Back Channel Reference: How It Works

Hiring is one of the worst parts of middle management within a business. First, it’s totally unavoidable, particularly in a growing company. Next, people seldom have as much experience at hiring as they would like, since it’s one rarely used aspect of their job, not the entire job. Third, it’s essential to the company’s future, since it determines whether the employees are capable.

It’s no wonder that entire businesses exist just to oversee the hiring process for third parties. But if you ever find yourself in the hiring management seat, here’s a look at the one moderately simple trick that can turn up the best candidate in the batch: the back channel reference.

The Back Channel Reference

The candidate will give you a list of formal references. But you know what to expect from them: A safe, boring list of reasons why you should hire their friend and/or former colleague. To get the real information, you should dig deeper and talk to people not on the list. But you also can’t be unethical about the process.

Find Trusted References

Homebrew’s recent document detailing everything startups need to know about employee compensation, found in this blog post, has a section on the back channel reference. Here’s their advice on the ethics behind the trick: “You only want to call your most trusted contacts who will not compromise the candidate’s confidentiality. Look at your own network and leverage your investor’s network.”

Avoid anyone that the employee might currently be working with: You’ll be compromising your candidate’s confidentiality.

Go Deep, Not Broad

Don’t try to find out everything about the candidate from one call. Remember, these sources aren’t expecting you to call, and will probably be less willing to talk, so keep it short From Homebrew again:

“Have a clear understanding of what information you are trying to get. You may only have 10 minutes with someone [so] know exactly what you are going to ask. If you have 3 people to leverage for references, figure out what the biggest concerns are and divide accordingly. Go deep with each reference rather than trying to cover too many areas. “

This approach takes a little time to master, as you’ll need to be a good conversationalist in order to uncover any potential problems or benefits that a given candidate will bring to the table. But given practice, this tip should help turn you into a terrific hiring manager. Hey, if you can’t avoid the hiring process, you might as well be great at it.

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Adam is a writer at and has worked as a tech writer, blogger and copy editor for more than a decade. He was a Forbes Contributor on the publishing industry, for which he was named a Digital Book World 2018 award finalist. His work has appeared in publications including Popular Mechanics and IDG Connect, and his art history book on 1970s sci-fi, 'Worlds Beyond Time,' is out from Abrams Books in July 2023. In the meantime, he's hunting down the latest news on VPNs, POS systems, and the future of tech.
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