A simple process for checking references of prospective employees.

Here are my learnings from the hundreds of reference checks I’ve performed over the years and information gleaned from recruiters and colleagues. I’ve gelled them into a process with eight questions that usually succeed in getting a reference to tell me useful and actionable information during a phone call.

Why checking references is critical

In the small startups I have spent my career building there are few decisions as critical as hiring the right people. Bringing in the wrong employee can saddle you with years of sub-par performance and may mean the difference between closing your next VC round and having your company disappear into obscurity.

Someone once told me that the process of hiring someone is an exercise in finding reasons to say “no”. I couldn’t agree more. No one will fault you for a difficult hiring process. Your current employees will appreciate not being saddled with under performing co-workers. Your job candidates will gain a sense of confidence in your company’s ability to succeed.

My interviews are hard and my process is lengthy. Once a candidate has impressed me sufficiently in their interviews to potentially warrant an offer, I have one final chance to deny them a job…the reference check.

Ask the Easy Questions

Every question asked in a reference check should be open ended. Instead of saying “Can you confirm that Joe was a Senior Product Manager?”. Ask the reference to tell you Joe’s title.

I find it unlikely that your candidate would have lied to you. But it’s always best to confirm everything independently when possible.

Question 1: Would you please confirm his/her dates of employment?

Question 2: Would you please confirm his/her job title?

Give a Chance for Praise

References are pre-selected by candidates to give good reviews of their work. This part of the phone call asks questions designed to let them do just that.

Question 3: Please comment on the accuracy of the following job description. (Now, read the job description your candidate wrote on their resume.)

Question 4: I was told about Project X, can you confirm his/her involvement? And can you tell me about the results? (Pick the project that the candidate told you about in the interview process that you think will be the most revealing.)

Question 5: What was his/her best contribution?

Dig for actionable information

Now, finally, we’re at the point where we hope to learn something real about our potential hire.

Question 6: What would you say his/her areas for improvement are?

Question 7: We are thinking about hiring him/her for XXXXX position. How would your rate that fit?

Question 8: If you were me, would you have any concerns about hiring him/her?

That’s it. You can now go to sleep knowing that you have done everything you can to hire an effective team member.