Most seasoned entrepreneurs and business gurus advise to hire slow and fire fast. But in startupland, "slow" is not part of the vocabulary. The challenge in a startup is the need to hire the right person as quickly as humanly possible. That's obvious, but how do you do it?
Scheduling several interviews with various members of your team consumes valuable time with many people in your organization. Flying in the candidate (let's call him John) costs money. And an interview is a performance, a chance for John to showcase his talents and impress his future team and employer. Even in a series of interviews, you are not getting a full picture of what it is like to have John on your team. The best way to maximize your team's time and your company's money is to invest effort and time in reference checks.
Reference checks provide you with a snapshot of what John is like in various relationships and at various points in his career. Reference checks take less time than a series of interviews and do not require time commitments from other members of your team (they'll thank you later). They also can save you the costs of bringing John in if John's references do not check out to your satisfaction. But beware before you get started, for a name on John's reference list is going to be biased towards John. John asked his former colleague (and likely friend) to help, and his former colleague/friend will not disappoint. To effectively reference check John, do the following:
1. Ask for three types of references--a direct report, a boss, and a customer--and preferably more than one reference for each type.
Even if John is not applying for a sales or customer-facing role, it is very important to know how he behaves and interfaces with customers. He may be interviewing for an engineering position, but in startupland, wearing many hats, John will inevitably interact with your customers and you should know before you hire him how he presents himself and represents his company when around customers.
2. Actually call the references.
A name on a reference list does not a reference make. Until you have a phone call with the reference, you are doing a disservice to your company and setting your team up to waste valuable time and money. It is very easy to email a reference, but very foolish. You need to hear the tone in the reference's answer to know the truth about John.
3. Dig deeper on your reference calls.
It is very easy for a reference call to be short and to-the-point with the reference providing the typical feedback: "John was very good at his job," and "I enjoyed working with John." It is also very easy for the reference to try to tailor his feedback to the company and role for which John is interviewing. Start the call by having the reference establish what his relationship with John is and avoid getting trapped into talking about your company and the position John applied for.
Then ask some one-two questions. One-two questions seem easy at first but come with a follow up question that forces the reference to pause, reflect, and give a real answer as opposed to a rehearsed response. Some examples:
One: Compared to all of the [sales/technical/admin/fill in the blank] people you have worked with, on a scale of 1-10 (1 being the worst; 10 being the absolute best), how would you rank John? / Two: What could John do to increase his score by 1 point? What would make John a 10?
One: What is John's greatest weakness? / Two: Name another one of John's weaknesses.
4. Find and speak with unlisted references.
With 10 minutes and a LinkedIn search, you can find your own list of direct reports, bosses, and customers that John did not provide on his reference list. Call them. Be sure that you do not conduct an unlisted reference call in a way to jeopardize John's current employment. Before I call an unlisted reference, I even ask ahead of time ("John, I have a LinkedIn connection who used to work at XYZ, can I give her a call?").
References get you to the truth the fastest, provided you dig deep and talk to the right people. Don't just hire slow; hire smart.