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In addition to talking with the references a candidate has listed, hiring teams may also solicit back-channel references (or back references)—that is, people the candidate has worked with but not listed as references. Hiring teams often source back-channel references without the candidate’s knowledge by checking the candidate’s LinkedIn connections or consulting with others who may know them.
Some consider back-channel references to be more reliable than candidate-sourced references, as a back-channel reference will likely have some association with the hiring team and so be more inclined toward greater fairness and honesty. Hiring teams use back-channel references far more commonly for senior hires. And in some industries and geographic areas (like Silicon Valley), the social graph among senior candidates, executives, investors, and former colleagues is dense enough that hiring teams almost certainly will use them.
The best approach for soliciting back-channel references is usually different from what is used for candidate-supplied references. In the case of the back-channel reference, usually the person on the team who best knows the reference will reach out, in any format that feels suitable. A short email might say something like:
Subject: Feedback on Anne Jackson?
Charlie, we’ve been making a few hires here at Acme Megatronomatics and we’re considering Anne as a candidate for Senior Forward Deployed Widget Architect. We’ve enjoyed getting to know her and are considering making her an offer.
Is there anything you can share about her suitability for this role? Would you have time for a call? I’m free today after 3 p.m. and tomorrow after 2 p.m. If that’s not possible, anything you can share by email is also helpful.
Thank you in advance!
cautionWhen soliciting back-channel references, it’s important to be mindful of a candidate’s privacy and trust. . This can entail informing candidates ahead of conducting back-channel references so that they are not surprised when they hear you’ve been asking about them and so you don’t put their current employment at risk. Advance notification might look like this: “In addition to the references you gave us, we may contact other people we know who may know you. Is there anyone that you wouldn’t want to be aware that we’re considering working together?” You can also mention the person you’re talking to by name (“I’m catching up with Charlie this week—do you mind if I ask her about your time working together?”), but in that case, you need to be mindful of the reference’s privacy, since she may not want you to tell the candidate you two talked.
Interpreting Reference Feedback
When interpreting reference feedback, consider where the person is coming from. If the reference trusts you, they are more likely to give you candid feedback. If they are closer to the candidate, they may not want to risk any negative feedback being attributed to them, or they may feel the relationship colors their ability to provide objective feedback.
In general, references will be more positive than negative. Some recommend mentally compensating by discounting positive comments by 30% and amplifying negative comments by 30%. While this is an arbitrary number, it does highlight the importance of perspective. You can take outrageously positive or negative comments with a grain or two of salt.
Next, think about the context in which the candidate and reference knew each other. How closely did the reference and the candidate work together? How equipped is the reference to judge the candidate’s work? For instance, “I’ve managed over a dozen engineers and Anne is the strongest I’ve had on my team by far,” is a lot more compelling than, “Anne has been great to work with, but that was my first job out of school and I’ve only been here a few months.”
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