Fixing The Reference Check

Reference Check


This is a guest post by Georges Janin, Founder of Bastille Agency, a recruiting and consulting firm in NYC. He runs a blog over at, where he covers a range of topics related to recruiting.


Reference checks have always amused me. Like my repeated attempts to learn salsa, they are both incredibly predictable and not particularly interesting. Yet we persist in doing it the same way.

Here is basically what happens with reference checks:

  1. Company asks candidate for references.
  2. Candidate finds people who like him, makes sure they will say glowing things in a reference check.
  3. Company calls said people.
  4. They say glowing things.

I mean, why do it in the first place? Don’t you have better things to do than a nearly pointless, completely orchestrated ritual? Unless the person is god awful, and I mean how-did-they-ever-get-a-job level of horrible, the reference really has no incentive to say anything all that truthful. And if that is the case, how did he slip throught the cracks in your interview process? So we continue with this weird drill, perhaps in an insecure attempt to comfort ourselves in the choice that we made to move the candidate this far in the process.

Yet it is an incredibly valuable step, when done well. It offers you a glimpse into a candidate that you will not see during a usual interview process.

 If you do anything, do this – 

  1. Don’t just get 2 references, get 4 or 5. Get people from all facets of this person’s life. Family and friends are fair game.
  2. Don’t look for glowing reviews. Look for congruence.

Before your start: Disarm the caller. She probably knows your candidate fairly well, and wants to help him get a new job. So she feels on the hook – and feels compelled to say nice things. You don’t need to hear more nice things, you need to get the real dish on this guy!

“We’ve been speaking with so and so, and we think he’s great. That said, we only got to know him during a few interviews…and we plan on spending most of our waking hours with him! So we are talking to a few people to get a better idea of who he is and make sure that he would be happy here.”

This should hopefully set the stage for a different sort of conversation. One that is more exploratory than confrontational, and seeks to find out how this person works than just whether he is “good” or “bad”.

Here are a few questions that can help you do a better reference check. Feel free to add them in, or build upon them.

What words come to mind when you think of this person?

This is a purposefully open ended question. You are trying not to get empty positive words like “awesome” but to establish a theme. What words are being used? Is there a theme? Is there a theme to words that are NOT being used?

Give me an example of this trait. 

Examples are not only great BS detectors, but are also great jumping off points for a more interesting conversation.

What does this person do well?

Same deal here – write all of those things on the same sheet. You are looking for congruence. These things might be different if you are interviewing a boss, a college roommate, or a little sister. But there ought to be a theme. And it should be related to the previous question.

When was a time when she did it?

Again, example question.

What role, other than this one, would you see this person play?

This is the third question in the same theme. It’s a little more “fun” in the sense that asks them to explore alternative career possibilities other than the one at hand.

What to do with all that info?

Watch out for gross inconsistencies: you want to make sure that the picture that is painted is cohesive. If that is not the case, then you need to dig deeper. Does the person know the candidate all that well?

Learn how you can help the new employee fit in: by getting an idea of how your employee works and thrives beforehand, you’ll be able to better predict pitfalls, and point them in the right direction.

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Interview Planning