Anatomy of a Reference Check


Reference checks are part and parcel of the VC diligence process and most hiring processes. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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


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

Published 2013-04-04 in

Tomasz Tunguz is partner at Redpoint. I write daily, data-driven blog posts about key questions facing startups. I co-authored the book, Winning with Data. Join more than 20,000 others receiving these blog posts by email.

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