Making the most of the Reference Check as part of your hiring process

The past few weeks at Swym have been extremely busy for us on the hiring front, thanks to our focus on getting our founding team in Bangalore set up right. I am glad to finally be on the other side of that mission and couldn’t be more excited about the amazing group of folks we’ve managed to add to our team. The entire process was actually a very pleasant and fulfilling experience, and despite everything you read in the tech press these days, my conversations with the passionate candidates that responded to our job postings left me super bullish about the future of the startup ecosystem here. Yes, hiring is an extremely difficult challenge, but the talent is very much there and its a question of doing the right things to attract that talent and fine-tuning one’s approach to be able to effectively tap into that — that deserves its own post, maybe the next one I write will be on what we did to get lucky. Right now, I wanted to talk specifically about a couple of incidents that struck a chord with me.

One of our hires is a recent college grad, and had been working at another company for a few months before she had to take a break for personal reasons. And now that things were back on track on her personal front, she was ready to rejoin the workforce and reached out to Swym. We loved her passion and energy and thought she’d be a great fit but the early career break was unusual and had some open questions that we wanted more background on — and with her help, got an opportunity to talk to a couple of her references. One was a mentor at the previous gig, and another was her project advisor at college, folks with a very busy work schedule, I’m sure. And so, the very fact that both of them readily made themselves available to talk to me in this context was in itself a great sign of reassurance — and their very candid responses to both the strengths and weaknesses of the candidate gave us a lot more insight and context on the candidate than just the interview process. Its not like they painted an entirely rosy picture of their interactions and they obliged with a lot of examples when prompted but net-net, their readiness to want to work with her again was a clear endorsement.

The second situation involved a more senior hire, and we needed as thorough a validation as possible. He had worked at another startup that was known to me, and we felt he was a terrific fit for the role we had in mind. So it was very reassuring to get a very direct reference from none other than the CEO at the other startup, despite what am sure is a very hectic schedule for him — not only did he give the candidate a glowing endorsement with specific examples, but also had great advice for me on how to help him realize his full potential. It was a fantastic conversation that left me feeling really, really good about this latest addition to our team.

And last but not the least, there was the situation where I almost made a huge hiring mistake and it wasn’t a coincide that I had skipped the very important step of a reference check in his case. How we got into that mix or how we were lucky enough to quickly unwind from a potentially critical blunder is irrelevant to this conversation and I am glad it didn’t cost us any more than it did, but the key lesson for me was to make a firm commitment never to skip that step ever again.

Maybe its just me, but in recent times, it feels like the reference check for hiring has lost some of its sheen and become more of a formality on the hiring process checklist. As a startup, we typically wrestle with a three-pronged challenge on the hiring front — there is always an urgency to hire the best candidate we can find within a short time window, we have very limited means to accomplish that objective and at the same time, we need to minimize if not eliminate the likelihood of a hiring mistake. In that context, I cannot overstate the importance of the reference check. Be thorough during your interview process of course, but treat the reference check as a solid validation of what you learned from the interview and fill any gaps that you potentially identified —make sure you are talking to the right references, have a clear set of questions/topics you want to discuss with them (even better if the topics touched on examples from the past that the reference was aware of) and do a good job of articulating your expectations of the role. Good references truly want to help candidates find the right fit, and they are investing their time and putting their reputation at stake in that effort — all you need to do make it easy for them to help you find yours. Or not.