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Reference checks are part and parcel of the VC diligence process. They are also one of the two most important analyses in hiring, next to the interview. Below, I’ve outlined my standard question set. I’m curious to hear feedback on what other questions or techniques might work.

Types of References

I find it’s valuable to speak to references who have worked with the candidate in different roles. Below is a list of typical roles in rank order.

  • Peers provide fair feedback. They often competed or worked closely together and are often the most impartial checks.
  • Managers offer the best insight on day-to-day interactions and work quality.
  • Direct reports tend to be a bit more positive than others. But they provide insight about culture, team building and mentoring.
  • Close colleagues are the least valuable checks. Friends at work don’t have much direct experience to share save for personality.

Reference Check Outline

Below is a list of questions prefaced by the rationale for the question. I’ll describe the referencer as the person I’m chatting with and the referenced as the person who I’m considering.

Background questions provide context for the referencer. My goal is to understand the referencer’s background (technical/manager/etc) which informs the types of questions I can ask. I’m also looking to understand the referencer’s perspective on an organization. A sales manager will observe different characteristics than an engineer.

  • Questions Where do you work? How long have you been there? What kinds of teams do you manage?

Relationship questions establish the biases of the referencer toward the referenced. At this point, I’m also looking to establish whether referencer will provide a balanced reference. A skewed reference either entirely positive or exclusively negative is basically worthless and should serve only as a directional data point. Also, I look to establish the recency of the relationship.

  • Questions: How do you know the person being referenced? How long did you work with them? How did you work together? How long ago?

Work questions elucidate the type of work the referenced performed. I’m typically matching up the actual work to what the referenced has represented and also making sure it’s a fit for the role in case of a hire, or the sector, in case of an investment. Management experience is best examined here.

  • Questions: What was the referenced’s role in the company? Could you share some examples of the kinds of work the referenced performed?

Strengths should be matched to the demands of the role or company. These are self-evident. A PM should have good communication and management skills. Engineers should have relevant technical skills. Examples are critical here.

  • Questions: Where does the referenced person shine? What kinds of work the referenced prefer to do?

Complementary skills. Asking for weaknesses tends to put the referencer on the defensive, as if he or she is sharing something illicit. Instead, I ask the referencer the question below. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. And most jobs require teamwork. The best team members complement each other’s weaknesses. This is an indirect path at reaching the same answer. It doesn’t always work, but it’s my preferred route. I spend the most time of the interview on this question.

  • Questions: What kinds of people does the referenced need around him/her to be successful?

Influence. Understanding how a person is influenced is important. Everyone responds to a different approach. Some are very rational and respond to data. Others react to vision and passion. Still others might be consensus driven.

  • Questions: How is the referenced persuaded or convinced? What kinds of motivation does he/she respond best to?

Day-to-day personality. This line of questions aims at understanding the person’s culture in a work environment: serious, funny, team-oriented or individual contributor, darker or sunnier outlook. My purpose is to match working styles.

  • Questions: What is it like to work with the referenced day-to-day? How would you characterize your typical interactions?

Ethics is a checkbox question. It’s uncomfortable to ask but important to rule out any bad actors.

  • Questions: Any questions of ethics?

Social proof. Ask the referencer about their willingness to work with the referenced again.

  • Questions: Would you hire or work with this person again? How highly do you regard this person? Top 25%, 10%, 5%, 1%?

Suggestions?

Do you have any suggestions or ideas for how to improve this outline? Or other tips on reference checks?

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11 thoughts on “Anatomy of a reference check

  1. If possible I would also speak with customers / vendors the Referenced has worked with earlier. They can throw light on key aspects like execution, problem handling, follow ups, resolving issues, etc. Being a vendor / client one can trust them to give a fairly neutral review.

  2. In my experience people talk about teammates in one of two ways:

    1. “Wow, this is one of the best people I’ve ever worked with. I wish I were that good. I’m a little sad you’re doing this reference check because I’d hoped to recruit her…”

    2. Anything else.

    I tend to just strike up conversations about the person and see if #1 comes gushing out. The best people are the ones where a critical mass of their former teammates (doesn’t have to be every single one) talk about them that way.

    • Thanks and great to hear from you, Camilo. Nir’s post is interesting point of view aimed at saving lots of time. I’m not sure I agree. Human capital is the best investment for companies and should demand a proportionate amount of time allocated to it.

      I value understanding the nuances of the person being referenced. I like to hear from both people who do consider the person exceptional and not as exceptional. Otherwise, I’m exposed to huge sample bias: I’m setting myself up only hear one side of the story, the affirmative one.

      Even the most sterling candidate will have some detractors or points of criticism. I agree with the notion that a startup only wants to hire the best people, but matching a candidate to a role and company is a nuanced process – not just a binary decision. Sometimes, it’s not the most sterling candidate who would be the best fit.

      In my most recent reference check, the man I spoke with asked me about the role and company for 15 minutes before he would offer any opinion on whether the candidate would be a fit. Ultimately, we decided that though the candidate was exceptional (and widely regarded as such) he wasn’t a fit for us.

  3. As a former HR guy, I cast another vote for talking to peers. If HR is any good, they’ve coached more senior people about how to avoid the dangerous areas of giving references. Unfortunately, that often results in a watered down response devoid of anything really critical. That kind of coaching often can’t be given to all employees so those who aren’t senior managers are often more candid.

    It’s also important to move beyond the names the candidate provides – she or he has no doubt prepped her references in advance. I always end a reference check by asking “is there anyone else who you think I should speak with?”

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  5. One of my favorite questions for managers is to ask the manager for advice on how I can better manage the candiate or tips on how to help them perform their best. I also like to ask how the candidate compared to their colleagues and if they found someone better to replace the candidate. It’s much easier for a referral to say a candidate was in the top 5% or 1% without seriously considering the veracity of the statement.

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