Anatomy of a Reference Check

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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.

  • Peers provide fair feedback. They often competed or worked closely together and are often the most impartial checks.
  • Managers offer the best insight on day-to-day interactions and work quality.
  • Direct reports tend to be a bit more positive than others. But they provide insight about culture, team building and mentoring.
  • Close colleagues are the least valuable checks. Friends at work don’t have much direct experience to share save for personality.

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.

  • Questions Where do you work? How long have you been there? What kinds of teams do you manage?

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.

  • Questions: How do you know the person being referenced? How long did you work with them? How did you work together? How long ago?

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.

  • Questions: What was the referenced’s role in the company? Could you share some examples of the kinds of work the referenced performed?

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.

  • Questions: Where does the referenced person shine? What kinds of work the referenced prefer to do?

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.

  • Questions: What kinds of people does the referenced need around him/her to be successful?

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.

  • Questions: How is the referenced persuaded or convinced? What kinds of motivation does he/she respond best to?

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.

  • Questions: What is it like to work with the referenced day-to-day? How would you characterize your typical interactions?
Ethics is a checkbox question. It’s uncomfortable to ask but important to rule out any bad actors.
  • Questions: Any questions of ethics?

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

  • Questions: Would you hire or work with this person again? How highly do you regard this person? Top 25%, 10%, 5%, 1%?

Suggestions?

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

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