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The Value of Back-Channel References

August 26, 2013
by Tim Tolan
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How to use ‘back channel’ contacts to shed light on job candidates
Tim Tolan

We conduct reference checks for clients regularly, and for the most part those references come directly from the candidates we have sourced, screened, interviewed, and vetted. If you think a candidate is going to give you every person he or she has worked with or for—think again. Your list of references will likely be hand-picked, well-vetted references, who have already been prepped in advance of your call, and who already understand the script they will deliver. If you ask deep probing questions of references on this preferred list, be prepared for some pushback, as you have now taken them off script. After all, this is supposed to be a layup call!

For these and other reasons, a back-channel reference becomes very important if your network is to provide the reach you will need to validate Mr. or Mrs. Wonderful. A back-channel reference (short and simple) is a path for you to get the inside scoop on a candidate who is known by someone you know or by some other connection in this space who knows your candidate. These are the references you’ve never heard about and who were left off the list given to you by the search firm or by your internal recruiter. There is real value in being able to validate someone’s potential by a simple phone call; yet while this important tool is great, most hiring managers don’t want to invest the time to dig a bit more. You should find the time!

At the same time, while the back channel is important, if used improperly it can have serious consequences that are not ideal for the candidate you are vetting. Here are a few standard questions asked by many search firms during a reference call: 

• Tenure/relationship: How long have you known the candidate and where did you first meet?

• Overall style: How would you describe (in a single sentence) the overall style of the candidate if you could?

• Work ethic: Describe the candidate’s work ethic.   

• Major accomplishments: Is there a particular career achievement that you can think of for the candidate while they worked with or for you? What was it?  

• Best way to manage the candidate: What is the best way to manage the candidate to get the greatest results from them? 

• Communication skills: Describe their oral and written communication skills. 

• Management/leadership skills: How does this candidate lead?

• Strengths: What is the single greatest strength of the candidate and why?

• Areas of improvement: Everyone should be in a constant state of improvement in their career. If you could hire or work with this candidate again—what would be the one area that you would coach them on based on your prior experience in working with them?

That is a fairly good list and one that will give you much of what you are looking for, but the back channel reference generally will either give you a thumbs up or down on your hiring decision. Psychometric testing, candidate questionnaires, education, previous experience, and references are pieces of the search process. Remember they are all data points for you to consider when making that critical hiring decision.

Adding a back channel reference to your process can usually validate the correct course you should take.

Tim Tolan is senior partner at Sanford Rose Associates-Healthcare IT Practice. He can be reached at or (904) 875-4787. His blog can be found at