how they would like to be treated if they were interviewing.
How You Can Learn More About the Company Outside the Interview Process
There’s another back-channel route to consider—how you can seek back-channel “interviews” about the company or others you meet and might potentially work with. You can take a similar approach to the playbook that they are probably following. In anticipation of your interviews with team members, take time to connect with them on LinkedIn, Twitter, or other social sites and look for common or close connections from work or academic experiences, and also professional organizations and volunteer commitments. If you find someone that you’d feel comfortable speaking with and whom you believe would have valuable, trust-worthy insights, feedback, or resources that could aid in your decision-making, then consider sending a quick note.
In most situations, when you reach out, you can preface the confidential (or at least non-public) context of your interview process and ask if they’d be open to answering some of your questions or sharing some of their experience with the company or with one of the people you’d be working with should you take the job. In an ideal world, they’ll take some time to talk through your questions, excitement, and hesitations and provide a more objective point of view than you or the interviewers may be able to given your proximity to the process.
Before you start asking questions, make sure you include some background on why you’re searching, what you’re optimizing for and prioritizing in a new role and company, and a bit about the process you’ve gone through so far. That information will help them understand where you’re at and tailor their advice accordingly. Having back-channel conversations is not a requirement! But it can be a beneficial exercise. When making a decision that will impact your career and life, there’s no harm in asking more questions!