Reference checks are paramount. Past work success is one of the best predictors of future work performance. It might even filter better than your technical assessment. You should put more emphasis on reference checks. Here’s how to embed this into your recruitment process, from the start.

Let’s assume your recruitment process is the following:

  1. Pre screening call
  2. Onsite (or remote) technical interview
  3. Onsite meeting with the hiring manager
  4. Onsite meeting with the founder
  5. Meeting with the CEO
  6. Reference check

When you reach the reference check, you’ve already invested a lot of time into the interview process. Sunk cost fallacy kicks in, you’re just crossing fingers that the reference check is at worst above average so that you can shoot that offer email you drafted last night when your CEO gave the green light.

The process is suboptimal, too much time is lost, but you know that the candidate will not provide you with references until much later in the process, and you have ethical concerns with backdoor reference checks (rule of thumb: always make sure you have the candidate’s written consent before speaking to anyone — really do). How do you reconcile that?

Easy: ask this series of questions (the sooner the better — we recommend to have this in your pre-screening call):

As you must expect, there’s a reference check at the end of our process. We like to ask early so that it’s no surprise. In your case, who would you recommend we speak to?

[Candidate answers with the best reference check up his sleeve]

Thanks, apart from that person, who might we talk to at Company X? Maybe your boss or a colleague? [Try to dig where the person doesn’t want you to go, that’s where there is the most valuable insight. Don’t push this too much, keep the person comfortable]

[Candidate answers with 2–3 other names]

Okay, say I want to talk to John Doe. I won’t do anything without your written consent of course. Could you spell that name for me, just to make sure that we can refer to this later? [Make the person understand you will ask about it later in the process].

[Candidates spells the name]

  • Thanks. Now, what do you think John Doe would say about working with you? [Don’t make this personal — you want to assess the person’s work]

[Answer #1]

  • Thanks. Another question we’ll ask John Doe is “on a scale of 1 to 10, how much would you recommend working with the Candidate?”. I understand it’s tough to answer now but I’d really appreciate if you could give me an estimate. [Again, it can be pushy. Find a way to put the candidate at ease and let him understand it’s in his best interest]

[Answer #2: 6 and below are red flags]

  • Thanks a lot! And what do you think was missing for you to get a 10 out of 10?

[Answer #3: That’s the most valuable one]

That’s it! Almost everyone will be honest here, as they know you’ll really reach out to John Doe later. What’s also good for them is that they are able to justify themselves — all bad ratings are not necessarily a bad sign (“John Doe would probably give me a 1 out of 10 as I was the one to tell his boss he was embezzling funds”).

This tip is inspired by the awesome book Who — The A Method for hiring, more on that in our article “First time hiring? Here’s the five books you should read” — you should check this out even if you’ve been hiring for 10 years!