Getting Reference Checks Right

Orin Davis
5 min readSep 19, 2019

Almost anyone can give a good performance at an interview, which means one cannot always tell if a great interviewee just puts on a fantastic show or is genuinely as fantastic as it seems. Resumes and cover letters are gussied up to look reasonably perfect, so those also aren’t much of a clue. But, does somebody reputable vouch for them? This is a much better question, and it’s usually answered by a reference check.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: if you call a recommended reference, you are going to get a good report. If you call someone without the individual’s permission, they are likely to follow the very safe policy of giving you nothing more than their dates of employment (anything else can get them in trouble).

So what’s the point of a reference check?

Reference Checks are a Second Interview

In most cases, when you check references, you are asking the reference for an outsider’s view on working with the person. You’re not looking for skeletons, or for whether the candidate is good or great, but for the reasons that the reference thinks the candidate is worthwhile. You can ask questions like:

  1. How do you know [candidate]?

2. What’s it like working with [candidate]?

3. How can [candidate’s] manager help [candidate] perform at [candidate’s] best? What kind of environment does [candidate] thrive in?

This tells you how the referee views the candidate’s work style and personality, and what you’re most looking for is a match with what you already saw in the interview. The big red flag here is if the reference says something positive that isn’t congruent with what you saw in the interview. For instance, if the reference tells you a candidate is always wonderfully organized but the candidate was all over the lot on interview day, it’s time to raise an eyebrow. To be sure, raising an eyebrow doesn’t mean dropping the candidate, but it does mean asking follow up questions of the referee, or even of the candidate, to find out why the interview performance wasn’t consistent with the reference.

The other purpose of questions like these is to find out whether the kind of culture in which the candidate thrives and has shown excellence matches the one in the company. As such, what you can listen for in the answers is for the referee to describe the candidate’s success in a firm whose culture is a lot like yours. And, with the last question, you’re asking whether the kinds of managers you have are the right kind for eliciting high performance from the candidate (and this should both match and be combined with the candidate’s answer to the same question).

As my longstanding readers know, I constantly advocate for learning about the uniqueness of others, so my next recommended questions go that route:

4. In your experience, what makes [candidate] unlike anyone else you’ve ever met?

5. Tell me a story about [candidate] at [candidate’s] best (in your view). (Similar to a serious introduction!)

Getting a sense of someone’s individuality provides a lot of clues about how the person will fit in as a member of the organization, and also the unique ways in which the candidate can contribute.

Other questions can be targeted to observations of the candidate’s performance engaging in specific tasks. For example:

6. Can you tell me about how [candidate] keeps things organized and gets things done? What’s [candidate’s] style?

7. Can you tell me about how [candidate] performed on [a project similar to one that will be done at this job]? (Probe for specifics, particularly with regard to intricate details that may differentiate between high and low performance.)

If there are any concerns that you have about the candidate, you can usually raise them here and ask something highly targeted. One common question I highly recommend is, “Describe a time when [candidate] had to receive constructive criticism. How did [candidate] implement the feedback?” Another typical question is, “How did [candidate] handle disagreement with a manager when [candidate] was correct?” Look for specifics in the story, and dig if they aren’t forthcoming. If a few follow up questions aren’t getting to the meat of the matter, and you think the issue important, ask the candidate for an additional reference.

I advise closing out the “interview” with two last questions:

8. Do you have any reservations about [candidate], or any advice about handling [candidate’s] limitations?

The majority of the time, I get some analog of “none” as an answer. Every so often, however, I’ll get a useful clue out of something (usually non-negative) that is said, such as “[Candidate] has been looking for a more senior position, so I want to make sure there is a lot of room for growth and promotion” or “Make sure that [candidate] gets protected solo time, as [candidate] does better with focused blocks.”

9. Do you feel that I have the picture of [candidate] that you want me to have?

I end regular interviews this way, too. I’ve found that people do not always present themselves as authentically as they would like in less organic situations (like interviews!), so I always want to make sure they have the chance to bring up aspects of themselves that they would like me to see, or to correct any mistaken impressions they think they engendered. This not only tells me how they see themselves, but also ensures that they feel comfortable with their interview performance (or the picture they painted during the reference check).

The Mechanics of a Reference Check

One of the most important things to keep in mind is that referees are busy people volunteering their time, and in many cases they are senior to the candidate (and possibly in a higher position in their respective companies than you are in yours). Where possible, keep it short (30 minutes maximum; 15 is better), and be grateful for their time.

Generally, you want three references so that you can compare notes. Expect positive answers, but what you’re most looking for is two things. The first is consistencies that reflect a positive pattern about the person that will fit well into the culture of your company. The second is incongruencies between referees’ answers relative to each other and relative to the candidate’s interview performance. Even in these positive aspects, people can disagree (e.g., quiet and cooperative vs. outgoing and cooperative).

But, what if I need to find out about past issues the candidate had?

If that’s really the main thing you need to spend other people’s valuable time to find out, the candidate should have more concerns about working for you than the other way around!



Orin Davis

Self-actualization engineer who makes workplaces great places to work. PI at Quality of Life Lab ( Consultant. Professor. Startup Advisor.