Don't let 'backdoor references' kill your shot at landing a job

How to Land a Job
How to Land a Job

Picture this: You walk out the door from an interview at your coveted next job and you're feeling pretty good about yourself. You nailed the interview, gave great examples of your experience and successes and even charmed the hiring manager with stories about your backpacking trip through the Himalayas.

The employer has asked you to share your references. You've kept up good relationships with these folks and are confident in what they'll say. You know they can only help your cause.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, what if your prospective employer goes outside your reference pool to other people you've worked with in the past? And what if, even though you've been an exemplary employee, there's that one manager you just never clicked with – and that's who the employer decides to call?

This nightmare scenario is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Thanks (or maybe "no thanks") to social media and the fact that people job-hop at a much higher rate, it's easier than ever for a potential employer to independently find and look up any past contact they want. These hidden contacts are called "backdoor references."

The issue is similar to the better known pitfall of putting too many party photos or inappropriate (for the workplace) comments out on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Except by now, most people are aware of this problem and actively managing it (and their profiles). But very few people are aware of the backdoor references dilemma.

Here are five tips on how to head off the backdoor reference problem before it emerges and make sure you're ready to deal with it if it does.

[Read: New Grads, Follow 7 Steps to Score Glowing Job References.]

1. "The more you know ..." You know those public service announcements on NBC? They should make a new one about backdoor references because so few people are aware of the issue. Anyone on the job hunt today absolutely needs to be aware that not only can this happen – it likely will.

2. Spring clean your social networks. You've likely accumulated all kinds of contacts over the years, spanning every social platform you're part of (which is probably a bunch.) Now would be a good time to take a critical look at these lists. Are there any people in your past who you feel wouldn't offer a fair assessment of your work? Are there some wild cards out there? And are there people you simply aren't truly connected with anymore? The best home for all of these contacts may be the discard pile.

[Read: How to Make the Best List of Job References.]

3. Do your homework. There may be former colleagues or managers that you suspect could be contacted by a prospective employer – but you aren't quite sure where you stand with them. What should you do? This situation requires a bit of finesse. The best course of action is to connect with them first.

Ideally, try to meet up casually in person. You can explain that you're in the midst of a job hunt, you appreciated your time working with them and you would love to get their feedback on your performance. Many people are open to mending fences. They may even need your help getting a job one day. You'd be surprised how effective this kind of meeting can be.

If the vibes are solid, then you can feel better about what they might say. If they are stoic and hold their opinion close to the vest – or give you negative feedback – then you know what you're dealing with. From there, disconnecting may be the best move.

[Read: How to Get Your References in Tiptop Shape.]

4. Fortune favors the prepared mind. Don't get blindsided. If you are sure there's an issue floating around out there that may come up through a backdoor reference, be ready to speak to it in your interviews. Have a response mapped out and be ready to put the information in context. Be professional and keep emotions, such as any lingering anger or blame, out of your response. Focus on how you may have solved issues or problems, learned from past mistakes and moved on professionally.

It's like watching the presidential candidates debate each other. They've already anticipated the "gotcha" questions, and the good candidates can even turn those questions around to their benefit without being glib.

5) Concentrate on your "real" references. The emergence of the backdoor reference problem substantially increases the importance of your "real" references. Companies are looking at references more seriously today because every other way of assessing a job candidate, such as resumes and interviews, depends on the candidate self-reporting. Or they can be easily gamed, like skills or personality tests.

References are different because they speak to a candidate's actual performance as observed by others, so employers are frequently asking for more references per candidate. For you, this means it's vital at every step in your career path to keep cultivating a solid crop of people who can speak honestly about your great work.

And as a bonus point: Try hard not to burn bridges anywhere you work. You never can tell who knows who, especially in today's connected world. Backdoor references are the proof of that.

Related: 6 job perks you should always negotiate

Copyright 2015 U.S. News & World Report

Originally published