The art of reference checking

You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do.

—Henry Ford

Reference checking is a crucial part of recruiting a great team. However, most startups do it in a cursory and casual way after making a hiring decision. Courtesy of Amy Vernetti, here’s a short course on reference checking to improve your results.

The reference goal is not to disqualify a candidate but to look for consistency in how the candidate represented himself and what his connections have to say. You are also looking for clues about whether the candidate can be effective at your startup.

To get a complete picture of a candidate, you should speak with at least two subordinates, two peers, two superiors, and two customers. Investors or board members of his current company are also exciting references; These are suggested questions:

How do you know this person? How long have you known him?

What are your general business impressions of him?

You can't build a reputation on what you're going to do.

How would you rank him against others in similar positions?

What contributions has he made to the organization?

How do others in the organization view him?

What are his specific skills? What is the best/worst at?

What are his communication and management styles?

In what areas does he need some business improvement?

Is he capable of functioning effectively in a small organization?

How would you comment on his work ethic?

Would you hire/work for / work with him again?

Should I speak with anyone else about him?

In addition to following Amy’s suggestions, you should get unsolicited references from other people the candidate did not provide. LinkedIn is excellent for this. Find someone who knows someone at the company and check out the candidate via her.

Here’s an important question:

Should one be honest about his startup’s weaknesses as well as his strengths?

A: Let us get this straight: You’re wondering if you should lie to candidates, knowing that if they take the job, they’ll eventually discover that your startup sucks?

Always tell it like it is. Lower their expectations. You’ll encounter three types of responses to your candor:

Some candidates need only an honest assessment of any problems. Chances are, they want to know what they’re getting into, and you won’t scare them.

Other candidates want the challenge. For them, problems are opportunities. It would be best if you told this type, “People like you will make us successful. Can you step up and be a hero?”

You will scare off the third kind of candidate. This person wasn’t well suited to a startup, so you’ve done yourself a favor.

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