Here to get independent references for a job candidate

Edited excerpt from The Big Reference Check Scam! by Tim Sackett:

Stop accepting references candidates give you. Instead, during the interview ask for names of their direct supervisors at every position they’ve had. Then call into those companies and talk to those people. Even with HR telling everyone “we don’t give out references,” I’ve found you can engage in some meaningful conversations off the record.

Notes:
(1) Cf. How do to reference checks: Mark Suster.
(2) This is the final post (for now) on how do to reference checks for job candidates. You can see the entire series in the section Reference Checks in Best practices for startups — a list by topic.

When checking references, get each of these types

Edited excerpt from Anatomy Of A Reference Check by Tom Tunguz:

I find it’s valuable to speak to references who have worked with the candidate in different roles:

Peers provide fair feedback. They often competed or worked closely together and are often the most impartial checks.

Managers offer the best insight on day-to-day interactions and work quality.

Direct reports tend to be a bit more positive than others. But they provide insight about culture, team building and mentoring.

Close colleagues are the least valuable checks. Friends at work don’t have much direct experience to share save for personality.

How to interpret negative feedback from a job candidate’s references

Edited excerpt from How to Make Better Reference Calls by Mark Suster:

You need to be careful about how you actually interpret references. If you get somebody who doesn’t say totally glowing things about your candidate:

  • Think critically about whether that person may have biases that led him to the conclusions he has about your candidates;
  • Ask other people about those specific qualities that the reference said weren’t good – even if you have to call back people with whom you’re already spoken;
  • Understand whether any negative information is something that would stop you from wanting to hire the person. Everybody has weaknesses.

Notes:
(1) Cf. A simple rule for interpreting references for a job candidate.
(2) “Understand whether any negative information is something that would stop you from wanting to hire the person” — cf. The goal of checking a job candidate’s references.

A simple rule for interpreting references for a job candidate

Edited excerpt from 3 Essential Steps to Doing a Thorough Reference Check by Jeff Markowitz:

It’s hard to predict anyone’s failure or success in a given role, but I’ve found that references tend to be overly kind during a reference call. Roughly speaking, if you downplay positive feedback by 30% and amplify negative feedback by the same amount, it should give you a pretty good picture of the candidate.

Startup founder errors to avoid: not checking job candidates’ references

From Nine common things that start-up founders tend to underestimate or overestimate by Boris Wertz:

I’m always surprised at how often people still get hired without extensive reference checks. When you’ve got a good feeling about someone, it’s tempting to just move ahead without any kind of due diligence. But informal reference checks can be very revealing, particularly if you can talk to people that weren’t provided by the candidate, but know him or her very well.

Notes:
(1) “People still get hired without extensive reference checks” — perhaps because “by the time the hiring manager is calling she is often already pre-disposed to hiring the candidate”. See The goal of checking a job candidate’s references.
(2) Re. “informal reference checks can be very revealing, particularly if you can talk to people that weren’t provided by the candidate” — see How do to reference checks: Mark Suster.

Tom Tunguz on reference checks: Questions to ask

Edited excerpt from Anatomy Of A Reference Check by Tom Tunguz:

— Where does the referenced person shine? What kinds of work did the referenced prefer to do?
— What kinds of people does the referenced need around him/her to be successful?
— How is the referenced persuaded or convinced? What kinds of motivation does he/she respond best to?
— What is it like to work with the referenced day-to-day? How would you characterize your typical interactions?
— Would you hire or work with this person again? How highly do you regard this person? Top 25%, 10%, 5%, 1%?

Notes:
(1) I’ve excerpted the questions which I think are most interesting. Tom’s post includes a complete check list of questions, and is worth reading.
(2) “Would you hire or work with this person again?”. This is similar to a question I asked when hiring senior people for Seeking Alpha: “If you were starting your own startup and you needed someone in this role, would you want this person to be part of your team?”.

The goal of checking a job candidate’s references

Excerpt from How to Make Better Reference Calls by Mark Suster:

Seek “disconfirming evidence”

The strange thing about most reference calls is that by the time the hiring manager is calling she is often already pre-disposed to hiring the candidate. Most people delay reference calls until that point both due to expediency of time (why make phone calls unless you think you might hire the person?) and in fairness to the employee (why call a bunch of people and then not hire him – leading others to wonder why he didn’t get the job?).

I agree with the goal of waiting until late in the process. But the problem is that by the time you actually call people you really WANT to hire the candidate. So often people who do reference calls ask softball questions. That’s not your job. Your job is to seek “disconfirming evidence” meaning you go in with the assumption that Stacy is great but you want to be sure there isn’t something you totally missed.

How to ask the right questions when checking references

Edited excerpt from 3 Essential Steps to Doing a Thorough Reference Check by Jeff Markowitz:

Ask open-ended questions and get specific examples (e.g., “How would you describe the person’s leadership skills?”), not yes or no questions. Most importantly, don’t settle for vague answers such as “He/she is an experienced leader.” If you get an answer like that, ask the reference for an example of the candidate’s leadership skills in a specific situation. If the reference can’t think of one, then you should seriously question the relevancy of the reference.

As much as possible, always seek specific information about the candidate’s work and actions rather than generalities.

Notes:
(1) “Ask open-ended questions” — this is one of the principles of asking questions generally. See How to ask great questions and Don’t ask multiple choice questions.
(2) “Always seek specific information about the candidate’s work and actions” — compare this to best practices in interviewing, in How to run a job interview.

Tom Tunguz on reference checks: How to find out about someone’s weaknesses

Excerpt from Anatomy Of A Reference Check by Tom Tunguz:

Asking for weaknesses tends to put the referencer on the defensive, as if he or she is sharing something illicit. Instead, I ask the referencer the question below. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. And most jobs require teamwork. The best team members complement each other’s weaknesses. This is an indirect path at reaching the same answer. It doesn’t always work, but it’s my preferred route. I spend the most time of the interview on this question:

What kinds of people does the referenced need around him/her to be successful?

Notes:
(1) Cf. Hanan Lifshitz’ approach: “After conducting dozens of reference checks filled with over-optimism, I found the best way for breaking through the praise is to say: “Listen, none of us are perfect; I have weaknesses, you have weaknesses, everyone has weaknesses… Now, what are John’s weaknesses?” At that point the truth almost always comes out.”
(2) Cf. Scott Cook’s method for finding out about someone’s weaknesses — see How do to reference checks: Scott Cook.

How do to reference checks: Mark Suster

From Mark Suster on how to hire:

Yes, you need to call their references.  Expect them to sing their praises.  If a person doesn’t list the most positive references to begin with then you know they’re not worth hiring.  But you have to find a way to call people not on their list.  You need to be careful and respectful of them because it’s possible that their boss doesn’t know they’re interviewing.  But you have to find a way to get some info. Often you can find people if you learn to become a LinkedIn Ninja.

How do to reference checks: Scott Cook

From FirstRound Capital:

Intuit Co-founder Scott Cook is very particular about who he hires. And after 30 years, he has it down to a science — including how to get the truth out of a reference check.

The reality is that people want to be nice, so almost everyone will start out by saying how great the candidate is. Cook’s advice is to completely ignore this opening feedback. When they’re done, ask this: “Among all the people you’ve seen in this position, on a zero to 10 scale, where does this person rank?” If the person says seven, immediately ask why they aren’t a nine or a ten. “Then you’ll finally start learning what this person really thinks,” Cook says.

He also ends every call by asking the person for other people who could speak to the candidate’s performance. The further you get away from provided references, the more valuable the data.