Stop Performing Back Channel References, Immediately

November 5, 2015 at 11:46 AM by Rob Stevenson

Previously, on the Entelo blog, we’ve trumpeted the value of performing back channel references on prospective hires, even going so far as to call it Advanced Candidate Sourcing. There’s a flip side to every coin, and as we recently learned at Entelo, when the back channel coin comes up tails there’s some overwhelming reasons to stay far away from this hiring technique.

The back channel reference is the process of contacting former colleagues of your candidates—those not listed by the candidate as references—and discussing what it was like for them to work with your prospective hire. The draw here is obvious, ideally you get a more candid review of your interviewee than you would from the carefully selected, prepped references listed on a candidate’s resume.

This all sounds well and good, but it ends up being an extraordinarily narrow view of the hiring ecosystem, particularly as it applies to that individual candidate. Erin Wilson, Talent Engineer at Yahoo, joined us for the second time on our Hiring On All Cylinders podcast, and he listed a multitude of reasons why you shouldn’t perform back channel references.


It’s Insensitive to the Candidate’s Situation

For already employed candidates, the job search is a confidential endeavor. Once you perform a back channel, you have breached that confidentiality. As Erin regrettably admitted, he has seen scenarios where that sort of thing has lead to candidates losing their jobs. Remember the situation people are in when they come in to interview, and don’t betray the trust they expect.

It’s Not Transparent

Firstly, you want to be as open with your candidates as possible. If a concern is raised by a back channel reference, you can’t give your candidate the opportunity to address that concern without giving away the back channel reference, who presumably gave the information under the assumption of anonymity.

It Doesn’t Place Trust In Your Own Process

Much more important, not to mention scalable, is to focus inwards on your own processes. If you need external information to form accurate judgments on candidates, you clearly haven’t built a reliable evaluative process. You can’t normalize what a random former colleague of your candidate might report, but you can normalize your own interviewing tactics to make sure you measure candidates based on the same criteria.


Time and Place

With all this said, there is an appropriate time to perform a back channel. Once your candidate has already accepted an offer, and you don’t have to worry about betraying their confidentiality, following up with previous colleagues can be valuable. So long as that conversation centers around information gathering, for example asking “how do I best set this person up for success?” as opposed to serving the purpose of forming a judgment, you can do right by your candidate while still trusting in your own organization.


We discussed this topic at length with Erin, in addition to the question of how best to compensate recruiters, the true organizational value of talent acquisition pros, and managing inbound candidate pools. To stream the full episode for free, head here or simply search “Hiring On All Cylinders” in your favorite podcasting app.

candidate experience and the employer brand