Friday, March 15, 2013

Reference Check Candidates

One of the most important aspects of hiring someone is to properly reference check them.  Although the interview gives you some solid information on the candidate, the people who worked with them directly know their strengths and weaknesses most.  This post covers how to efficiently and effectively reference check employees for a startup.

Talk to multiple people
You should talk to 3-5 references for most hires.  The references should be people who worked directly with the candidate, rather then people merely at the same company at the same time.  It is a plus if at least one of the references is a former manager.

Set context for the call
Explain to the reference what your company does and the role the candidate is being considered for.  This helps the reference answer your questions through the lens of the role to be filled. 

Ask the reference to set context on how they worked with the candidate, so you know if they worked together directly or not (in which case, their feedback may not be as useful).

If possible, backchannel a subset of the references
Since people often use their friendliest co-workers (or just plain friends) as references, you may not get a real view into the candidate.  Business people are the worst offenders on this - they will often talk about how amazing a person is even though they never worked directly with them.

If the option exists, find people (you already know and trust) who have worked directly with the candidate in the past.  They may have additional insights on how well they completed their past duties.  You need to do this discretely - e.g. don't call their current boss to ask how good they are thereby screwing over the candidate, or alternatively causing their existing employer to make a big counter offer.  If in doubt, err on the side of caution and doing what is right for the candidate (i.e. don't cold call random people to ask about the candidate).

Come to the call prepared with specific questions
  • If you are worried about an area of weakness from the interviews (e.g."does this person work well with others?"), use the reference checks to get more data.
  • Have a list of questions written down that you want to ask and areas you want to probe in.  I have a generic Google Doc that I print out for each interview, to which I add a few candidate specific questions.  I like to include questions focused on (non-exhaustive):
    • Culture fit
    • Smarts / raw intellect
    • Ability to GSD
    • Ability to deal with uncertainty
    • Determination & drive
    • Willingness to do grind through crappy work for the good of the team (this is important in a startup as crappy work is inevitable)
    • Contributions in current role (what did they actually do themselves?)
    • What do they do well?
    • What can they improve on?
    • How do they resolve conflicts?
    • How pragmatic are they?
    • For managers, there is a whole set of questions on their management style.
Rephrase the same question multiple ways
Often the references the candidate provided are their friends.  Or, it is a long time co-worker who doesn't want to say anything bad about the candidate.  By asking the same question multiple ways, you sometimes get more information from the reference, or the real answer emerges.  As an illustrative example, for productivity you can ask:
  • How would you rank Sarah relative to other people you have worked with in terms of raw productivity?  What percentile would she fall under?
  • Is Sarah one of the 3 most productive people you have ever worked with?  If not, is she in the top 5?  Top 10?
  • What is an example of Sarah being very productive at work?  How does that map to her day to day behavior?
  • When has Sarah not come through on something at work?  What was the reason for it?
  • Has Sarah ever bottle necked the team?  If so, what were the circumstances?
The above is meant as an example only.  The key takeaway is by probing for the same thing multiple ways, you often get to a richer answer and perspective.  On some reference checks I have done the tone has changed from the first such question "Yeah, Bill is great" to dramatically different by the last one "It is really hard to depend on Bill sometimes".

Anatomy of a phone call
  • Set quick context.  What does your company do?  What role is the candidate being considered for?  What skills are needed for the role?
  • Ask how the reference knows the candidate.  How long did they work together?  How closely did they work together?
  • Run through your list of questions.
  • Give the reference a chance to summarize at a high level their view of the candidate at the end of the call, or ask you questions.  Alternatively, you can synthesize your takeaways from the call and see if the reference agrees to your summary.
The above should take 5-15 minutes total.  The best and worst candidates often have the shortest calls.

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