Concerns about “back channel” references

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Q:  I had a great interview with a company and they said that they are planning on calling my references.  I found out that, instead of calling references on the list that I provided, that they called others who I didn’t prepare.  I am angry and annoyed.  I thought I could trust this company and now I am feeling that they are sneaky and can’t be trusted.  Have you heard of this before?

A: How wonderful that you are close to receiving a job offer.  Usually an employer does not check references unless you are a serious candidate.

Candidates often prepare a list of hand-picked professional references.  Those references are often a great resource for your future employer.  Your prospective employer can ask about your work style, your strengths, your weaknesses and your work responsibilities.  Often though, these references are selected by you and then prepped by you.  This type of references will often portray you in the most positive light.

More employers are trying to find references on their own.  With tools like LinkedIn, it is easier to find who is professionally connected to you.  It may be a former manager, a former classmate or a fellow member of a trade association.  It is not a sanitized reference, but instead may perhaps provide more realistic feedback.

Employers have to be careful though.  Sometimes these references can jeopardize the search process.  It sounds like, in your situation, you took offense to the “back channel” reference attempts.  In a few situations, I have witnessed a reference who compromised the confidentiality of a search and the outcome was an angry candidate and no job offer.  I can honestly tell you, this type of reference checking is becoming more common.  Employers are simply trying to get a truthful account of who you are as a candidate, and who you would be as an employee.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.