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A Spy Tactic This Engineering Staffing Firm Used (And Not Admit)

A Spy Tactic This Engineering Staffing Firm Used (And Not Admit)

Much like international espionage and backcountry mountaineering, the world of recruiting is a high-stakes, higher-adrenaline adventure. Consider this scene from the early eighties. Steve Jobs, standing on a rooftop helipad, the wind blowing through his hair as he turns to Pepsi CEO John Sculley and says, “Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life? Or do you want to come with me and change the world?”

John looks at him for a moment, considering, when suddenly, a door opens, and three KGB agents step onto the rooftop…

Okay, fine. Maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, and it didn’t happen exactly like that. There probably weren’t KGB agents, and, at that point in his career, Steve Jobs probably didn’t travel by helicopter. But he did allegedly use the above quote to lure John Scully from Pepsi, and, although it would hardly qualify as international espionage, engineering recruiters are not above a little bit of industry spycraft.

Here’s something every engineering staffing firm does (but few admit):

Backdoor Reference Checks

Also known as ‘back-channeling’, backdoor reference checks are an effective, albeit sneaky, way to gather intel on candidates. For the most part, this tactic is used when the engineering staffing firm and the engineer have a mutual (preferably trusted) connection in common. Social networking sites like LinkedIn have made this info very easy to come by, but they can also lead to a more sinister form of back-channeling where the recruiter or staffing firm identifies and contacts an unknown third party from the candidate’s past.

For employers, hiring managers and recruiters looking to do due diligence (or dig up some dirt) on your engineering candidates, the takeaway here is simple. You can easily and effectively leverage publicly available information to your benefit.

For job seekers, the picture is a bit less rosy. Simply impress every co-worker you have ever had on the off-chance that they may be contacted by recruiters or hiring managers.

On second thought, with great power comes great responsibility. Maybe the first group should show some discretion and moderation when using backdoor reference checks.

In all seriousness, backdoor reference checks can be a great way to address specific concerns with a specific candidate or to evaluate candidates who have previously worked with connections that you know and trust, but for the most part, this method should not be used as a general recruiting tool. Candidates select his or her own references for a reason.

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2 Comments

  1. Mandy FardJanuary 8, 2019 at 6:18 pmReply

    I soooo agree with the fact that the recruiting life is a life of adrenaline and roller-coaster highs and lows and more often than not it can feel like espionage. However, I doubt I would make it my ongoing practice to do backdoor reference checks. Not unless I have really no other option; and I happen to think that better options are often readily available. Again, I agree that backdoor reference checking shouldn’t be a method of choice when it comes to digging for info.

    Thank you for bringing awareness to the fact that backdoor references should be done DISCREETLY and in MODERATION.

    • Chris SpechtJanuary 9, 2019 at 8:00 pmReplyAuthor

      Hi Mandy, I agree. But for some critical positions, doing this type of reference checking can be the only way to get any intel on someone. How would you make a critical hiring decision like this?

      CHRIS

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