Haunted By Hidden Reference Nightmares

Some may call them ‘references not provided by the candidate’ while I tend to call them what they really are – hidden nightmares. They show up out of nowhere, and – BAM! – before you know it, these references have spooked the daylights out of the audience you’ve been trying so hard to impress. There aren’t more than two degrees of separation in the HCIT market. Somebody knows somebody who knows you, and, more importantly, knows a lot about you!

The best way to fend off the unexpected ‘back door reference’ is to make sure you have a reference for every role you’ve ever had – someone who can vouch for your character, personality and performance. People are only human, and some can hold grudges for many, many moons. If one of these hidden references has an ax to grind about something in the distant past, they might not have any problem throwing you under the bus if they get the chance. This is why you should always stay connected with past coworkers. LinkedIn is a great way to stay connected – you should periodically reach out and ping an old colleague to see how they are doing, and not just when you need to use them as a reference.

Another way to avoid hidden reference nightmares is to avoid name dropping to impress your audience. In Bradley Smart’s book TOPGRADING, he teaches a hiring technique that is used by organizations that prefer to do a deep dive on a candidate’s background. Part of the TOPGRADING process is to conduct interviews known as a CIDS interview. The CIDS acronym translates to Chronological In-Depth Situational interview. In this type of interview, the candidate is tag-teamed by two members of the interview team – one who asks the questions while the other one takes copious notes. The candidate is asked in-depth questions about each role and the names/titles of the co-workers and supervisors, while the scribe captures it all in writing. Later in the hiring process they attempt to contact each person mentioned – without your knowledge. That could be good for you – or bad – depending on how well you’ve stayed in touch with your former colleagues.

Dealing with hidden references is manageable as long as you stay connected with former coworkers and can defend any negative information that gets passed down from another former employee, peer or boss. With the use of social media there is no way to hide any skeletons in your closet – dealing with them is a challenge which can be overcome by having a great defensive strategy to protect the integrity of your own personal brand.

About the author


Tim Tolan

Tim Tolan is the Senior Partner of the Healthcare IT and Services Practice of Sanford Rose Associates. He has conducted searches for CEOs, presidents, senior vice presidents, vice presidents of business development, product development and sales. Tim is also the co-author of "The CEO’s Guide to Talent Acquisition – Finding Talent Your Competitors Overlook," available on Amazon.


  • Tim,

    This is a great post and one that rings a bell for me right now actually. I just had to pass over what I thought to be a great candidate due to what you would call a “hidden nightmare.” In this particular situation, everybody really liked our candidate, but in Health IT, the world is very small and we were able to check with out own industry contacts about the candidate. As it turns out, the candidate is a great person, but very ineffective with low motivation and is not someone that we would hire.

    I usually refer to these type of references as “back door” checking whereas contacting a reference provided by the candidate is going the “front door” route because the reference is typically expecting a call. I find much more value in conducting and unknown reference though given that most professionals are aware enough to only provide contacts of those that will say positive things.

    I think your suggestion of providing a reference from every recent employer is fantastic! I did notice that the folks we connected with an those provided by the aforementioned candidate were not from the same employers . . . you’ve really got something here, Tim.

    Thanks again! It’s a pleasure to be on the blogging team with you!


  • Cassie:

    Glad you enjoyed the post! Having multiple experiences with back-door “nightmare references” I understand the challenges candidates face trying to protect their brand equity as they search for new opportunities. In some cases the back-door stories are unfair and defendable and in other cases, well… they are not! Candidates need to constantly circle the wagon with their trusted references and have an ally in each company they have been associated with. It just makes good business sense.

  • Tim,

    I think another important point about references is checking for outliers. For instance if I garner a reference that is poor from someone, I keep checking. Sometimes one little thing can come back to haunt a candidate and I believe as a recruiter, it is my job to do my due diligence and determine what is really the truth about a candidate. However I will say, if I see two or more red flags in the reference checking process, I will pass on the candidate.

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