We’ve all heard the old adage that people don’t leave jobs - they leave their bosses. As an HR practitioner, I’ve observed that this is more often true than not. And as a consultant, I often help our clients create robust interview processes that evaluate candidates on many dimensions of compatibility, including how the manager and employee will mesh and work together, all to stave off turnover down the road.

It’s not just companies who want their new hires to stay for a long time - job seekers of course don’t want to be job hoppers. So, it’s equally important for companies and candidates interviewing to evaluate for compatibility on the front-end.

When I work with candidates - at all levels - I encourage them to view the interview process as a two-way street. Candidates should absolutely be interviewing their potential new boss and colleagues. There’s an art to it, of course - it can’t seem like you’re interrogating your new company, so you need to structure your own interview to ensure you’re finding out the things you need to know, in the right ways.

Start by making a list before you walk in the door. What do you want to learn from your conversation? What matters most to you? Your list may include finding out about what types of projects you’d work on, how your performance would be measured, what their general culture is like, and your potential manager’s management style. This might seem counterintuitive or even scary, to interview your interviewer - but it’s a worthy endeavor. Remember to know your value, and stay humble, and you’ll find that you’ll get a lot of the information you need.

But what about the things you can’t adequately learn about just by asking? For example, no manager, when asked about his/her management style, is going to respond, “So glad you asked. I’m a total micromanager!” You might be able to vibe if someone is extremely one way or the other on the micromanagement scale, but if not - you need another means to find out. This is where I recommend backdoor reference checking.

My team and clients know I have a healthy skepticism of companies doing backdoor references on candidates, unless conducted in the right way, and at the right time. The main reason I ask companies to hold on doing backdoor references is to preserve candidate confidentiality. But as the candidate, you’re in the driver’s seat. You decide whom you’d want to inform about your job search. This means you can do some backdoor referencing on the people you’d potentially work with and for. Here are some tips on how to do this right:

Do Your Research - and Choose Wisely

Use LinkedIn to see who in your network is connected directly to the people you’re talking to. You can then decide whom you’d trust enough to reach out to in order to learn about the company and team. Who you ask is at least as important as what you ask - remember to ask only those who would maintain your confidentiality. And ask people whose opinions you really trust - and who will give you an honest and fair assessment..

Time it Right and Keep it in Context

You’ll want to conduct your backdoor references late in the process - after you’ve had the chance to assess the opportunity for yourself, and when you feel like you’re pretty likely to get an offer. If they’re checking references on you, it’s a good indication they’re serious - and a good time for you to do your references on them.

If you do get a bad reference, make sure you keep it in context. Was the person who gave the reference laid off? Was their input colored by a personal conflict? Is the input years old? It’s good to take a trusted friend’s input seriously, but don’t forget to look at things holistically. A friend of mine reminded me that reference checking can be like deciding where to eat - you wouldn’t skip a restaurant you’ve heard great things about, just because of one bad Yelp review.

Speaking of Yelp...sites like Glassdoor, Indeed, and Fairygodboss can also be valuable tools, but definitely need to be taken in context (and I also think with a bit of a grain of salt).

Whether you’re an active or a passive candidate, remember that it’s not just about a company finding out about you. Trust yourself enough to evaluate the opportunity, primarily by what you learn in the interview process - and verify by leveraging your network.

What do you think about backdoor referencing for candidates? Let us know in the comments section! And check out my thoughts on companies conducting backdoor references the right way here.



written by Deb Feldman, Principal Consultant and Co-founder