How (and How Not) to Conduct a Backdoor Reference Check

September 10, 2014

No matter how certain you feel about a sales candidate’s capabilities, competencies, and fit for the role, it is absolutely critical to conduct reference checks. As sales expert Jeff Hoffman explains, salespeople generally excel at selling themselves. And the last thing you want is to hire a C-player just because he or she talked an A-player game in the interview. Vetting those types of candidates through your network (and theirs, if applicable) can go a long way toward helping you avoid making a big and costly mistake.
That’s where reference check interviews can come in.
Not only can they provide valuable insight into a candidate’s work history and professional relationships, they can also help sales directors and executives better understand the training and coaching tactics that are most likely to work with each candidate. Reference interviews should always be conducted prior to extending an offer, except in rare circumstances where timing is a concern. Even in those circumstances, you might consider making an offer contingent on positive references.

How (and How Not) to Leverage Backdoor References

With all of that said, traditional reference checks do not always provide a truly objective perspective. After all, candidate-provided references are often hand-selected and they typically include former managers, executives, or peers that the candidate knows will say good things about them.
That is why backdoor references — interviews with former managers or executives who were not listed as a reference — can be an effective tool for gaining deeper (and more honest) insight into who a candidate really is and what makes them tick.

3 Things to Consider First

While you can leverage your own network for backdoor references, it is important to take a few precautions when you reach out to discuss a potential new hire. So, before you conduct a backdoor reference, be sure to consider three things:

  • Whether a reference is really a credible source
  • How well the reference knows the candidate professionally, and in what capacity the two people interacted
  • Whether conducting the backdoor reference could jeopardize a candidate’s current employment

The last thing you want to do is alert a passive candidate’s current employer to the fact that he or she is considering a job elsewhere. This could damage the candidate’s career, cause you to lose the candidate, and hurt your reputation in the market.

Free Walk-Through Guides for Conducting Backdoor Reference Checks

Here are two interview guides you can use for conducting reference checks with candidate-provided, or backdoor references:

Reference Interview Guide #1: Former Employer Reference Template

Reference Interview Guide #2: Former Customer Reference Template


<strong>CeCe Bazar</strong> is an Associate on OpenView's investment team. She was previously a Sales Strategist also at OpenView.