One of the more execrable Silicon Valley institutions (and it’s not like there’s a shortage of moral failures in the contemporary Silicon Valley) is the “back channel” reference call. This is when a prospective employer or investor circumvents the candidate’s provided reference list and calls people who weren’t volunteered. While it’s morally acceptable for certain kinds of government jobs (e.g. in a security clearance) because national security is stake (and because back-channel reference checking is a well-published part of the clearance process) this is just plain obnoxious, unprofessional, and often unethical when done for regular office jobs, where human lives aren’t at stake. It’s bad for job seekers, but also bad for the people being called, who may have never volunteered to give references in the first place.
Unfortunately, the technology industry is full of unprofessional, juvenile man-children who don’t seem to know, or care, about professional protocols. So this conversation actually has to happen, and it will happen here. But, for us as a community, it’s an embarrassment that I’m writing this. It’s like when tech conferences have to publish anti-harassment policies. Shan’t we be embarrassed, as a community, that not all of our members know that groping strangers is not OK? We should, and for this issue, likewise.
Why is back-channel reference checking so bad? I can think of four reasons to despise this practice.
It violates an existing and important social contract.
When someone applies for a job, there’s a social contract between the candidate and the company. The candidate is, under this contract, expected to represent her qualifications truthfully, and the company is expected to evaluate her in good faith.
A violation of this contract would be a company that has no open positions, but holds interviews to get proprietary information about its competitors. That’s not “good faith” because the candidate has no chance of being hired. Her time is being wasted, in order for the company to get information. That does happen, but it’s generally considered to be a slimy practice, and it’s hard enough for a company to keep the secret that it’s uncommon. Back-channel reference calling is another, similar, violation of the social contract. A company that extends an interview is representing that (a) it has the resources to hire, and that (b) it will hire the employee if the employee’s total packet (CV, interview performance, and furnished references) performs sufficiently well. To do otherwise is to show a complete lack of respect for the employee’s time. This implies that if a candidate is rejected, it ought to be something in the official “front channel” package that was the reason.
How much feedback should be offered to rejected candidates is, ethically, an open question. I doubt that it’s reasonable to expect an employer to take time to explain exactly where in the interview a candidate failed, because that can lead to fruitless and mutually demoralizing discussions. Many companies refuse to provide explanations, for that reason. I will maintain the ethical obligation of the employer to communicate (sometimes, passively) what stage the failure occurred at. If the candidate isn’t called back, it was the CV. If the candidate gets an interview but nothing else, it was interview performance. If the candidate is asked for references but doesn’t get an offer, then he needs to consider a different set of people the next time he gives references. Injecting other “secret” stages into this process just adds noise to the feedback. While I don’t consider companies responsible to communicate the exact reasoning behind their decision, using a process that obfuscates existing feedback is a breach of professional ethics.
For a concrete example, let’s say that a candidate gets to the stage of furnishing references and volunteers a few, and they come up positive. Then a few back-channel references are called, and something negative comes back. It doesn’t matter if it’s untrue or if the person isn’t a credible source; the candidate’s probably sunk and, of course, he probably won’t be told that it was a back-channel reference that did him in. Now his relationship with three of his closest professional colleagues is needlessly and wrongly complicated.
Back-channel reference checking also has a way of getting back to the candidate’s current employer. Plenty of defenders of this practice say, “Oh, I’d never do that.” Bullshit. If you’d reject an otherwise stellar candidate based on unreliable back-channel feedback, then you’ve already proven that you can’t be trusted to be “careful” with peoples’ careers. Back-channeling publishes a possibly private job search (yet another violation of the social contract) and word travels fast.
I think that, in the long run, back-channel reference checking is actually quite expensive for companies. Savvy candidates, when dealing with companies that use the practice, are going to fake competing offers in order to put time pressure on employers and prevent the back-channel cavity search from happening. (It violates the social contract for a candidate to lie like that, but if the contract’s already broken, why not?) That will lead to hasty decision-making, compromise the existing hiring practices, and result in costly mistakes.
It’s a show of power and aggression.
It takes social access to get into a stranger’s past at any level of depth. People don’t like giving references unless they’ve agreed to be a reference for someone, and back-channel references never knew that they were references (and may take personal offense to not having been asked first, not knowing that their names weren’t volunteered). HR officials at companies, often, will only verify basic details about previous employees, knowing the legal risks of giving anything more. Likewise, most people who are asked out of the blue for a reference aren’t going to give one to just anyone. They have to trust the person asking. Back-channel cavity searches require knowing a lot of people. They’re easier for large corporations which can involve a lot of people, or for venture capitalists who’ve been buying and selling influence for decades, but pretty much impossible for the little guy to use.
When VCs claim that back-channel reference checks (currently legal, but let’s hope that Washington becomes aware of the issue and does the right thing) are critical to their business, what they’re actually doing is gloating about having the social resources necessary to conduct such investigations. It’s hard to get people to volunteer information that is often inappropriate for them to share. “Do you feel like fucking over a random stranger?” “I really want to know if Sue is of the future-pregnant persuasion; does she talk about kids a lot?” “Tom didn’t put dates on his CV; can you tell me his approximate ‘graduation year’?” “Give me a rundown of Mark’s health-problems-I-mean-’performance’-reviews from 2008 to 2013.” “Is Angela one of the ‘political’ Native Americans or is she just like anyone else?” People don’t answer these questions, asked cold by strangers with no skill at interrogation. It takes resources (mostly, trust and contacts) to get it.
Often, the person who does the back-channel reference check will admit to doing it. When it results in rejecting the candidate, the failure is more silent, but often it results in further “conversation”, the purpose of which is to humiliate the candidate (reducing her likelihood of negotiating for a higher salary or better job role than the company is prepared to give her) under the guise of addressing “concerns”. At that point, it’s about showing utter dominance by waltzing into that person’s career, turning over all the furniture, and using the toilet without flushing. It’s to impress the target with the godlike ability to get access to all sorts of inappropriate information. It’s a way of saying, I don’t have to play by the rules, because I’m powerful enough to get away with anything.
That Silicon Valley’s back-channeling is invasive hardly needs explanation. There’s a general protocol around what is and is not appropriate for a prospective employer to research. Running a background check to make sure the person worked at the companies, and attended the schools, that she said she did? Totally OK. Finding out that she has kids, showing up at their elementary school unannounced to observe them, and bribing an unscrupulous principal into getting their academic records, in order to find out if they’re special-needs kids who might be more demanding of the mother’s time than average kids? That’s not OK. There’s a lot of information that is arguably potentially relevant to someone’s future job performance that we, as a society, have rightly decided to be off-limits in making decisions about whether to hire someone.
The “front channel” employment process, at least, imposes some accountability on both sides. The employer communicates its priorities through the questions that it asks, and thereby puts credibility at risk if those priorities are unreasonable or, worse yet, illegally discriminatory. Volunteered references are provided so the employer can validate that the candidate actually worked at the companies claimed and isn’t completely off-base about previous roles and functions within those companies. Using back-channel references is, however, about the more powerful party’s escape from accountability. To ask for information communicates that there is interest in it. To surreptitiously acquire it does not, which means that there’s plenty of room for impropriety and invasion.
It’s also uselessly invasive. The feedback is noisy. For every person with knowledge about someone and his work, there are ten with opinions. Venture capitalists and CEOs who perform these back-channel inquiries may think they’re sharpshooters who can quickly get to credible sources, but they’re not that good. They just never get feedback on their failures, because they’ll reject anyone who doesn’t come up with a perfect bill and never see that person again.
One of the reasons why 2-3 volunteered references (and, at absolute most, 5) has been the standard in employment for so long is that, perhaps counterintuitively, the quality of employee hired doesn’t improve beyond that number. The main reason to check references is to filter out unethical people who interview well, but past 7, you are empirically more likely to hire an unethical psychopath. Why so? Among unethical people, you tend to have two kinds: the petty, untalented ones who make annoying messes, and the talented, dangerous ones (psychopaths, usually) who can take down a whole company. The first category can’t get references; they burn bridges, leave messes in their wake, and are generally disliked by everyone who knows them well. The second category always have glowing references. They have no qualms about making friends pose as bosses, buying references off-the-shelf from made-up companies (yes, this service exists) and “coaching” people into telling exactly the story they want. You can’t actually filter out the second category of psychopath through any social proof system, which means that, after a certain point, your best odds are with not excluding normal people.
If you ask for 10 references, the average, basically ethical, person with a normal career has to dig into his third string and at least one of them is going to be less impressed with him than he expected, so he’ll fail. The psychopath, however, will always pass the 10-ply reference check. That applies even moreso to back-channel references, because psychopaths hide in plain sight and great at intimidating other people into acquiescence. The psychopath might have enemies and detractors, but it’s not being disliked that ruins a person’s career, but low social status (by the way, “performance” at 95% of jobs is social status). Psychopaths make sure that any slight against their social status is swiftly punished, often having loyalists in every social sphere they’ve inhabited. So the back-channel reference check, counter-intuitively, strengthens the psychopath’s power. Some of the people called will dislike him, but not a single one will diminish his social status in any way, and this will strengthen his image as a powerful, “high-performing” person and deliver him the job. Psychopaths really are like cancer cells, able not just to evade human “immune systems” built on social proof and reputation, but often to co-opt those for their own purposes and weaponize them against the good. How to beat psychopaths is a complicated topic for another essay; the best strategy is not to attract them. One of the major reasons I champion open allocation is the specific fact that such an environment is unpalatable to the workplace psychopath.
The invasiveness of the back-channel reference check, empirically, delivers no investigative value about what actually matters (ethical character). It drags up a lot of “juicy” (meaning “inappropriate”) gossip, though. That is why, in a world of oppressive, inane juvenility like Silicon Valley, they’ll probably never go away entirely. It’s too much “fun”, for a certain species of manchild that the Valley has given undue power, to invade a stranger’s personal and professional lives.
At any rate, reference checks aren’t actually investigative in purpose. The real purpose of reference checking is to keep the moral middle classes– people who aren’t unethical psychopaths, but probably would lie a bit to improve their careers, if they weren’t afraid of getting caught– honest. At that, it’s probably a necessary evil, and I think it’s fine for employees to ask for 2-3 (hell, even 5) references to validate that the employee’s represented career history and qualifications are correct. If references were never checked, then people would inflate their qualifications more than they already do, and that would add noise to the job-search process. The reference check has legitimate value in verifying the correctness of a candidate’s claims. This doesn’t justify an adversarial invasion of privacy.
For those who rely on back-channel references, one of their favorite reasons for doing so is access to all sorts of information that can’t be requested in the “front channel” process, relating to age and health issues and pregnancy history and socioeconomic status. Off the bat, the discriminatory intent is obvious.
There’s more to it, though. Right now, in 2014, venture capitalists and technology employers have an almost pedophiliac attraction to youth, especially when it comes in the package of a sociopathic frat boy. It’s not really about chronological age. Rather, they like people who haven’t been challenged yet, with stars in their eyes and a general cluelessness about the world. They champion “failure” because it benefits the VC for the founders to take risks that would be considered irresponsible by anyone who’s had enough life experience to see what actually happens when one fails. Also, there’s a vicarious nostalgia in play: VCs want to be reminded of the time when all they worried about was drinking and getting laid, before the jobs and the kids and aging parents. Instead of being honest about their midlife crises and buying Ferraris or boats or marrying trophy wives, they’ve taken the midlife crisis in the form of a hilariously underqualified protégé (like Lucas Duplan or Evan Spiegel) made “startup CEO” by their own largesse (and, given the Valley’s culture of co-funding, connections to other investors). This, dear reader, is what “culture fit” at startups is really about. It’s about socioeconomic and cultural homogeneity, and isolation from the challenges of the real world (kids, aging parents, health issues). It’s college for people who were too socially incompetent in their late adolescence to make the most of that stage of life when they were in it, and who want a retry in their young adult (or, for investors, midlife) years.
People who’ve been challenged, and how know that there are actual stakes in life, don’t like back-channel reference checking for the same reason that they don’t like open-plan offices. If you’ve ever had a serious health problem, the added stress of having it in front of 50 other people is just intolerable. With age and challenge, people become far more competent in general but lose a bit of endurance with respect to the weird and mostly minor (but cumulative) cultural insults of the open-plan, juvenile, “startup” culture with its lousy health benefits, blurred lines between personal and professional life, and general lack of respect for established professional protocols that form out of decades of experience. If this heightened desire for privacy doesn’t happen for any other reason, it certainly happens when people have kids. Why so? The college bubble is an artificial world whose socioeconomic heterogeneity is enforced in order to create a culture of ubiquitous trust. You don’t need to worry about each person individually, because the “adult supervision” of the admissions office has already done that. The “hip” tech culture is all about preserving that youthful attitude (“I don’t need privacy because there are no really bad people around”) toward life. However, in reality, the world is dangerous and has lots of evil people in it (even at colleges, but that’s swept under the rug!) When people have children, the biological and emotional need to protect another creature makes it impossible to harbor that prevailing, universal trust. If you have to protect someone else’s life, you can’t trust everyone. And open-plan offices (more specifically, visibility from behind, or “open-back visibility”) are about forcing the employee to render trust to the whole office. The same holds for back-channel references, but in that case, there’s even less consent. If you think back-channel reference checking is morally acceptable, then you’re arguing that people should be mandated to trust complete strangers in their own careers.
The truth about privacy and protocol is that they’re not just there to protect “the weak” or people “who have something to hide”. To want privacy doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. It just means that you’ve had enough life experience to know that not everyone can be trusted with all information. I’m well aware of the fact that my tone, on issues like this one, sounds unduly adversarial to many people. I don’t actually see the world in adversarial, zero-sum terms. The world ought to be mostly cooperative, and I think that it is. However, I recognize that a large number of interactions and transactions are innately adversarial, and I’m old enough to know that even people who’ve done nothing wrong have a desire for (and a right to) privacy.
Privacy and the lack of it
College is a time of life in which people relinquish some privacy because there is “adult supervision” that is supposed to prevent things from getting too far out of hand, and because people of low socioeconomic status (presumed to be where criminals come from) are generally excluded, unless they’ve been vetted heavily for intellectual ability as well as good behavior. In the college bubble, most students don’t have to work outside of their studies, and most students’ parents are in their 50s and at the peak of their careers (not 35-year-old single mothers who gave birth to them at 17, not 82 and dying). Excluding managed intellectual challenges in coursework, most of these people have never been challenged… and those who have either don’t fit in or become others’ “diversity experiences”. If this is an uncharitable depiction, let me admit: this isn’t entirely bad. It’s the “magic” of socioeconomic protection and age heterogeneity that enables people who met in September to be “best friends” by October, and feeling safe to discover alcohol and sex and psychoactive drugs and politics and computer science around such people– in a world where privacy is relaxed and people get to know each other quickly– is a big part of that. The suspicion and chaos and status-assessment and busyness that characterize “the Real World” haven’t set in yet, in the sunny college bubble, and that allows deep friendships to form in a month instead of over years. Yes, I can see the appeal of being 18-22 forever.
“Culture fit” and the Valley’s worship of youth are outgrowths of this desire, which many share: to create a world in which it’s possible not to grow up. (If one wonders how the adult supervisors, like VCs, benefit by running a silly camp for overgrown adolescents, the answer is that people who aren’t expected to act like adults won’t demand to be paid like adults, and the VCs can make out like bandits. Considering that, they actually charge a bit more than college bureaucracies.) One of the reasons why the consumer web contingent now dominating the Valley simply doesn’t get peoples’ need for privacy is that it, collectively, is still stuck at a mental age around 23 and, more specifically, in the mindset of a certain type of 23-year-old who’s never been challenged or tested. (Obviously, I do not intend to apply the “never been tested” label to all people at that age, or at any age, since it wouldn’t be accurate or fair.) They don’t have to be white, male, young, heterosexual, childless and from upper-middle- or upper-class backgrounds but, for statistical reasons, they usually are.
Back-channel reference checking becomes, if not morally acceptable, more understandable when one realizes how juvenile private-sector technology has become. I’ve lived in the Real World and I’ve definitely had legitimate challenges: deaths in the family, personal health issues, lost jobs and even a couple 3-4 month spells of unemployment. I’ve seen enough to know that the stakes in this life are fucking real. There’s no Dean of Students who sits down and talks the bad things out of happening. You don’t go in front of a Financial Standing Committee if you lose all sources of income; you actually suffer. As such a person who has actually lived in the world, and seen what it is, and learned that it is pure idiocy to trust literally anyone into one’s career via “back channel references”, I am vehemently against the practice. And I am morally right. However, there are exactly two types of people who can be ethically OK with the increasing prevalence of back-channeling in technology: (1) powerful sociopaths who’ve decided that the rules no longer apply to them, because their getting away with something is proof that it’s OK for them to do it, and (2) clueless naifs who’ve never suffered or been challenged… yet. To people in college mode, a back-channel reference check is no different from asking, “Hey bro, how many guys do you think Monica has slept with?” That is, it’s very inappropriate, but not the sort of thing that would lead to a seven-figure lawsuit or a jail sentence.
More generally than this, I think that people become more private and discerning as they grow up. When you’re six, you’ll be friends with that “funny” kid who puts dog poop on a stick, holds it front of his face, and laughs at it. When you’re 31, if you’re like me, you’ll have a hard time making conversation with people of average (or even 90th percentile!) taste and cultural awareness. This isn’t all good. I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to crack barriers in a meaningful way and, given my average-at-best social ability, don’t always know how to do it. I’m glad that there are people like the 20-year-old (as of 2004) Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg who can get insights into these problems and, at least in some partial way, solve them. College is too “open” for that mentality to work outside of a socioeconomically heterogeneous bubble– we’d have to become a Scandinavian socialist country for the college mentality to work outside of an academic bubble, and I don’t see that as politically palatable in this country– but the “adult world” is a bit too closed, cynical, and cold. In many ways, I see the appeal of the former, and I think the ideal point is somewhere in the middle. (The world would be less closed and frigid with less socioeconomic inequality, but I’m not anywhere close to having control over that variable.) That said, I’m a realist. Trusting strangers unconditionally in one’s career is just plain stupid at any age. Not everyone in this world is good, it doesn’t take much effort or luck for the bad people to make themselves dangerous, and the stakes are too fucking real to pretend they don’t exist.
We, the fully-fledged adults, might seem cynical, stodgy, and adversarial when we tell Silicon Valley man-children that their fratty back-channel reference calls aren’t OK, or that they should stop putting sexist humor in slides about their products, or that open-plan offices are a back-door age and health discrimination that we find crass, or that they need to stop betting their companies on the (extremely rare) clueless young thing that gives his all to a company that gives him only 0.05% of the equity (because, honestly, most of those people aren’t talented, just young and eager). We’re not. We’re just experienced. We know that privacy, protocol, and propriety are actually important. We’ve seen people suffer needlessly due to others’ stupidity, and we’ve learned that the world is a complicated and difficult place, and we’re trying to defend the good, not just against the evil, but against the much larger threat presented by the mindless and immature.
The predominant culture in Silicon Valley has moved against privacy, with personal and professional lives bleeding together, frat culture (and its general disregard for propriety) invading San Francisco, and back-channel communication becoming part of the hiring process, all in the name of “culture fit” (preserving the college-like bubble). This is not the only culture in technology, and it’s certainly not moving in unopposed. Sadly, it does seem to be winning. Demanding privacy at a level previously taken for granted (even asking for quiet working conditions and a barrier at one’s back) has become unusual, isolating, and embarrassing. The attitude that it often meets is, “Why do you need privacy if you’re not doing anything wrong?” Only political naifs consider that question to be remotely reasonable to ask. Everyone needs privacy, because the world is complicated and dangerous and trusting the whole world with all of one’s information is just reckless. This isn’t Stanford. This is real fucking life.
The end result of this is an exclusionary, insular culture of an especially pernicious sort. Silicon Valley’s oppressive mandatory optimism and its contempt for privacy and those who demand it aren’t just classist and sexist and racist and ageist. In fact, Silicon Valley doesn’t have a coherent desire to be any of those things. It’s about a rejection of experience. To live in that sort of college-like bubble, you have to reject the knowledge that not all people in the world are good. You have to accept intrusions against your privacy and person like open-back visibility at work, micromanagement in the name of “Agile”, and back-channel reference calls. You have to have never been challenged or tested, or at least seem like that’s the case. However, that puts us, as an industry and community, far away from the realities of human existence. It makes us, just as we are ethically and professionally reckless as shown in our use of back-channel references, out-of-touch and dangerously oblivious to what we are actually doing to the world.
We have to take stock of this and change course. No one else is going to do it for us. It’s up to us to lead and, to do that, we have to grow the fuck up.