Thoughts on Reference Checks and How to Rock Them✌️

Mia Wähälä
4 min readApr 6, 2021


Here’s my download on how to rock a reference check and why it’s important to integrate this as a core part of your recruitment process.

Why Reference Checks Matter 🎯

In my view, reference checks are a crucial part of hiring success. You are hiring someone for their strengths, not their lack of weaknesses. Everyone will have their quirks. Being aware of them beforehand helps you set each other up for success from the beginning. Reference checks help with that.

You’ll also catch obvious oversights at a crucial stage. We often see what we want to see and look for what we know. Reference checks stress test your assumptions, at best also educate you about your own biases too.

Finally, having a cadence of reference checks sends a strong positive signal that you care about the existing team and about ensuring specific standards. Candidates like to be challenged and will feel even more proud to join if they had to prove they are worth belonging to your tribe.

The Five Elements of a Successful Reference Call

1 | Combine Direct & Backdoor References

Ask for two direct references from the candidate, ideally a direct manager and a peer to call. At the same time, do your research and try find two backdoor references too, just go about it with tact and respect to confidentiality.

2 | No Exceptions

Make reference checks a standard for everyone and communicate it clearly throughout the process and inside the team. Don’t exempt seniors. 🐒

3 | Chose Your Timing ⏰

Especially for inbound and referral candidates, you can consider doing reference calls before even deciding to interview. In most cases though, you can spend time on reference checks at the tail end of the process.

4 | Remove Fluff

Remember to pay close attention to separate fact from opinion 🕵️, as people like to talk positively about others consider removing any fluff, that is concretely around 30% of what’s being said to get to a true assessment.

5 | Get Specific

Reference letters can be useful but you’ll get far more insight over a call. Don’t forget to get as specific as possible and ask for detailed examples, not generalist sweeping statements.

Top 9 Questions to Ask in a Reference Call 🗣

You can use some of these as a base to structure your call. For a ten minute call you probably won’t have time to tackle everything, and that’s not the point. 👈

If you get your team to get a more standardised approach to what is asked in a reference call, you are already making progress! I’m referring to candidates as “them/they”, and in italic I have some further comments on what the question is relevant for.

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1. How did you work together and for how long?

Here you’re trying to understand how close of a working relationship it was. It determines the qualify of reference and how much you can rely on information overall.

2. In your opinion, why did they leave the company? Knowing what you know, would you have done the same if it had been you?

You’re looking for cross checking the story of why the candidate left with another perspective.

3. What one thing do I need to get right to make them successful with us? What can’t they deal with, any particular tasks / behaviours / atmosphere?

This is a neat summary of why you are doing the reference calls in the first place. You need to know what resources you need to make them successful with you, if you believe you are able to give them what they need balanced against the company needs.

4. How were the more difficult projects organised and executed? What was the default approach to new high pressure challenges or problems?

You want to understand how the manager or peer experienced problem solving together, what obvious strengths and achievements stand out.

5. What areas of development were communicated to them? How was feedback received and what was acted on?

This can be a great cross check on some flags you might have picked up on during your process. You can also gage whether the candidate has an awareness and willingness to grow if there’s a reoccurring pattern of behaviour.

6. What sort of team mate were they, how would your team describe them and how they treat others?

You want to make sure the new team member will be a culture add on. It can be hard to get people to open up here, so inviting a shift in perspective can be helpful to get a more truthful answer from the previous manager or peer.

7. Out of all the people you worked with in this position would you say X is in the top 10%, the upper quartile, or in the 50%?

This is a very important question because it allows the reference giver to rank the candidate’s overall performance in a very concrete and tangible way.

8. Would you rehire them if you could? If yes, why so/ If not, why not?

This question is not only an important indicator of success but puts the referee on the spot to demonstrate if they’d be willing to invest resources in having this person on the team again. It’s interesting to find out why, there might be several reasons eg. reasons unrelated to the individual performance of the candidate.

9. Is there anything we missed or you’d like to add, what one thing you think we shouldn’t overlook?

This question is best left as open ended as possible, to allow people to open up. You might find the most interesting clues in a free flow at the end.

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That’s it, some of the basics you can use to get you started to build a great reference call as part of your hiring process. Hope some of that resonated.

As always, thanks for reading folks! 🚀