How to do Reference Checking

One of the core stages of hiring at Rapleaf is reference checking. Depending on the person we are hiring, we require 10-20 references (and we wouldn’t give an offer to someone without at least talking to 8 references). For some people, this might seem a bit extreme but we think it would be crazy to do otherwise.

Reference checking is important for a few reasons. First, it gives you a general sense of the candidate. What is her personality? How does she act in certain stressful situations? Etc. I like to ask a judgment question. Like what would the candidate do in a certain situation? Why?

Second, it gives you a window on how best to manage the candidate if you do hire her. I like to ask how one could get the most out of a candidate and what work environment they strive under most.

Third, the list of references themselves tell you something about the person. Does she give you her current boss (if so, she’s more likely to leave her current job and she has a very open relationship with her boss)? How far back does she reach for her references? Is there a good mix of references.

Fourth — look for how quickly the references get back to you .. And how quickly they call you back. Presumably the candidate is going to first contact the reference and let them know you will be calling … so this is a good indicator of how organized the candidate is. And it is a great indicator of how passionately people feel about a candidate. (I once did a reference check on a candidate who listed a very well-known CEO as a reference. The CEO called me back with one hour — he obviously really liked the candidate.) And I like to later understand how the candidate prepped the reference.

Fifth is to look for consistency. We were reference checking one candidate and his references all consistently said he was amazing but stubborn. This gave us better insights into the questions we asked him in the final interview.

Sixth — find out how the candidate has changed over time. My personal favorite question is asking how the candidate improved over the time the reference has known him. This usually gives an interesting window into the candidate’s personality.

And seventh — references can often predict a candidate’s future. “Where do you see this person in 5 years?” is a good question.

(and, contrary to popular belief, reference checking is especially important with engineers)

6 thoughts on “How to do Reference Checking

  1. hunter

    References are also a great opportunity for the candidate to get information about the employer. The people you respect and who know you are able to give additional insight on whether they think the role/manager is the right fit. All conversations are a two-way street.

  2. Gabe Rosen

    I do a lot of reference checking, being a headhunter, and one thing I’m very careful to do is talk to a candidate’s reports as well as those above. With most of the roles I hire for, the role may have no direct reports at first, but with an eye towards expansion, I want to know how the person will be regarded by those he/she manages.

  3. Kay

    Great tips, Auren! I would also suggest blind reference checks. By using the advanced search feature on LinkedIn, or the one-click reference premium tool, you can find people who used to work with the candidate. (Disclosure: I work at LinkedIn).

  4. Oliver

    I humbly disagree! I think 20 reference checks is a bit excessive. One thing I know about A players is that they like being treated like A players! Asking a guy or a gal to give you a list of 20 references, does not make them feel like an A player (more like a parole). I remember very early in my career I walked into a recruiter’s office. I was asked to sit down and was given a form to fill out (yes a form). I noticed a mirror on the wall with a sign that said “You are looking a winner!”. I thought to myself, what am i doing here! I’ll be darned if i need a new job that bad, and I walked and never bothered to come back.
    At Epicentric we had a saying “All attempts to limit sales will eventually succeed” The idea was if you tried hard it could botch any deal – SO DON’T. I think the same applies to recruiting. Make it difficult enough for A player to work for you..they will go somewhere else..because frankly they don’t need a job that bad. Trust me, there are few jobs so cool and so groovy that will compel you to try and find 20 people who worked with you who will say nice things about you. Remember – B Players do NOT like A Players and when was the last time all your co-workers where A Players? I say this: Check a reference or two – even three, make the hire (hope they accept) with the understanding that the first month is a trial period. California is an “At Will” state anyway..who knows..they may find something cooler and hopefully you’ll find out if they are who they say they are. Just a thought. And since when were cool companies immune from going under anyway..

  5. Nick

    Totally agree with Oliver! Also those who please everyone around seem to be the winners in this blind reference checks vs. the real strong people for the roles. Secondly, if some is not that trusting the potential hire, there is no point working for someone like that.

  6. Ruthanne Feinberg

    I agree the blind reference check is a great thing to have, in theory, but I have seen it back fire as well. Especially if the candidate’s search is confidential – he/she deserves to not be outed because you know someone who knows him/her on LinkedIn. And secondly, it puts you at risk of creating distrust out the gate if it gets back that you were back channeling.
    Two cents poorer


Leave a Reply