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.
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.
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.
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?”
Mike Volpe, CEO at Lola.com
Christian Palombo, former VP of Sales at Everquote
Desiree Therianos, Head of People at Fictiv
ZeShaan Shamsi, Former Director of Talent Acquisition at OnfidoI
I amend them on a role by role basis depending on the need. But usually, I ask: