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June 2017

Backchannel References: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

In current hiring, backchannel references have become a frequent way for many CEO’s and hiring teams to gather data on prospective employees—at times even before they’ve interviewed them. It’s not elegant, but it’s the Three F’s: Fast, Frank, and Free. As traditional references are usually guaranteed to be positive, CEO’s now may also invest into the backchannel, seeking positive endorsements from their closest friends and confidantes, one or two degrees removed, as validation of  a candidate’s qualifications.

This can pose a real challenge for executives in the job market because, unless feedback comes from someone who has had a direct working relationship with the executive and the posed questions are standardized, there will be embedded bias and inconsistencies. It’s the equivalent of your friend telling you that they thought Hamilton was overrated, but left out the fact that the theater’s seats were uncomfortable or that they had just gotten into an argument with their partner prior to the performance. Their criticism doesn’t paint the whole picture. The same goes for a backchannel reference–one person’s candid opinion on an ex-coworker can be dramatically different from that of other people who worked there at the same time.

And, as is often the case, the make/break on whether an executive gets an interview today can be down to an off-the-cuff one-liner, or a curt yes/no from the CEO’s best friend who happens to be working in the same org and fighting the executive-in-question for budget allocation. In essence, backchannel references can range from reasonable observations of a person to casual watercooler talk not informed by real knowledge of the candidate’s skills, strengths or achievements. They may give people an avenue to air out their grievances with few ramifications. Most people view backchannel references as holding less weight than direct references; yet they may not take into account that the reference may lack valuable context about the performance of the individual.

To sum it up, backchannels can be incredibly valuable when done right, but there is a time and place for them.

Tips for Using Backchannel References Effectively

To make backchannels meaningful, helpful, and fair, limit asks to the following groups:

  • Direct managers: the candidate reported directly to them for over 90 days
  • Direct employees: the candidate was their direct supervisor for over 90 days
  • Direct internal clients: the candidate was their HR business partner, talent acquisition partner, controller, director of product marketing, etc. for over 90 days

Anyone falling outside of these three groups would not have the visibility into the candidate’s role, deliverables, and benchmarks to be able to effectively offer a reference.

Additionally, backchannels should be performed in final rounds, and on an all or none basis. If some of the candidates are backchanneled but others are not, then you have an un-level playing field. (Within an executive search process, references and other hiring steps have a specific time and approach.)

The draw of backchannel references is clear—it’s a split-second, candid review of a potential hire from someone who worked at the same company. Considering how detrimental a bad hire can be to a business, it makes sense to take every possible precaution. Just make sure to do it right.

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Frederickson Partners, a Gallagher company is a market leader in retained executive search since 1995. As one of the top-rated HR executive search and C-suite recruiting firms, we have expertise in placing Chief People Officers, Chief Human Resources Officers, Chief Diversity Officers, Chief Financial Officers, Chief Legal Officers and many other senior leaders. We draw on a broad network of rising and established executives and leaders, and a 28-year reputation as a talent acquisition and HR Advisory provider.

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