One of the most important aspects of hiring someone is to properly reference check them. Although the interview gives you some solid information on the candidate, the people who worked with them directly know their strengths and weaknesses most. This post covers how to efficiently and effectively reference check employees for a startup.
Talk to multiple people
You should talk to 3-5 references for most hires. The references should be people who worked directly with the candidate, rather then people merely at the same company at the same time. It is a plus if at least one of the references is a former manager.
Set context for the call
Explain to the reference what your company does and the role the candidate is being considered for. This helps the reference answer your questions through the lens of the role to be filled.
Ask the reference to set context on how they worked with the candidate, so you know if they worked together directly or not (in which case, their feedback may not be as useful).
If possible, backchannel a subset of the references
Since people often use their friendliest co-workers (or just plain friends) as references, you may not get a real view into the candidate. Business people are the worst offenders on this – they will often talk about how amazing a person is even though they never worked directly with them.
If the option exists, find people (you already know and trust) who have worked directly with the candidate in the past. They may have additional insights on how well they completed their past duties. You need to do this discretely – e.g. don’t call their current boss to ask how good they are thereby screwing over the candidate, or alternatively causing their existing employer to make a big counter offer. If in doubt, err on the side of caution and doing what is right for the candidate (i.e. don’t cold call random people to ask about the candidate).
Come to the call prepared with specific questions
Rephrase the same question multiple ways
Often the references the candidate provided are their friends. Or, it is a long time co-worker who doesn’t want to say anything bad about the candidate. By asking the same question multiple ways, you sometimes get more information from the reference, or the real answer emerges. As an illustrative example, for productivity you can ask:
The above is meant as an example only. The key takeaway is by probing for the same thing multiple ways, you often get to a richer answer and perspective. On some reference checks I have done the tone has changed from the first such question “Yeah, Bill is great” to dramatically different by the last one “It is really hard to depend on Bill sometimes”.
Anatomy of a phone call
The above should take 5-15 minutes total. The best and worst candidates often have the shortest calls.