Today I got an unexpected phone call. It was a reference check for a former employee who is now a finalist for a position at a top-ranked state university. At first the call went as expected-- questions regarding strengths, weaknesses, collegiality, and if I'd rehire. The last question made me uncomfortable, but it was not a entirely a surprise.
They asked me if I would be willing to provide a "deep reference" for the candidate.
The term "deep reference" refers to someone identified by a primary reference rather than the job candidate. The way it works is that the person listed as a reference is asked to identify an additional reference for the candidate, without the candidate's knowledge. The employer then cold-calls this person to ask questions about the candidate. In research, we call it "snowball sampling", using an informant to refer additional informants. In hiring it goes by a few other names, such as "backdoor reference", "unauthorized reference", etc.
As job applicants, we obviously list references who will say glowing things about us. The intent of a deep reference is to dig deeper, perhaps uncovering something additional (maybe even negative) and to confirm the validity of the information provided on the resume or in the original reference check.
I can understand why an institution would choose to go beyond the names provided. No one wants skeletons in the closet. Hiring someone is a big deal, not easily undone. However, as a reference, I am very uncomfortable being asked to furnish a name and phone number for someone on the candidate's behalf.
That being said, it happens.
So...as a candidate, what can you do about it?
When you develop a list of potential references you will need to have a conversation about your search process. Always have a conversation with your reference, to ensure they agree to serve in this capacity. Do not EVER list a reference without asking, even if you know they'd be fine with it.
You need to formally ask them to serve, brief them on the position, and communicate WHY you want that job. It really does work best if you have a phone conversation. It also helps if you give them an updated resume and a few talking points. For example, it is easy for me to forget what years someone worked for me and exactly what all they did. I remember their work ethic and key projects, but I don't want to overlook anything and appreciate the refresher, especially if it has been a while.
During this conversation you might want to discuss the potential for a "deep reference" check. Discuss alternate individuals who might be able to comment on your work style within that same work setting. Maybe it is someone who worked alongside you on big projects, but wasn't your supervisor. Or it could be a person who was your supervisor, but they left the field since then and your current reference is still in touch. Have this frank conversation with your reference and agree on how to handle the question, should it come up.
It is also possible your reference is uncomfortable providing a deep reference. Talk about it and find out how they plan to respond to the request.
After having this experience, I'm curious...
Current professionals: Have you ever been asked to provide a deep reference? Have you been a part of a search where your hiring manager utilized this tactic?
Job seekers: Are you familiar with the practice of contacting deep references? Do you suspect (or know) unauthorized references were contacted during your candidacy?
Comment below to share your experiences.