The magic of reference calls

With six simple questions, you can unlock a hidden trove of information.

Haje Jan Kamps
Oct 13, 2019 · 4 min read

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?

What to ask?

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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?

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?


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.

Pitch Perfect

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Haje Jan Kamps

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Helping startups for a living and taking photos for fun.

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