Use References the Right Way

by Jeff Hyman, Founder of Recruit Rockstars

I dodged the bullet. Just months before writing this book, I identified a candidate for a senior vacancy at a private equity-funded company in the business services category. The company does about $100 million in annual revenue, and this was a vital role. My client was the CEO, who retained me to help him find a new head of sales. We did a ton of research and evaluated nearly 200 candidates.


One of the candidates lives in Chicago, as I do. He did exceptionally well in the interviews and was a great match in terms of competencies. His interest level in the role was high, and he viewed it as a step forward in his career. I had a high level of confidence that I would present him to my client as a semi-finalist, and they’d have a love connection.


Since we live in the same city, I figured we must have some people in common in our networks. I got to work using LinkedIn and, sure enough, found dozens of mutual connections. In particular, two were people I know very well, and who had worked closely with this candidate for years. Early on a Thursday evening, I sent them each a text asking if I could chat with them the following day for a few minutes about a candidate I was considering. Both of them said they’d be happy to, and coincidentally asked, “By the way, who’s the candidate?” I texted his name.


Within moments, they responded with virtually identical messages.


One said, “Run, don’t walk, in the other direction.” The other said, “I wouldn’t touch him with a ten-foot pole.”


I nearly spit out my Cabernet. I asked them, “What am I missing? What’s the issue?” Both told me that the candidate had just been terminated for cause, due to major ethics issues. Of course, he neglected to mention this during our interviews. It turned out that he had lied, saying he wanted to find something different, that he was bored.


While not always the case, people who resign from a position before lining up their next role wave a bright yellow flag. In general, Rockstar candidates don’t give up their current post until they find something they’d like to do next. In this case, both of my connections validated his bald-faced lie. Therein lies the power of backdoor references: to find out the cold hard facts about a candidate, and to validate what we’ve been told thus far.


Reference checking is a step that many executives skip, and they’re playing with fire. It’s time-consuming, a hassle to schedule, and—I’m convinced—conflicts with the egotistical pride we hold in our decision-making ability and judgment. Unfortunately, Test Drives are imperfect and interviews are even worse.


So, we simply must use references. But if you’re going to do it, you might as well do it the right way to get the most out of them. I’ve learned the hard way to “trust but verify” every single candidate before making an offer. Remember the goal of this entire recruiting process—it’s to de-risk the hire. Most of the time, candidates tell you their version of the truth. Whether they are purposefully deceitful or unintentionally naïve, you need to get the full story in order to make the best possible hiring decision. And sometimes, it’s as blatant a lie as the one above. I saved myself a world of hurt with two quick texts.


Naturally, candidates present things in the best possible light. Sometimes, their perspective is different from their hiring manager’s, though, which is why you must call the previous supervisor to hear both sides of the story. And to validate the facts you’ve been told through the recruiting process.


Reference checks, by the way, are only useful if they’re done prior to making your hiring decision. Don’t use them to check a box after the fact. If you’re going to invest the time anyway, do so prior to deciding so that you can use the information you glean as a factor in your decision making. If you’ve done your job well during sourcing, interviewing, and Test Driving, references won’t change your mind often—perhaps just 5 percent of the time. There shouldn’t be many surprises at this late stage in the game. But on the occasion they do, you’ll save yourself another bad hire and remind yourself of their value. I know it’s painful to invest all that time—months often—with a candidate who seems ideally suited for the role and for your culture. And then you check references, only to find it was all an illusion. You invested that time for nothing, and you’re resentful. You’ll be tempted to look the other way and ignore what you heard from the references. You’ll rationalize their commentary. Don’t do it. When that bad hire starts to disappoint you and you’re forced to part ways with them, you’ll regret not heeding the references.


Equally important to verifying information, references can give you information that will help you lead and manage the person to get the most out of them. Even Rockstars need to be led, each one coached in their own unique way. I’ve learned to view reference checks as a shortcut that will save me time later. It’s become a valuable time investment, not a hassle. Even if the references do nothing but confirm what I found in the interviews, they provide powerful ways for me to help my newly hired Rockstars excel.


All this said, reference checks are one input into the final decision. Do not allow one bad reference to dissuade you. Not everyone fits into every environment or clicks with their manager perfectly. Look for patterns. If there was one manager they didn’t get along with, one company culture they didn’t fit with, that might be okay. One instance doesn’t make a trend. That’s why it’s important to check several references. I’ll check as many as time allows, but always at least four.

As a bonus—or better yet, a reward for your persistence—reference checking is a great way to identify additional outstanding candidates. Rockstars know Rockstars, right? Often, the reference may be someone you want to add to your team—now, or in the future. Don’t be shy: Ask about their career aspirations and current situation.


If you build a good rapport during your conversation, references will often suggest, “You also ought to talk to this guy. He would be great in that role, too.”


In general, Rockstars love the fact that you’re reference checking, while B- and C-Players don’t. Rockstars are able to produce their references quickly and are eager for you to speak with them. I’ve had candidates, after our interview, unprompted, email me a list of twenty references, every person they’ve ever worked with. That speaks volumes about the confidence this person has in what these people are going to say. I love referenceability, and value it as much as what the actual references say.

Similarly, if someone makes excuses for not providing references, it raises a red flag. You’ll hear excuses like, “We lost touch,” or “I don’t know where he is,” or “She’s not allowed to give references.” The candidate I mentioned earlier had told me his company had a policy not to give references. Sometimes, that’s true because companies fear legal recourse if the person in question doesn’t get a job after a negative reference, but you’ll find that Rockstars’ managers will often talk to you anyway. They’re almost always happy to give a great reference because, legally, there’s nothing for them to fear.


If a candidate gives excuses instead of phone numbers of his former supervisors, move on. You want the least risky hire possible. If a candidate is not referenceable, you’re taking on too much risk. I may be bypassing a Rockstar, but I’m more worried about allowing a B-Player onto my team. This is why it’s crucial to always have a backup candidate. It’s painful to spend months on this process and end up with one candidate who turns out to be non referenceable. Sadly, most executives look the other way and still proceed with the hire, and that’s trouble.


Throughout the interview process, keep track of every name the candidate drops. Write them down—their managers, peers, staff, customers, vendors, investors, partners, advertising agencies. When it’s time to check references, ask to speak to so-and-so who the candidate mentioned he’d worked with on a project. It’s fair game. Look to see who’s missing from the reference list that the candidate mentioned throughout the interviews. It’s telling.


If they’ve held ten or more roles over the course of their career but can only produce two or three managers, that tells you something. Study the ratio of managers that candidates provide and the ones they can’t produce as references, and use this information to inform your decision making.


The reference check can be an invaluable tiebreaker between your final two candidates. Go into it with the mindset that you’ll be willing to change your mind if you hear something troubling about one of your candidates. If you can’t do that, you’re just going through the motions and wasting your time.


Contact references before the offer is made. That sounds obvious, but half the time, my clients either skip it or do it after they’ve already extended the offer.


Want to delegate reference checking to someone else, such as your human resources team? Sorry. In my view, the hiring manager must do the reference checks, particularly since they’ll obtain invaluable insights into how best to lead the new hire. And don’t delegate reference checks to an outside recruiter; that is a conflict of interest. The recruiter has invested lots of time by this point and wants to get the ball across the finish line. The last thing they want to do is to uncover a problem at this point in the process. Also, they’ll never care quite as much as you do. That said, I’ll do the reference checks for my clients if they’re too busy. But I have a twelve-month placement guarantee, so I need to get the hire right just as much as they do. Many search firms don’t have a placement guarantee—or a brief one—so they’ll never need to eat their own cooking.


So, who to speak with?

Front-Door References

These are the references the candidate has provided. Ask the candidate to help you set up these meetings. Request a list of references with each one’s role, relationship, email address, mobile phone, and LinkedIn profile. Then ask what you should expect to hear from the reference. Say, “I’d rather hear it from you first.” This usually compels the candidate to be transparent about anything not so glossy that happened in that role. As I have the phone call with the reference, I can ask about whatever negative circumstance the candidate mentioned. A lawyer never puts a witness on the stand without knowing what they’re going to say.


Just as during the interview phase, you’ll want to focus on managers from the past ten years; going back into ancient history reveals little usable data. You may not be able to speak to their current manager, especially if their job search is confidential. Give them a pass on that one. You can even give them a pass on one other manager—someone they never clicked with, or a company they regret working for. But in general, they should be able to provide the majority of direct managers over the past decade. Don’t take their first list at face value. If there’s someone missing whom you expected to see, or want to see based on your copious interview notes, inquire.


You want to focus on direct managers because they can provide data no else can. Only a manager can tell you how your candidate performed relative to the manager’s expectations, and compared to others on the team at the time. Only a manager can tell you how the candidate compares to everyone else she’s ever hired. Only a manager can tell you about the difficult discussions that occurred behind closed doors.

If the candidate is just out of college and hasn’t had a manager, speak with their professors, coaches, and fraternity chair. Friends, relatives, and classmates are a waste of your time.


Peers and co-workers can be useful, but primarily in the realm of collaboration. Staff can lend useful insight into a person’s leadership and management style. Peers can speak to communication style and what it’s like to work with the person. Customers can be useful, too, especially in public-facing roles like sales or customer service. Customers can tell you if your candidate added value to their business. Vendors can be useful; they will give you some insight into how the candidate treats others. If I’m hiring someone in accounts payable, finance, or accounting, I’ll speak with vendors they’ve worked with in the past. I want to see that they partner with vendors to solve problems and advance the business.

Backdoor References Are Even Better

Backdoor references are gold. These are people you find on your own—names the candidate didn’t provide. They’re the most revealing and useful, and a wise investment of your time.

Some wonder if this is ethical or legal. Absolutely. It’s standard procedure, in fact. We’re not talking about asking questions that are illegal or untoward. Veteran headhunters do this all the time; it’s part of our standard process. It should be part of yours, as well. That said, use extreme discretion to not breach confidentiality if the candidate’s job search is not public.


By now, LinkedIn should be your best friend. Learn how to use LinkedIn’s Advanced Search function. It gives you the ability to track down former managers, co-workers, customers, competitors, the media, etc. All kinds of people will surface.


Tell them: “You weren’t given as a reference, but I noticed on LinkedIn that you’re connected to John. I’d really appreciate a few minutes of your time, before I make this important hiring decision.” Explain who you are and emphasize discretion.


If more than a few handful of people are hesitant to chat with you, that’s indicative of something.

Key Questions

Once you have a reference on the phone, thank them for connecting with you. Tell them you need just fifteen minutes and that everything will be held in confidence—you’re not going to share their feedback with the candidate (and honor this, of course). Tell them you’re looking for themes and patterns. You can say, “I’ve almost made my decision. This phone call is a good way for me to confirm my decision and learn the best ways to get the most out of him.” That disarms the interaction and allows for a more candid reference.


Here are the questions I recommend, in the following order:

  1. “Give me some context. Tell me a bit about how you worked together. When was that?” You’re seeking confirmation of the dates and reporting structure.
  2. “Tell me a bit about the role they were in.” Again, we’re validating the scope of the role that the candidate described.
  3. “As you know, I’m talking to (candidate’s name) about a (type of) role. It will require these competencies (list the three to five key competencies from the Scorecard). To begin with, how would you say she rates on those competencies?”
  4. “What metrics did you use to measure her performance? Was she measured on revenue growth, cost reduction, number of new customers signed, etc.?” This will provide insight into what she was asked to do in that role and how that compares to what you’re going to be asking of her.
  5. “How did she achieve these results? How was her performance?” Don’t accept generalities; keep digging. You are looking for specific examples.
  6. “At the time you worked together, what were her strengths and weaknesses?” Define strengths as areas where she was in the top 10 percent. “In what areas would you say she’s in the bottom 10 percent?”
  7. “How did she compare with the rest of your staff? Was she in the top 5 percent? Top 50 percent?”
  8. “Tell me about what led to her departure.” We’re looking for why and when she left the company. And importantly, whether the facts presented align with what the candidate shared earlier."
  9. “What’s the one thing she could have done to be more effective?” Don’t fill the awkward silence. If they say they can’t think of anything, say, “It’s okay, I don’t mind waiting a moment while you think about it.”
  10. If you’re filling a manager role, ask: “How would you describe her as a leader of people? What’s her style? How did her staff respond to her?”
  11. “Would you enthusiastically re-hire her again today?” I’m looking for “definitely” or “absolutely” without hesitation.
  12. “On a scale of 1 to 10, compared to all the people you’ve ever hired, how would you rate her?” You want to hear “8, 9, or 10.” Anything less than an 8 is a red flag, because they’re likely being generous.

Reference checking must be done in a phone call. People will not put negative things in writing, so don’t try to cut corners with a reference check via email. Keep the call to fifteen to twenty minutes and offer to return the favor any way you can.

The Necessity of Background Checks

A background check is different from a reference check. They’re used to validate the candidate’s education, criminal history, credit history, drug use, etc. Fortunately, this previously costly process is now a modest investment for all new hires. I recommend HireRight based in Irvine, California; they’re relatively inexpensive and fast.


In my experience, 2 percent of background checks at this stage will identify a deal-breaker issue. It’s heartbreaking. Early this year, I nearly placed a phenomenal candidate in a VP of marketing role. She had great interviews, a kickass Test Drive, outstanding reference checks, and an MBA from a top school. The background check, however, revealed that she never graduated from her undergraduate program; she was just a few credits shy. Here’s the kicker: Had she told us this in advance, we would have paid it no mind. Education is not highly predictive of success, remember? But once we learned of this omission, her entire story was then thrown into question. What else wasn’t she telling us? We’ve all seen CEOs let go after it’s been revealed that they lied on their résumé about a degree. The most common issue is that someone studied at a school but never completed the degree. Sometimes, you’ll miss this subtlety on their résumé; other times, the résumé incorrectly states that their studies were completed.

Buyer beware.

About the Author

Author Profile pic

Jeff Hyman launched his recruiting career at Heidrick & Struggles and Spencer Stuart, the preeminent global executive search firms. 

Today, he’s CEO of Chicago-based Recruit Rockstars. Along the way, Jeff has created four companies, backed by $50 million in venture capital. 

Based on his 25 years in recruiting, he authored the bestselling book Recruit Rockstars.

Jeff also hosts the five-star Recruit Rockstars Podcast and is featured frequently by CNBC, Inc, Fortune, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg. 

He holds degrees from Kellogg School of Management and The Wharton School. 

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