If the Front Door Doesn’t Open, Try Going Around Back

Sep 26, 2013

Spying eye - freedigitalThere are numerous definitions for the term “back channels” if you were to look this up on the internet. A back channel can be as simple as students or conference attendees using IRC or instant chat to discuss a lecture among themselves. The lecture or talk is the “front channel” (formal presentation) while the chatter being the back channel.

A back channel can also be attendees of a webinar or conference posting comments to each other as the speaker is presenting.

Taking a publicly posted commentary on Facebook, and continuing the dialogue on instant messaging (Facebook messaging) can be another back channel. I’d venture to guess there’s more dialogue going on via private messaging than there is in the visible status update sections as behind-the-scenes people are willing to divulge their opinions more openly and discuss topics of a sensitive nature.

As a result the conversations are often livelier and more informative in the back channels than they are in the formal mode. The military and federal government state departments use back channels for obtaining tips from informants.

In each of these examples the back channel can be used to engage in the kind of frank talk individuals would otherwise be unwilling to engage in publicly.

Back Channel Codes

My idea of writing about back channels came to me when, during a hotel training presentation a while ago someone asked me why “the HR manager never returns my calls?” As I was providing various explanations, I started realizing the reasons I rarely experience these issues, which I know are common with many in recruiting, are a result of my back channel dynamics.

Here’s how I define a back channel when as I see it pertaining to recruiter/client relationships:

A back channel is a secondary contact able to unofficially and off-the-record engage in a dialogue while being close enough to the primary contacts to possess knowledge of what is occurring even though he/she is not supposed to be directly involved.

Let’s compare that to your official, primary communication channels. Usually these consist of:

  • Executives or managers involved in the hiring decision;
  • Human resources or talent acquisition participants;
  • Background / employment verification service providers.

While your primary contact might be the vice president of human resources, or CEO of a mid-sized company, the back channel contact could be the VP’s administrative assistant, or an operations director..

Headstarts with a Heads-Up

With back channels I can find out who is about to call me and what hiring position they plan to discuss with me a month or two before I receive the official call from human resources or other company official.  During that time I can study the new department manager’s dossier (LinkedIn) become familiar what hobbies or interests he or she has,  and even become aware of his/her religion, sports and a host of other information that might be helpful in building a conversation

Listening ear girl - free digitalI’m then far better prepared to strike up immediate rapport without being too obvious. It’s also about subtlety. Back channels can also tell me why someone is not calling me back and what project is on a long term delay, without my even having to bother HR or the direct hiring executive.

Let’s look at what types of people can become your back channel access points:

  • A friendly secretary, administrative assistance you’ve had pleasantries exchanged with and shows signs of being conducive to assist providing he/she is not named
  • A previously placed individual you’ve assisted obtaining a job in the past.
    • This person can hold a manager role that is one step or one degree distant from the HR or hiring manager primary contacts
    • The individual may have been directly placed in his/her current role by your services … or
    • The person obtained a previous position through your services that helped him/her gain access to his/her current job
    • Anyone else you’ve had friendly dialogue with – including someone you’ve set interviews for but did not actually lead to a hire or offer.

Different Approaches

All of the above can be developed into back channel contact points. Depending on how well I know or trust my back channel contacts, I have several different approaches.

One approach, which I use for back channels I’m trying to develop disarms them with assurances of anonymity. A typical approach goes like this:

Barbara, first of all I assure you that you will remain anonymous and as far as I’m concerned this conversation never occurred. I need your help with something. I need to know the ……

You can then finish with your request with just about anything your heart desires:

names of everyone in the Denver branch with 5-10 years of experience.

… names of who the Executive VP is that Susan the HR manager reports to.

… Cell phone number for Dan and his team in Phoenix.

The idea here being you need to first disarm your prospect by assuring him/her that no mention of the conversation will ever be made. While it should go without saying, never ask for any confidential information by email! These days, with unlimited storage, emails are essentially permanent.

Telephone Only!

This technique can only be done by telephone, which is the only communication method that remains anonymous and confidential (unless it’s recorded).

I recently used this technique with a CIO in order to find out if I wanted to continue bothering with his company, which had become problematic:

Can we talk off the record John? Between you and me, who’s really in control over in HR these days? Is it Bill the COO or Simon the director?”

The reply gave me the information I needed to make a decision to walk away from this lucrative client that had placed a highly unorganized and overworked individual as their new recruiting director, until conditions changed back in my favor.

Back Channel Confidentials

When, after years of recruiting success, you establish dozens and hundreds (if not thousands) of back channel points of contact, you like me, can be in a position where you are never more than a phone call away from obtaining whatever information you desire.

When the day comes that you have called your HR director or vice president three times over a four week period only to never hear back, you won’t have to ask me why she is not calling you; just pick up the phone and ask your carefully, cultivated back channel contact.

Here’s another example of a real life back channel incident I experienced:

Hiring Contact (president of a division): “You and I are not having this conversation right now okay?”

Me: “You have my word as always.”

Hiring Contact: “In about a week or so, you’ll be getting a call from HR in Denver. His name is _________ [I looked the person up in Linkedin and had his profile up while continuing the conversation].

He doesn’t like recruiters. [He also had a rough track record and this job was the first outside the pharmaceutical industry]. You can’t let him know we spoke. He’s going to give you a position for ___ and we’re going to want to pay a package that’s $153 as follows … “

By the time the HR individual called me about two weeks later I had already developed a raw list of potential candidates and knew how to delicately proceed so as not to run afoul of his already strong feelings toward recruiters. All I had to do was get his official “go ahead.” A few formalities about agreeing to work under the existing agreement – and we were off to the races. No joking. No levity. Not even routine pleasantries as I had been tipped off that would not work well with this individual.

In a situation like this HR’s inability or unwillingness to provide information becomes irrelevant to me. I have the back channel and unofficial points of contact to fill in all the blanks despite HR,s incompetence and prejudicial opinions.

How to Develop Your Back Channel Contacts

First: Check your database and find out what behind-the-scenes contact you may already have at your client organizations. Obvious points of contact are:

  • Anyone you have placed in the last 10 years;
  • Anyone you have helped advance in their career by setting up interviews, even though he/she was not placed (assuming the relationship remained cordial);
  • Anyone you didn’t place or even get out on interviews, but helped pro bono along the way, such as improving his/her resume, etc.;
  • Anyone who telegraphs willingness to help that is more than usual.

Second: Categorize your contacts using any format that is simple and makes sense to you and your industry. In my database I have back channel contacts organized as:

  • Network Lead – Generally meaning well connected and useful for name generation;
  • Placed Candidates – Always willing to do me a small favor if requested nicely;
  • Helper Candidates – Always willing to provide help in return for industry gossip.

If you come up short – then you might want to nurture and cultivate these critical points of contact who can become useful supplements to your official public channels. The key here is your database should be far more than divided between candidates and clients. There are a number of shaded areas in between. You can further categorize these contacts to make them valuable to you in other functions.

Every industry has its gossip “maven” who knows everything going on in that sector. You need to identify, earmark, and store these people for future retrieval.

Third: Always have something to give back to your contact in return for information you seek. Some are quite happy with the simple industry knowledge you might have, which they were unaware of. Some enjoy hearing chit-chat and gossip, for instance, who got an early retirement, etc.

Others are appreciative of leads to jobs you might know of that you are not directly working on.

Napoleon once said, “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.” Your network contacts will surely give you names, information and other helpful inside tips just for the equivalent of some colored ribbon of your own.

Fourth: Be careful. I once sent an email (mistake #1) to a back channel contact (sales director) to get info on the HR person I’d have to deal with as I was not initially getting a good vibe. Turned out the sales director I had approached was a bit too close to the kitchen’s heat as he was the one the HR person was planning on firing once the new hire was positioned. I got myself caught in a web from which I had to do some quick thinking to get untangled.

My #2 mistake was he was not quite elevated to back channel status. Since the bond of trust was not solidified, the next thing he did was to contact HR to find out what position was being placed out with a search firm and – oy vey – you can guess what happened from there. Fortunately some quick back-swimming got me out.

Make sure your contacts will speak confidentially to you and only you, and that there’s a level of trust that transcends the typical recruiter/candidate or recruiter/manager status.

Before long, even if you succeed in getting 30-40% of your business clients to fall into this description, you will have more tools to avoid the problems that are common to your competitors.

Images courtesy of Jeroen van Oostrom and Idea go /
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