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Reference interviews are to double-check the accuracy of what candidates have told us, to uncover any issues before we potentially make a bad hire, to address any red/yellow flags that were raised during the interview process, and lastly to help the hiring manager best work with the candidate once we've hired them.

There are two types of reference interviews:

  1. Direct references - interviews with people that the candidate has directly referred to us.
  2. Indirect references - interviews with people that the candidate hasn't referred to us. These people are found through our network, cold emailing, etc.

You should try and do at least three of each.

Direct references

These are still useful to do, but know that 99% of the time direct references offered unprompted by the candidate will be positively glowing. Why else would the candidate have referred you to these people if otherwise? So you have to become an expert in teasing out the real juicy details.

Listen for red flags like hesitations and intentional omissions. Ask for facts and not anecdotes. Exactly which parts of their team's success were they responsible for?

Picking the references based on screening and top-grading (e.g., their last five managers), you will get usually get less gushy answers. However, sometimes this just isn't possible for all the references you'd like; for example, if they're still working at another company.

The script

Ask for a twenty-minute reference call (preferably a video call over Zoom). As with every part of our interview process, the process is standardized. Here's the script we use:

In what context did you work with the person? Discount references who only know the candidate's work by hearsay.

What were the person’s biggest strengths?

What were the person’s biggest areas for improvement back then? It is very important to say β€œback then.” This liberates people to talk about real weaknesses, assuming that the candidate has improved them by now. (In reality, past performance is an indicator of future performance.)

How would you rate his/her overall performance in that job on a scale of 1-10? What about his/her performance causes you to give that rating? A concrete score forces people to think objectively and compare that person's performance to that of the rest of the team.

The person mentioned that he/she struggled with ____ in that job. Can you please tell me more about that? This is a good chance to dig into any issues that might have been raised during the interview process.

Tell me about a time that you and ___ disagreed. How did you resolve that disagreement? This is a good way of digging into how the candidate deals with conflict.

Would you hire him/her again if you could?

Indirect references

If the candidate is still gainfully employed, then these have to be very carefully done, but indirect references are usually where you get the most candid feedback. Try to find people that the candidate has directly worked with in the past, either directly or indirectly, and get them on the phone.

Use the company's resources to find appropriate candidates. Ask in Slack whether anyone has any contacts at the candidate’s previous workplaces. Lastly, look on LinkedIn to find appropriate people. Use Connect to find their email addresses if necessary.

Once you have them on the phone, follow the script above.