Stop Treating Reference Checks as Afterthoughts

When done right, reference check can be a powerful tool in vetting a candidate’s fit during the interview process. We leverage reference checks heavily here at Unfortunately, it is easy to do a poor job and when done wrong, it adds zero benefit and provides a false sense of validation. The goal of a reference check is to provide a separate view from a different angle of the candidate that isn’t easily gathered during the other stages of the interview process. We want to get to know the candidate in her natural state, working on prior projects interacting with her teammates and stakeholders. Before diving into the tactics of a reference check done well, let’s go through some context.


If you are not an experienced manager, remember to think about the incentive of the person providing the reference. This person you are chatting with on the phone is a friend and/or colleague of the candidate and he has no relationship with you. His incentive is to do the candidate a favor or at the very least, not hurt the candidate’s chances in a new opportunity. The feedback WILL BE heavily biased toward the positive. You should really care if someone gives you a weak reference. That’s a huge red flag. The candidate either has serious issues or has such poor judgement to select someone that would easily speak ill of her.

Sunk Cost/Confirmation Bias

To both respect the candidate and reduce the time cost of the interview process, reference checks are usually done at the very end of the recruiting funnel. Given that the hiring team has already given the candidate a thumbs up, reference checkers can easily fall in the trap of thinking that the reference checks are just one more checkbox in the process. It becomes easy to disregard any red flag that you discover.

“We already spent so much time on this candidate and we agree that she is great. This thing I just heard probably is nothing.”

Now What?

With this context in mind, next time you run a reference check, look for opportunities to try these tactics:

  1. Framing — Spend some time putting the person providing the reference at ease. Remind him that you and your team have vetted the candidate and liked what you saw. Help him understand that you are not looking for a flawless person. Instead, it is about evaluating fit between the candidate and the role/team/company. Position this chat as a way for him to enable a better future working relationship between the candidate and the new team. Ask questions like “what recommendations can you give me and the team to provide the best environment for the candidate to succeed?” “what was the culture of the prior team/company and how the candidate worked within it?”
  2. Let reference check influence hiring decision — Remind yourself that the decision is not fully made until the full interview process is completed and reference checks are part of that process. If you uncover new, potential red flags, be willing to say no or seek additional evidence to prove/disprove your new hypothesis about the candidate.
  3. Look for stories and ask for details — It is easy to say that Jane is great and you should hire her. It is much harder to tell a detail story about how Jane demonstrated that she thinks creatively and able to influence others. Ask for example and supporting evidences. Don’t take a generic qualifier for an answer.
  4. Backdoor checks — Being careful not to ruin the candidate’s current relationships or job, seek opportunity to check references not provided by the candidate. Many of us work within a small community. Use your network, LinkedIn, etc to find people you can call. Another tactics is to ask the references for someone else that you should speak to regarding the candidate.

When done right, reference checks can make a significant impact on your recruiting effort. Frame the conversation, take it seriously and ask for details. Hopefully this post will peak your interest in incorporating reference checks into your interview process or these tactics will improve the quality of your next reference checks. Do you use reference checks? What are your tricks?

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