Hiring is hard. Very hard. While all businesses are different, one common denominator of successful founders is the ability to hire well. Bringing on "A" players, and not bringing on the wrong people, can make or break any company. While there's no silver bullet when hiring, I've learned the hard way through trial and error how to ensure we're making great hires almost every time.
One of the most underappreciated parts of the hiring process is the reference check. Reference checks are often about checking a box. They're about going through the motions once you've already made a decision and covering yourself if the hire doesn't work out so you can tell your board "but her reference checks were amazing." This completely misses the point, and leaves so much on the table.
We've hired over 100 people at Triplemint and I've found three ways to make reference checks actually helpful. I'm mean really helpful. Helpful to the point of making hires we may not have made otherwise (who worked out well) and didn't make hires we may have made. We even hired someone that we met through a reference call. It's not hard to make reference checks a valuable hiring tool versus a box checking exercise if you follow these three simple steps:
1. Ask References For More References
I used to think of reference checks as a waste of time because I had never had a reference call that was critical of a candidate. Why would you? 100 percent of the people you actually want to hire are smart enough to have at least 2 to 3 references who will rave about them no matter what. If all your reference calls are completely one-sided, they really don't add any value.
Everything changed for me when I went to a private talk with Kevin Ryan (founder of Gilt Groupe, Business Insider and MongoDB) and he spoke about how reference checks were one of the most important parts of his hiring process. He had some really simple advice-- ask each reference for another reference.
If you continue to go levels deeper, asking each reference for someone else who can speak candidly about your candidate, you will eventually find a true impartial third party who will give you a genuinely critical perspective. Hey, if Kevin Ryan thinks it's a good idea it's probably worth a shot!
2. Consider Every Reference As a Potential Hire
If you've decided someone could be a good hire, there's a good chance the people at their past company that they list as references could be good hires as well. Since sourcing candidates is one of the hardest parts of hiring, thinking about references as potential hires immediately gives you a new built-in source of candidates. We've already made a key hire through this channel, and our pool of reference candidates is only growing.
Treating references as potential hires also helps you engage with them on a deeper level. Taking the time to truly explain your business and how you're thinking about the role you're trying to fill not only gives them an overview of your business, but it also helps them tailor their feedback and advice on the candidate based on your specific needs.
When you engage a reference in a conversation about your culture and values, the way they discuss the candidate fitting in with your company or not gives you a lot of information on whether the reference would be a good fit him or herself.
3. Ask the Right Questions
Not knowing which questions to ask is the top mistake I see people making, and the easiest piece to get right for effective reference calls.
The single most useful question I ask is "if you were me and you hired this person tomorrow, what would you do in the first 30 days to set him or her up for success?" This question forces the reference to think about the candidate in the context of their professional relationship and yields more honest answers as you aren't directly asking about the candidate him or herself.
Asking questions like, "does the candidate work well on teams?" begs for a standard answer of "yes." Instead, ask the reference to tell you about a specific time when the candidate worked on a team. Asking these case-style questions, just like in interviews, will not only give you more information on the candidate, but it will shed light on how the reference interprets "working well on a team."
Understanding the lens through which the reference interprets your questions is as important as what they actually say about the candidate.