As an Independent Recruiter trying to build a solid reputation among clients, fellow recruiters and candidates, it can be rather disheartening when a client chooses to conduct a back-door reference on a candidate you have presented prior to a face-to-face interview. I have discussed this at great length with clients and the unethical nature of this practice - however, I know it will continue..., it is the nature of the business.
I strive to be forthright and upfront with candidates and clients - and this is not an easy hurdle to get past with either party. Any suggestions or helpful hints on how to avoid fallout?
I had this happen personally, as a candidate, years ago, with the back door being the one and only person who had negative things to say. It is disconcerting. Candidates need to be aware it can occur. Perhaps if there are particular individuals they know will be a problem, they should take preemptive action, honestly explaining why that person holds a negative opinion -- and why it is far from the whole truth. Clients should think about it carefully. If faced with glowing recommendations from the candidate's chosen references and seemingly opposite reports from the "back door," they should resist the temptation to simply assume the back door is more accurate. The truth may be somewhere in between, or the back door may have reasons for bad-mouthing the candidate inaccurately (just as the chosen references may have reason for praising him/her inaccuratelyh).
The only way that the practice will reduced is when companies are sued and it is determined by a court that the employer used this process and, in doing so, rejected the prospective candidate for being a member of a "protected class." It may seem a bit unsavory, but in business as in life, anything that is not illegal is legal.
To prevent this situation from occurring, I try to ask the following question: "Is there anything in your professional or personal background that would cause the selection officials to reject you as a candidate for cause; either for adverse performance, for some from of misconduct, or for some other reason that we haven't discussed as yet?"
Silence may indicate further probing. If this "might be" a serious concern (as per the "knock-out factors" previously discussed, with the client.)
Later with the client, I then lead with this issue, implementing the "showcase what you cannot hide" theory of marketing and sales. This is usually "unfair" to the prospective candidate yet still regrettably necessary, at times.
Honestly, I see nothing wrong with it! I think it's smart on the client's part, because you know that whoever a candidate provides will likely only say positive things. This way a client gets the 'inside scoop'.
I've had this happen many times. In most instances it has helped. Once or twice it has ruled out a candidate. But one way to look at it from a recruiter's perspective is that you may have saved yourself a 'falloff'. Better to know before you place someone that there could be issues.
Best way to prevent problems with 'back door references' is to just place great candidates!
I believe by understanding the nature of this will bring you the most quality solution. Since you know if is inevitable at this point you must look at why it is being done. There a great many reasons why a client chooses to conduct these checks but alot of it comes down to trust. Working to establish a greater sense of trust with the client is a solution that will alleviate more of your problems. But, I am sure you have heard that before but wanted to send you a message to let you know I hear what you are saying and I have faced that same problem. Didn't want you to feel alone.
I think there is alot of merit in the responses below. I might add that prepping the client for how you perceive references to play a part in the hiring process is also helpful. I tell clients references are only a small peice of a very large puzzle. Well constructed references should provide insight into specific questions about the candidates background. (How does he handle insubordinate employees, or overbearing managers, for example) Consequently, a negative reference will also only provide one small peice to that puzzle. What was it about the reference that was negative? Was this addressed by other references and viewed as positive? In other words, what might work for one person didnt for another, so how does that fit into the clients organization? Rarely is it the reference that nails the job for the candidate unless its a known referral, so I diminish their value assuming the reference will be positive and by doing so also diminish the value if it is a back door negative one.
If done right, that negative reference could actually help if you can show the differences between the referree and the client
Your question is interesting, and i reminds me of my early recruiting days where the boss told us the first rule of recruiting was to control every step of the process, all of the time. I learned the hard way that this is great theory, but the baseline assumptions were just wrong. I can't control hiring managers and candidates (God knows I've tried), but I can stay several steps ahead of them in the game. Like it or not, people talk to each other, and seek the opinions of others they trust (look at us here, doing exactly that). Accept it, and use it to your advantage. When negatives show up in the formal (or informal) reference check, let the candidate go -- or adjust your next steps to test the feedback for accuracy. And I agree with Scott Sheldon that trust is key; as you earn it with a hiring manager, your recommendations will carry more weight.