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Back Channel References Can Be Risky

October 5, 2015
by Tim Tolan
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When making a new hire, be sure to do your due diligence without hurting others

There are no six degrees of separation in our industry. I’ve always touted that there are probably three degrees in most cases and usually less for us HCIT veterans. We all know many people in the healthcare technology ecosystem—which is a good thing. It can also be a very bad thing if we use our connections the wrong way by conducting a back channel reference and unknowingly sabotage a candidate’s career. This long used approach to validate a candidate’s value through people we know and trust, while unintentional, can lead to some very challenging conversations with the candidate’s current employer and even result in termination if the back channel call is done at the wrong time or without providing some notification to the search consultant or the candidate. It can be a slippery slope to say the least.

The practice of calling people we know and trust to get the real “skinny” on a candidate has been around for years but is now more simplified by using tools like LinkedIn to help you connect the dots on who knows who. I always encourage my clients to be a part of the reference check process so they feel like they can talk openly to peer executives to get information on a potential new hire. But let’s face it—if this is done in a clandestine manner and secretly without having consent or giving notice to others involved in the process—the risks of the current employer finding out about it increases exponentially.

Unless the candidate has signed off for you to contact somebody from their current place of employment, you run a huge risk of forewarning their boss that they are actively looking for a new gig. Do you really want to be responsible for that sort of damage you could create? It’s best to navigate around those who may tip off their current manager. For top executives (even in healthcare) finding another job can take a while depending on lots of factors. I tell candidates to count on a 3-6 month window to find a new job but it could take longer. This timeline becomes even more challenging when the candidate loses their job because their current employer finds out through a back door channel reference and decides to start searching for their replacement. And what happens if they don’t get an offer? Now they are exposed and at risk for not. It happens a lot more than you might think. It just happened last week to a candidate I know and the consequences of the whistle blower could be grave and even create legal issues.

To conduct a reference summary on behalf of a candidate, backdoor or otherwise, you must have written consent signed by the candidate. It’s a common practice for our firm and we have a standard release form that the candidate must sign to start their reference check. If the candidate refuses to sign the release, then big red flags begin to appear. Unless they specifically state that they do not want you to use any other sources to confirm their suitability except for those referees they have provided, you are within your rights to look for references on candidates through any method you want to, provided they have confirmed you are allowed to check their references. If you decide to do a back door reference you definitely need to make sure there is a signed release form in place or you could be putting the candidate, their livelihood and their family at risk.

It’s perfectly fine to do your due diligence when making an important hire.  Just make sure you are following the rules of the road so you avoid putting others in a bad situation. Do onto others… well you get the point.