Reference Checking

How do you effectively reference check when you are making a key hire? This is a playbook to guide you.

Prep for References
During the interview process, be disciplined about asking who. We want to start building a list of
specific individuals we expect to see on the candidate’s reference list before we get to that stage.
o Who did X report to? Who reported to X? Who did X work alongside? Did X overlap with Y?
Who is a reference?
 Former board members, investors, managers, peers, and direct reports (safest)
 Current managers, peers, and direct reports (more common once offer is accepted and
used as an onboarding tool)
 Customers and third parties (sales, marketing, industry specific)
When should referencing be conducted?
You should ask a candidate/executive/founder for their references when there is a clear intention of making an offer or making an investment.
How Many References?
The number may vary based on years of experience, but for executive level candidate, our recommendation is to ask for a minimum of six references (preferably two managers, two peers, and two direct reports)
Timing Considerations
 Ask the candidate to put you in touch with the reference or have them provide their contact information.
 Allow for time for candidate to “warm up” reference network and make proper introductions.
 Schedule 30-45 minute reference calls.
Format and Script
You will likely not have time to ask all of these questions in a 30 min conversation. Review with Hiring Mangers and Teams the information you are needing to verify and what questions to prioritize.
Build rapport. Thank the person for their time upfront. Set the agenda. Provide 1-2 min background on Company and why you are reaching out.
Verify the relationship with candidate
What years did you together? What was your title? What was your scope? What was X’s title and his/her scope during that time?
Why did you enjoy working with X? Identify strengths and accomplishments
Let the reference gush about why the person is awesome... Tell me what you loved about working with X.
What are the candidate’s top 2-3 strengths (or areas X is uniquely strong)?
What were X’s most significant accomplishments while in their role? What was the
impact on the company? Who else was involved? Should we talk to any of those folks?
Who do you think was X’s proudest hire? Why?
How does X attract talent? What makes people want to work for X?
Learn what motivates the candidate and brings out the best in them...and when the candidate is not at their best
What motivates X to be successful?
What situations bring out the best in them?
What types of people does X work best with? Who works/worked well with X?
What types of cultures does X thrive in?
These questions should then be reversed to understand what demotivates X, what is a
stressor for X and and types of environments or situations X would not be a fit for.
Explore areas of development
• Describe a situation where the candidate learned from their mistakes.
In what areas has X grown or improved as you’ve worked together?
What are other areas of development?
Who does X lean on for help?
Understand communication and leadership style
What is X’s management style with their team?
How would managers, peers, direct reports, customers, vendors, agencies, the admin staff
etc. describe X?
How does X communicate when there is tension or friction?
How does X make tough decisions?
How does X communicate difficult news or failures?
How does X celebrate wins?
Add quantitative data to the qualitative with ratings
• “Using a scale of 1-10, where 10 is the best you’ve ever seen and 1 is a career limiting liability...How would you rate them on...”
Choose 6-12 characteristics/actions to rate based on the requirements of the role and the culture of the company. The scores themselves don’t particularly matter (the reference may be a hard or generous grader). You’re looking for relative higher or lower scores.
Examples: Scorecard/Technical (Customer acquisition, Analytical ability, Managing lenders, Fundraising, etc.), Self awareness, Collaboration, Communication/Transparency, Hiring, Bias for action, etc. and end with Overall
Follow up with, You graded them a [#] in [this area]... What would it take for X to be an 9 or 10?
End with would you work with this person again? Why, why not? Collect information helpful for offer stage and onboarding
We want X to feel truly celebrated when they join the team. Do you have any recommendations of how we can accomplish that? Examples: Sending their favorite food or dessert...
What will X need in order to be set up for success (i.e. specific tools, software, team hires, materials, meetings to schedule etc.)?
Where do you see X in the next 3-5 years?
Thank the person again. Ask them if there is anything they wished you asked. If there are
additional questions, ask if you can reach out again.
Send thank you note! Follow up and let them know how your candidate is doing in the new role in a few months!
Back Channels vs. References
Back-channel references are informal references that are solicited without the candidate’s knowledge, typically by leveraging connections through the hiring manager’s network. It is important to consider the following when conducting backchannels.
You must believe you have more social capital with the person you back channeling with than the candidate.
Unless feedback comes from someone who has had a direct working relationship with the candidate and the posed questions are standardized, there will be embedded bias and inconsistencies.
To make backchannels meaningful, helpful, and fair, limit asks to people who have direct working relationships with the candidate (i.e. managers, peers, customers).
Anyone falling outside of these three groups would not have the visibility into the candidate’s role, deliverables, and benchmarks to success to be able to effectively offer a tangible reference.
• Timing matters. Since a backchannel is conducted without the candidate knowing, you could potentially risk the candidate’s current employer learning about the candidate exploring an opportunity. This is why understanding the true value of your social capital with the the backchannel reference is critical.

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