Acquiring great talent is important for any company, but start ups and early growth stage companies can literally live or die based on the quality of their hiring process. A bad hire, especially early in a company’s growth phase, can take a company way off track, killing momentum and/or wasting precious cash.  Unfortunately, I’ve seen this movie several times, even starred in it myself over the years.  Hiring is a very difficult process, and mistakes get made.  But, as with any business process, there are ways to significantly reduce the frequency and magnitude of the mistakes.  I won’t attempt to cover the full hiring process in this post, but I thought I would share some thoughts on what has worked well for one crucial component – checking a candidate’s references. 

Guidelines when checking references:

  • Do not outsource the process to outside recruiters.  I mean no offense to my recruiter friends.  Some may do a good job of it, but many lack the training and the incentive to dig really deep with references.  Reference checks should be done by a trained resource at your company.
  • Seek references for all jobs the candidate has held in the prior 8-10 years.  You should attempt to speak with the candidate’s direct supervisor for each prior job.  In addition, find a few references who worked for the candidate in more recent roles (ideally not just the ones the candidate gives you, ask the candidate’s supervisors for former/current staff you can talk to). Understanding the 360 degree perspective on the candidate is key.
  • If the candidate is currently employed and you cannot talk to their current employer yet, make sure to convey to the candidate that you will be confirming all information with this employer post hire.
  • When you talk to a reference, always stress complete confidentiality and emphasize no feedback from your discussion will ever go back to the candidate in any form. Set the tone immediately that you are speaking in strict confidence, and then live up to it.  If you share the reference’s feedback internally, ensure the information stays confidential.
  • Candidate-supplied references will almost always start out positive and with a lot of positive fluff about the candidate (after all the candidate has already verified these individuals can serve as positive references).  Its critical to get past this and get actual feedback on job performance.  The questions below are designed to help get past fluff answers.  You will see several of the questions are indirect ways to ask about strengths and weaknesses.  If you want the truth from a reference, you have to give them the ability to speak candidly without feeling like they are talking poorly about the candidate.  This is why it can be helpful to approach the topic of weaknesses indirectly.
  • Ask the same questions to all references.  Look for consistent answers from multiple references from different companies.  When answers are consistent, you are likely getting honest feedback.  When answers don’t seem to match up, dig deeper.
  • Typically references will be supportive and back up your positive impression of a candidate, but one or two may raise a red flag.  Don’t skip over this information. It’s easy to discount this feedback, since it doesn’t fit the picture you’ve already drawn for yourself.  I’ve done this and almost always regretted it later when these issues resurfaced in the candidate’s job performance.  If you find a red flag, keep digging into this area and try to challenge your assumptions.  Don’t be afraid to go back to prior references to ask about this area.

Talking points for the conversation with a reference:

  • Start by thanking them for their time and stating that all communication is strictly confidential and will not go back to the candidate in any form.  Don’t just blow through this statement.  State it clearly and with emphasis.  It’s important that the reference believe you are sincere.
  • Confirm the time period the candidate worked for their company, verify his/her role and title.
  • Ask the reference to describe the role the candidate served in while he/she was with the company. Go deep into this topic to really understand the scope of their responsibilities and the environment they were working in. Take out a blank piece of paper, and attempt to fill in the job description for this role as you talk to the reference, including the description of the company, specific responsibilities, team structure (who reported to whom, # of team members managed, etc), and skill sets demonstrated.
  • Try to map out the state of the business when the candidate arrived and ask about progress against goals during the candidate’s tenure (try to confirm any stats the candidate had on his/her resume without mentioning you are doing this).  Drill into any areas that warrant further discussion (e.g. – if reference states a sales candidate did a great job but was hampered by limited marketing leads, inquire about who was in charge of marketing, how the candidate interacted with this person/team, how did they handle the issue, what actions did they take, etc.  This is a golden opportunity to learn how this person handles challenging circumstances).
  • Get the reference to rate the candidate: ’Of all the people you have ever seen serve in this type of role at [current company] or elsewhere, how would you rate [candidate] on a scale of 1-10 (ten being high)?  Why?  Push the reference to provide detail for their rating and to provide comparison to others that they would rate higher or lower.  If they rated the candidate an 8, what would it have taken for them to be a 9?  What distinguished them from a 7 or 6?  I have found this question gets past the fluffy compliments quickly.  Some people are hard graders and some are easier, so the specific number is not the most important aspect of this question.  You will learn the most when you inquire about what kept them from getting ranked higher, and what earned them this rank instead of a lower one.  I have learned a lot of helpful information from this question, ranging from specific gaps in an engineer’s technical skills, to why a candidate was passed over for a promotion, to what types of clients a sales person didn’t handle very well.
  • Describe the role you are trying to fill.  Then ask the reference how you can best support the candidate in this roll: ‘One of our objectives is to build a great team around [candidate].  I’d appreciate your insights on the people we should bring on to the team to help compliment [candidate name] and to fill out what the team will need to be successful.  [you might give an example of how someone on your current team helps to fill one of your gaps to break the ice].  Would you mind if I describe the role a bit and then we talk about the types of skill sets we might want to fill around [candidate]?’ This is another indirect way to ask about weaknesses.  I once had a reference tell me how brilliant, hard working, and resourceful a candidate was for the first 10 minutes of our call.  However, when I asked this question, the reference immediately suggested we keep the team small.  Evidently, the candidate had performed very well managing small teams, but struggled repeatedly with managing larger teams.  The key aspect of this whole dialogue was the reference still felt like she was talking positively about the candidate and really helping her by passing along this information. [which in reality she was, as our role required managing a large team and was not a good fit].
  • If the reference is still not talking freely at this point, try using a specific rating process like the Top Grading comprehensive ratings to get him/her to open up.  I sometimes skip this if the reference is already speaking freely and with good detail: ‘Would you please rate him/her on the following nine categories?  An excellent, good, fair, poor rating would be fine.’
Category Rating Comments
Thinking Skills (judgment, intelligence, decision making, creativity, strategic skills, pragmatism, risk taking, leading-edge perspective)


Communication (one-on-one, in meetings, speeches, and written)


Experience (education, track record)


Resourcefulness (passion to surmount obstacles, perseverance, independence, excellence standards, adaptability)


Stress Management (integrity, self-awareness, willingness to admit mistakes)


Work Habits (time management, organization, planning)




People Skills (first impression, listening, ability to win respect, assertiveness, political savvy, willingness to take direction, negotiation/persuasion skills)


Motivation (drive, ambition, customer focus, enthusiasm, tenacity, balance in life)




Managerial Abilities (leadership, ability to hire best people, ability to train/coach, goal setting, change management, empowerment, monitoring performance, building team efforts)
  • This topic likely has come already in the conversation, but if not, ask: ‘Would you re-hire him/her, if so in what type of role next time?’Inquire about the circumstance of the candidate’s departure from the job: ‘Are you familiar with why he/she left?’
  • To wrap up, try to get a referral to other references on the candidate: ‘Who else worked closely with [candidate] while he/she was with [company] that we might want to speak with?  We’d love to talk with more folks that have working experience with him/her.’

One Comment

  • These are great guidelines for getting real data out of a conference call as opposed to just positive fluff. I’ve also found that the pre-mortem question forces honesty: If we hire him/her and it doesn’t work out, what would you guess would be the reason?