by Cat Hernandez

It’s hard to overstate the inherent risks and cost associated with hiring, especially for early-stage companies. One wrong hire on a very small foundational team can delay product launches, sales execution or throw off the chemistry of a once well-oiled machine. So when you’re faced with a candidate who checks all the boxes on paper and demonstrates a mastery of the in-person interview, how can you be sure you’ve found the right person for the job?

The candidate has handed over a robust list of references, all of which you assume will corroborate her story and provide glowing feedback on her past performance. This positive feedback loop should come as no surprise. As a savvy hiring manager, it’s up to you to do a bit more digging and gather more comprehensive insight into the candidate’s professional life. That’s when back-channel references come into play.

But before you take a deep dive into your Rolodex, it’s important to come up with a standard playbook for back-channeling. The process can be a sensitive one, especially for candidates who are job-seeking under the radar, so it’s important to think carefully about who you ask and how you ask things. You’re looking for the real story on an operator’s past performance, but you don’t want to get too invested in one person’s feedback. For that reason, you should seek multiple perspectives and stay as open-minded and objective as possible. And finally, back-channeling should be performed only in the final rounds, and it’s an all-or-nothing game. If you back-channel some candidates but not others, you run the risk of creating an unlevel playing field.

Who should you reach out to for back-channel references?

Be thoughtful about the people you contact for references. How well do you know these people? As a rule of thumb, you should reach out only to folks you trust to avoid compromising a candidate’s confidentiality.

How close is this reference to the candidate? The most meaningful insights typically come from people (direct managers, direct employees or direct internal clients) that the candidate has worked with in the last 90 days. References outside of these relationships won’t have as much visibility into the candidate’s day-to-day role, deliverables and successes, and therefore won’t be able to provide effective feedback for you.

In general, avoid using current employers as references unless you’re certain it won’t negatively impact the candidate’s relationship with her previous company.

What types of questions should you ask?

Back-channel conversations are typically shorter than traditional reference calls. Outline what you’re trying to learn about a candidate before reaching out, and be specific and targeted in your questions. One of the most telling questions that we ask on all of our reference calls is whether the individual would work with the candidate again. Their response to this question speaks volumes about said candidate’s past performance and affability in the workplace.

In addition, you’ll likely want to explore these areas:

  • Foundational context
    • Scope of the candidate’s role
    • State of the business
    • Organizational limitations
  • Functional expertise
    • Leadership skills
    • Management capabilities
    • Ability to execute
    • Overall reputation

If you will be speaking to multiple references, use each contact as an opportunity to dig deep on one or two of these topics, rather than having broad, high-level conversations with all of them. This will ultimately yield a clearer picture of the candidate.

With so much at stake in the hiring process, especially for early-stage companies, it’s critical to use all of the tools at your disposal to establish a comprehensive and accurate picture of each candidate. Combined with a well-thought-out interview process and traditional reference checks, back-channeling can be just the ticket for finding those candidates that can push your organization to the next level.

Cat Hernandez is a Partner at Primary Venture Partners.

Originally published at