In most searches, the final step is reference checking. The candidate provides three or four people they have worked with or reported to. Those people are asked a series of questions about the candidate’s work style and reliability and if the references are done right, they are also asked about areas of improvement and for an explanation of why they left the company.
This exercise is not meant to confirm that the person can do the job. It provides verification of the good things you saw in the candidate. And when you see common themes in what people have said, it’s a pretty sure thing.
Sure, this can seem like a bit of a rubber stamp. But that’s okay. If every reference check gave you crappy feedback, then you would soon realize have a major problem with your vetting and interview process.
Sometimes impatient or unsure hiring managers take this into their own hands and call people who have worked with or know of the candidate. Many industries are small enough that this is possible. This is called back door reference checking.
From a privacy standpoint, this is totally wrong and really crosses the line. There is a reason we ask a candidate for people to call.
If you hear something bad, what will you do? Call the candidate and tell them that their former manager said they were unreliable? What if that manager was on leave for harassment? You don’t know. You have no context.
What if you call a former colleague and they happen to mention it to someone else in the organization? What happens to that candidate who was quietly exploring a new role and all of the sudden everyone knows? Bad news.
Do don’t play fast and loose with people’s careers. If there is a particular point of view you want included in the reference, just ask. That’s the best way.