Trewstar Corporate Board Services

Beware the Back-Channel Reference

September 13, 2023

Dear Friends of Trewstar:


Nothing beats getting the inside scoop on a candidate you are considering for an important role, right?


Going through back channels for insights on candidates is tempting. A member of your board or management team knows someone who knows a candidate under consideration. They volunteer to reach out and get the inside story. An offer like this is hard to refuse, and we aren’t necessarily suggesting that you do. 


Just proceed with caution.

Everyone who is senior enough to join a board has colleagues with negative things to say about them. We can all name these people in our own lives. It is important to keep this in mind when receiving input through back channels rather than accepting it at face value.


One of our recent searches was nearly derailed by a negative report on our candidate. Upon investigation, we learned she had led a major turnaround earlier in her career that required headcount reduction. She did a masterful job with a tough task, but as one of those let go, the still-bitter reference provider depicted her in a negative light.


While we were able to navigate through the rough patch in that example, the incident served as a reminder of just how easily a talented and well-suited candidate can be passed over, punishing both the hiring company and the individual in the process.


A couple of years ago, we witnessed an actual derailment when a director announced to fellow board members that our candidate was notorious for asking too many questions at board meetings. The report came via a friend who served on a board with this candidate. We quickly learned from other sources that the board in question had been dealing with major issues at the time, and our candidate was instrumental in constructively confronting them. Alas, it was too late. The fatal sound bite – “too many questions” – was etched in stone, and we had to move on.


Here are some other ways we have seen back-channel references go wrong and why we urge clients to filter them with a healthy dose of common sense:


Cryptic digital messages

“Conversations” about candidates often take place via text, email, and voicemail. They are often brief, typo-ridden, and open to misinterpretation, even when they include emojis (:. It is easy to misconstrue both content and tone when communicating in short bursts and an injustice to all parties to be exchanging important and nuanced information in such an abbreviated format. Yet in our busy, electronic world, it happens all the time.


Context is king

When Trewstar checks references, we set the scene by describing the company situation and the position spec, followed by a line of questioning that encourages candid and balanced feedback on the candidate’s suitability for the role in question. The back-channel reference seeker may – or may not – provide appropriate context and ask good questions. When they do not, the feedback tends to be vague and unhelpful: she’s good, he’s bad, they’re just okay. These generic statements beg more questions than they answer. 

Opinions are like noses - everyone has one!

It is only human to want to offer an opinion when asked. The most valuable opinions about candidates are recent, relevant to the situation, and supported by facts and examples. In one instance, we learned a negative report was given by someone who had not been in contact with our candidate for more than a decade, despite making the insights seem as if they were recent. Another time we discovered our candidate had been promoted over the reference provider and the feedback was tinged with lingering resentment.  

While it is possible to imagine a back-channel reference preempting a costly and embarrassing blunder, we have not seen it happen in over 12 years and nearly 300 searches. High quality interviews, professional reference calls, and legal background checks make the risk of a mistake mercifully low.

Please navigate back channels with great caution, remembering that even the most intelligent and well-intentioned sources have personal biases and bad days.   
Best Regards,

Beth Stewart, Heather Wolf & the Trewstar Team