It’s hard to overstate the inherent risks and cost associated with hiring, especially for early-stage companies. One wrong hire on a very small foundational team can delay product launches, sales execution or throw off the chemistry of a once well-oiled machine. So when you’re faced with a candidate who checks…
A monotonous, time-wasting process that offers little value in its execution.
That’s how one recruiter described reference checks in the modern era. He’s not alone — plenty of people are fed up with the status quo.
Everyone involved here knows perfectly well that the people on a reference list are expecting your call, and they’re probably prepared to sing the candidate praises. So if you already know exactly how this conversation is going to go, why bother picking up the phone?
The truth is, reference checks can be extremely valuable. Sure, if you send an email saying “shoot me a few sentences on __’s work performance,” you’ll probably get a pretty useless response. But if you ask the right questions, dig a little bit deeper, and read between the lines, you might learn something worthwhile.
How to do a reference check the right way
The questions you ask during a reference check should help you evaluate at least one of two things: the credibility of the reference, and the quality of the candidate.
Evaluating the reference
This is the most underrated, but arguably the most important part of the reference check. Don’t just take whatever this person says at face value — you first need to judge whether the reference has good perspective, not just about the candidate, but about people in general.
You have to be subtle with this line of questioning, but it’s usually not so hard to determine a reference’s credibility. Ask the reference to describe a time when the candidate made a mistake or had a strong disagreement with someone else on the team. If they dodge the question or say they can’t think of anything, that’s a red flag.
Evaluating the candidate
To be successful here, you first need to acknowledge what a reference check is not. This is not a way to judge skills, competence, or likeability. If you’ve gotten to this point, you should already have formed an opinion on this candidate based on your own interactions with them. The point of doing the reference check is to build on what you already know about this person.
A good way to go about doing this is to have some general questions and some personalized questions that focus on gaps that you identified in the candidate’s interview process. An example of a general question could be, “What’s one thing Bob’s manager should know in order to help him be successful?” A personalized question could be, “In our interviews, we observed <XYZ>. Would you agree?”
Still, need more inspiration? Check out what some other professionals told us about what they like to ask during reference checks:
Mike Volpe’s, CMO at Cybereason
- What is their superpower?
- What type of job would help them thrive the most?
- What type of cultural environment would help them thrive the most?
- What motivates them?
- When are they at their best?
- When are they at their worst?
- As a potential future manager of this person, what should I know about how to best work with them?
- Would you hire them again?
Christian Palombo, former VP of Sales at Everquote
- Can you provide an example of a time where he or she made a sacrifice for their work?
- On a scale of 1-10, how disciplined is the candidate? Can you provide me with some examples where the candidate consistently demonstrated self-discipline?
- I set skill development objectives with team members every month. What objective would you recommend I set with the candidate that would have the greatest impact on their performance?
- Everyone has weaknesses without exception, myself included. What are some of the skills our team should have to complement the candidates?
Desiree Therianos, VP People at Ellation
- What is your relationship with the candidate?
- Could you describe _________ work performance and work style?
- What are some of his/her strengths and weaknesses?
- What was it like to work with him/her?
- How did the candidate’s contributions in their role enrich the broader company culture?
- What could we do to bring out his/her best performance?
- Is there anything else you want to share about the candidate?
ZeShaan Shamsi, Director of Talent Acquisition at Onfido
I amend them on a role by role basis depending on the need. But usually, I go for
- How long have you known x?
- Were you involved in the hiring process?
- Did x report to you directly?
- Please describe your relationship with him/her?
- How would you rate x as a y – ‘bad’, ‘ok’, ‘good’ or ‘great? What influenced your rating?
- Would you say x made a ‘bad’, ‘ok’, ‘good’ or ‘great’ contribution to the company? Can you outline the reasons for your answer?
- How well did x perform under stressful conditions, such as y or z?
- Would you say x was ‘bad, ‘ok’, ‘good’ or ‘great’ at dealing with a or b? Why so?
- Were there any areas where x excelled?
- Any areas you felt there could be an improvement?
- If circumstances allowed, would you re-hire x?
- Any other information you think is worth knowing?