Always Check The References! A Step-by-Step Guide.

Hiring great people is hard. And it’s time-consuming.

When you’re busy running your department or founding a company, the idea of running a thorough recruiting process plus a quality reference check for every hire seems as enticing as sucking a sandwich through a straw.

Instead of lecturing you on how a messy hiring process can lead to hiring the wrong person, I’ll give you a quick and dirty hack—that if you implement, will at least save you from bringing on someone who just interviews well.

**NOTE: This should be done for all people you’re thinking about offering a job, but it is absolutely essential for higher-level candidates, especially people you’re bringing on to take work off your plate (e.g. COO, VP of Finance, etc).

Always, check the references. ALWAYS. Never skip this step…

First, there are two types of references: given and backchannel.

There is a lot of controversy on whether or not it’s appropriate to contact backchannel references during the hiring process. We’ll outline the pros and cons.

Given References

At some point in the interviewing process, you will want to ask the candidate who they reported to in their last several positions. You’ll also want to ask them for references. Sometimes these will overlap 100%, other times they will not.

Normally, candidates don’t present references who they believe will speak badly about them, and you’re not on a mission to dig up dirt. You are on a mission, however, to ensure that they (a) can do the work required for the job (b) have been honest in the interview process thus far, and (c) are set up for success if you do bring them on.

At AVRA, when we are running searches for our clients, or internally, we like to aim for 7 reference calls. This won’t always be possible, depending on the work experience of the potential hire and the timing of the client, but it’s ideal. The rule of 7 would include some rough breakdown of: 3 past bosses, 2 peers or customers, 2 subordinates.

More senior hires: we’ve personally found peers and subordinates to be almost more important of a peek into their working style, and skill set, than people the candidate reports to. A director who leads a team that is doing great, or during a time that the overall business is doing great, may seem “solid” to their direct supervisor. But, if you chat with their peers from this role, and those who reported to them, you may get a completely different perspective.

This happened with a COO candidate I was looking at bringing on years ago. His resumé made it look like he had been an integral part of several companies that jumped from a few million a year to tens of millions or more. Turns out though, he didn’t drive teams to succeed, instead, he had gotten lucky… and when his luck ran out, he just moved jobs. The successes I saw in his resumé, and that he talked up throughout various interviews, were almost exclusively the result of his team, or peers’ work.

Backchannel References

These are different than the traditional references that candidates present in the interview process, and the practice is more controversial.

The concern being that by reaching out to people the candidate hasn’t expressly provided, the interviewer may tip off a current employer and cause recriminations. At AVRA we check the references of backchannel sources when possible, in conjunction with given references, this way we avoid any awkward situations, as outlined below:

What to do

  • Get the candidate’s consent that you will be talking to references when you ask them for their list.
  • Let them know you’ll be speaking to not only the references they provide, but also may be speaking to other people who they’ve worked for, or have worked with, in the past.
  • Ask them for anyone or any company they would like you not to contact, this is especially important if a candidate is currently employed and their employer doesn’t know they are looking.
  • Be careful not to contact anyone who could be associated with their current position, if employed.

You can find backchannel references through thirty minutes of internet research. Cold email them, and explain why you want to chat; you’ll be surprised how willing most people are to talk about their experience with a colleague—good, or bad.

Getting the most out of your reference calls

Ideally, you’ll be able to check the reference on the phone. But, at minimum, include the questions you want to ask on the phone in your initial email—so if someone is busy, or traveling, they can always write back.

Reference checks, just like the interview process, should follow a specific cadence. Use the same questions across all references, and all candidates, to ensure you are able to synthesize the information in a way that helps you make a decision.

We use these 5 questions to check the reference for each source, with an optional “specific concerns” question where we ask all the people who have interacted with the candidate if there is anything that pops out that they’d want us to dig into with former colleagues.

  • In what context did you work with [CANDIDATE]?
  • What were their biggest strengths?
  • What were their biggest areas for improvement back then?
  • How would you rate his/her overall performance in that job on a scale of 0-10? What about their performance causes you to give that rating?
  • [CANDIDATE] mentioned that he/she struggled with __________ in that job. Can you tell me more about that?
  • [Specific concerns]

Once you have collected the various data points—it’s decision time. Having an objective pass/fail system to understand who you will make an offer to, and who you will politely thank and turn down, is vital.

Below are some of the templates we use, feel free to copy and adjust for your own hiring needs.

 

Candidate email for reference information

Subject: References for [ROLE] at [CLIENT’S NAME]

Hi Matab,

Can you please send me contact info (email/phone numbers) for the references you listed on our initial phone call?

  • Livestream: John Doe
  • Oscar Health Insurance: Jane Doe
  • Logic Solutions: Wazam Doe

Thanks,

 

Reference check template

Goal: 7 reference calls depending on the level of hire: 3 past bosses, 2 peers or customers, 2 subordinates. This won’t always be possible, depending on the work experience of the potential hire and the timing of the client, but it’s ideal.

 

Reference email template for Linkedin

Hi [NAME],

I wanted to see if I could set up a quick 5-10 minute call to get your feedback on [CANDIDATE who used to work with you as a [ROLE] at [FIRM] from March of 2016 to October of 2016.

Please let me know if you worked with him and have any insight, or if you know of any peers or supervisors that did. Appreciate it so much!

I have also included the questions I’m curious about in case a call is not possible:

  • In what context did you work with [CANDIDATE]?
  • What were their biggest strengths?
  • What were their biggest areas for improvement back then?
  • How would you rate his/her overall performance in that job on a scale of 0-10? What about their performance causes you to give that rating?
  • [CANDIDATE] mentioned that he/she struggled with __________ in that job. Can you tell me more about that?

 

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