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Talking to References

Hiring teams usually conduct reference checks over the phone. A few larger companies have in-house recruiters send forms or emailed questions, but these are usually impersonal and may be less effective for the hiring team than one-on-one conversations. References have a hard time quantifying or evaluating others’ skills using checkbox-style and similar form answers that can make it feel like an answer might (intentionally or unintentionally) hurt the candidate. A conversation between industry colleagues is more comfortable and can allow helpful nuances and details to emerge. Usually a candidate can make reference introductions to the hiring team, so setting up a call will likely be the easy part.

Although it’s not universal practice, the best person to do reference checks is most likely the person making the hiring decision. It’s even better if that person is also the candidate’s future manager.

caution At larger companies, references are often done by HR staff or recruiters, but they may not capture certain valuable information if they don’t know the exact needs of the role. Because HR staff and recruiters often are juggling multiple pipelines, they may be more likely to forget details gleaned from the reference process by the candidate’s first day on the job.

Good preparation for checking references includes taking a little time to research the reference’s background; this provides information to help put anything they say into context. Make sure you understand what their relationship to the candidate is or was. Plan what you want to discuss. What areas of the candidate’s experience can this reference speak to? About what are they credible?

The hiring team doesn’t need a fully prepared, rigid script, but will benefit from having a clear agenda and approach in mind, rather than calling off the cuff. Assuming the best of the reference will produce the most forthright conversation. Most people prefer to be honest, yet it’s helpful to expect that many references won’t want to speak ill of the candidate or hurt their chances of getting a job.

During the Call

General guidelines to follow are to say hello, explain who you are, confirm they’re ready to talk, and thank the person for their time. Be friendly to set them at ease. Confirm how long they are available to talk—a hurried or interrupted reference call will be unproductive.

A reference call might look like this:

  • Establishing trust. (3-5 minutes) Ask if they’d like a very short background on you and your company and why you’re talking to the candidate. Be brief. Imagine you’re in their shoes. What would you want to know? Give them enough information on yourself that they can get a sense of who they are talking to. (Are you a founder? Manager? Technical? Business? What domain have you worked in during your career?) To build trust and rapport, discuss any other common interests or areas of overlap.

  • Establishing mutual purpose. (2-3 minutes) Remind them that the goal of the call is to measure fit between the candidate and the role, based on the experience the reference has had working with the candidate in the past. Ask if that sounds good, and pause and listen for anything they might want to tell you up front.

  • Asking questions. (20+ minutes) Ask questions that you’ve planned, but follow up on things the reference says that may lead to useful insights.

caution Throughout the discussion, be careful to listen exactly to what the reference says, and not confuse it with how they say it. You don’t know the reference, so it can be easy to be thrown off by communication style.

important Take notes. You’ll want them later.

Designing Reference Questions

First-time hiring managers usually know or are told that they need to check references and may eagerly solicit or set up the calls. But at some point the reality of the challenge becomes apparent: How exactly do you get helpful and reliable guidance about one person you don’t know, from someone you know even less? And even more challenging, how do you do it in a short window of time, like a 30-minute call? Surely any reference who is a friend of the candidate will just say positive things anyway—how do you know if you can trust this person’s judgment? Worse, you may have heard that legal considerations make most references largely perfunctory and a waste of time,* so why spend the time in the first place?

When preparing your questions for a reference call, it’s often best to sequence from basic, factual questions to more high-level and subjective questions. This way, you can let the reference ease into the discussion with answers to simple questions, that are closed—that is, have one possible answer. In other words, ask about job title and technology stack before you ask about communication skills.

  • Start by asking a little about the reference themself, how well they know the candidate, and how long they worked together and in what context.

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