The magic of reference calls
With six simple questions, you can unlock a hidden trove of information.
When I ran a company in the UK, reference calls usually extended to “Hey, did Mr Smith work with you from 2001–2003?” and the answer was either “We can’t give out that information” or “Sure, why not”. For the longest time, I thought that was the extent of what reference calls were good for.
How wrong I was.
These days, I would not even consider making an investment, hiring a staff member, or taking a job (or a serious freelance engagement) without doing three reference calls.
For this post, I will assume that I’m hiring someone, but the same logic applies to all other situations where you may need to call references.
Why do reference calls?
A reference call isn’t, as I originally assumed, to check whether your candidate is lying to you. I mean, it is that, too, but that’s not what it’s for. Instead, it is to get a deeper vein of questions to ask your interviewee.
What to ask?
The format is pretty simple — you’re going to need 15–20 minutes (although the very best reference calls run to 30 mins), and in my experience, these questions are plenty to go get a good conversation going:
- How long have you known X, and in what capacity? This question sets the baseline, and gives context for everything that comes next. Were they housemates? Coworkers? Were they a direct manager?
- What most positively surprised you about X? Start positive, let people get a bit of time to get warmed up. Take notes, you often get some really important information here.
- What do you think X could benefit from improving? It’s a fair question, and a chance for red flags to surface if they exist. Usually, nothing serious comes up here, and you’ll already know the type of issues that come up. That’s fine; nobody is perfect, the point is to go into things with eyes open.
- What do you wish you had known before you first worked with X? This is a beautiful one. Usually, positive things come up here. “I wish I knew that X was ridiculously good at scanning for issues at the earliest stages of a project. If I’d known, I’d have pulled them in earlier in the process”. If issues come up, that’s fine.
- What question do you wish I had asked you about X? This is the holy grail of interview questions, and I’m asking it at the end of every interview I ever do. 80% of the time, it’s met with a blank stare. The remaining 20%, it is the start of the most important part of the conversation.
- Is there anyone else I should talk about X with? Give your interviewee a chance to offer up a blind reference. Most of the time, the answer is ‘no’. Sometimes, you get a “I worked with X, but you really want to talk to Michael. They worked really closely together, I’m surprised you’re not talking to him.”
What to listen out for?
Once you’ve done a few reference calls, you’ll start learning that there’s a huge difference. For your very best candidates, the references will clear their calendar, and they will be effusive with praise — but not exclusively. Everyone has their quirks and idiosyncrasies — if none of them turn up in the reference call, then it’s likely that the reference is holding back or not being fully forthright. That doesn't necessarily mean anything bad — some people are just eager to help their friends — but in my experience, the best references are well-rounded and brutally frank.
Of course, remember that everyone has their own perspective, and the reference calls aren’t the Ultimate Truth — it’s possible you have called someone who has dynamics with the candidate that you aren’t aware of. Take everything — both praise and criticism — with a pinch of salt. But it’s also worth noting the things you find.
Anything that surprised you — positive or negative — go through it with the candidate on your next interview. “Hey, I didn’t realize you could do X! That’s great — tell me more about that” or “Something came up in a reference call — someone mentioned that you can be a harsh manager. Is that your style? How is that working for you? Do you think it is something you could work on?”
Who to call?
In my experience, the best format for calls is 2+1. Two references provided by the person / organization you are referencing. And one blind reference, or ‘back channel’ reference. The latter can be tricky, but it is usually really powerful. Use LinkedIn, find people you have in common, etc — get creative.
Haje is a pitch coach based in Silicon Valley, working with a founders all over the world to create the right starting point for productive conversations with investors — from a compelling narrative to a perfect pitch. You can find out more at Haje.me. You can also find Haje on Twitter and LinkedIn.