Why I Don’t Do Backdoor Reference Checks

Backdoor reference checks for sales professionals.

Hitting a brick wall with backdoor reference checks. Photo credit: “Backdoor” by Kristian Mollenborg, Flickr.

I recently read Jeff Shavitz’s article, 9 Strategies to Recruiting Better Salespeople: a solid list of best practices around recruiting the best sales talent (or really talented professionals in any capacity). His ninth strategy has become an increasingly popular approach in this age of fake reviews: asking the candidate’s references for additional references. Shavitz isn’t the first to recommend this tactic. Legal issues and strategies for conducting so-called backdoor reference checks are a hot topic among recruiters and human resource professionals.

I’ve tried this with a handful of candidates for inside sales positions, and have yet to collect valuable insights. The secondary references often seem caught off-guard by the call: not in an “aha, now the truth comes out” sense, but in genuine confusion. Most of the backdoor references I’ve called have been happy enough to talk about the candidate but unable to offer up information nearly as detailed as the initial set of references.

I’ve concluded (to be fair, probably in haste) that the energy put into second-order reference checks would be better spent in longer, more candid conversations with the “first-order” references supplied by the candidate. The backdoor reference check presumes that the applicant will stack the deck with favorable references (uniformly true) and tries to address that issue by unearthing co-workers and dotted-line superiors who might highlight the candidates less favorable qualities. A sound idea in theory, but in practice the people who are one step removed from the candidate are an order of magnitude less knowledgeable about his or her job performance. Further, in cases where interviewees do cherry pick good references from a field of unfavorable ones, those friendly first-order references are quick enough on their feet to serve up an equally candidate-friendly name.

Unsurprisingly, candidate-friendly references will provide the names of other candidate-friendly references.


I contend that more valuable insights can be gleaned through a very human conversation with the initial reference. Scripted questions can serve as the foundation for a deeper, more candid conversation which will illuminate the applicant’s character and work habits. Questions that ask the reference for specifics about the candidate are an important starting point, but the real insights don’t come out until you dig deeper. I’ve found that real insights start to emerge once you start asking the reference more open-ended questions, and questions about his or her (the reference’s) role in the company.

  • If I might ask, can you tell me a little bit about your own role with the company?
  • What kinds of projects did you work on with X?
  • What did you know you could rely on X for?
  • What was it like working with X?


Do the deeper, more candid conversations take more time? Of course, but it’s time saved from having to hunt down second-order job references and ask them the same set of scripted questions.

Still, many swear by backdoor reference checks. If you are inclined to give them a try, my recommendation is to resist the temptation to discount the references provided by the client in favor of “more authentic” ones by the second tier of references. Instead, use those conversations primarily as a double-check on the perspectives provided by the candidate and initial layer of references. In many cases, the responses will come from people whose view of the candidate is at a much lower resolution (think: 144p vs 1080p), though sometimes from different angles than the initial references can provide.

Image Credits: Backdoor by Kristian Mollenborg on Flickr