You are recruiting a Vice President for a key role. You have hired a search professional because you have run out of network. The senior recruiter has met your team, understands your company goals and objectives, and pulls together a targeted position description. You are now ready to start evaluating candidates.
The recruiter shares a few diverse candidates and reviews a list of prospects, people that they plan to reach out to with your blessing. You decide you like the lead candidate, at least on paper, so you call a few of your buddies to check the person out, ahead of scheduling the first interview. One of your colleagues tells you that the candidate is very talented. Another colleague has a different point of view, and says the candidate is stubborn (insubordinate, difficult, etc.) You decide that stubborn is not good for you and your team, and you decide to tell the recruiter that you don’t like the candidate after all, and you have not had a phone call with the candidate.
Now what? Well, what you have done is eliminated someone on a couple of conflicting data points, and possibly a strong opinion, not on a full capabilities assessment. You have no idea how long ago this negative review was observed, or if the candidate has grown out of this bad habit. Nor do you know if this data point came from a time that they had some personal struggles – all you know is what your colleague told you.
If the candidate is currently working – there is more liability for both you and the candidate. You are poking around in that person’s past and character, the inquiry may unintentionally put them at risk of losing their current role. Another unintentional consequence, is that this could potentially start a chink in the relationship of that candidate with their current leadership team.
Backdoor references provide a very limited, and often biased view of how a person performs. One very good reason to hire a search professional is not just because you cannot find people yourself, but because you want to hire right and you need to democratize the process. Especially now, when you need to ensure you include diversity candidates.  You need someone to keep you accountable to hiring the right person, unbiased, and insure you make a great hire.
There are no perfect candidates – only perfectly flawed humans with specialized skills in your industry. What matters most depends on the function and performance.
What results did they get? How did this person communicate and build relationships? Hopefully you hire someone who is not afraid to provide push back, feedback and divergent perspectives. Singularity of thought kills many good products and companies. This is what diversity is all about, and you want to create the very best return for your stakeholders, diversity at the top will help you accomplish this.
True, you don’t want to hire criminal or someone who creates HR issues. Personal quirks can be accommodated. You are hiring a human being, not a God, people are going to have faults and you need to know what they are, before you hire them, so you can determine how to integrate this person into the team.
A good reference provides a balanced candidate view – both strengths and weaknesses. What the candidate can and cannot do, you need to know what growth path the candidate is on, and what skills and abilities they need to acquire to move up. You want the whole picture, and that includes understanding what motivates the candidate. The best way to manage and lead the candidate, and what they excel at, in what sort of environment. You need to know what drives this person, and what makes them want to leave. You want to be sure the candidate will excel in your company and will fit in with the team.  This is most essential to your company’s success.
Every one of us can behave badly, it is your job, as CEO to make sure you are not the one pushing this person out the door. It is your job to channel and focus people on what you need them to accomplish.
In short, backdoor references are not the best way to find out everything you need to know about a candidate and how they will perform for you. This form of reference checking lacks depth and balance.
Hiring a search professional and partnering with them will get you a great hire. A search professional will also provide you a diverse slate of candidates,  a balanced view of capabilities and development areas for each candidate, and prevents you from any discriminatory bias you may develop as a result of performing a back-door reference, resulting in losing a great hire, too.