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How To Use Reference Checks As a Hiring Superpower

Dec 13, 2021 | Business

Over the lifetime of our company, Bolt has done over 10,000 reference checks. Crazy, right?

Not really. We’ve found them to be the most powerful tool in our talent arsenal. References are important for three reasons:

  1. Evaluation: References provide us with critical information
  2. Alignment: References create a tighter hiring process
  3. Communication: The process of reaching out to references gets the candidate excited about the company

Number three may be counterintuitive. Here’s what I mean: The depth of a reference call makes all the difference. A simple checklist of questions is annoying, bland, and cumbersome. Thoughtful two-way questions are essential. Candidates step back and say, “Wow. If the company cares about me this much now, imagine when I’m there.” This is big.

One important note before we dive in: For every hire, ask for three references. The first should be someone to whom they reported. The second should be a peer. The third should be someone they managed. This will give you a 360-degree view of the candidate.

Here are some questions I use:

Question 1: What is your professional relationship with <candidate>?

Also ask what the candidate has told the reference about Bolt and the position at the company. This will allow you to give any necessary background information about your  company and the job you’re hiring for.

This question breaks the ice and subtly gets the referencer excited about your company. Here’s a secret: If this person is a reference for someone you want to hire, chances are good that they’re likely a pretty strong candidate in their own right! This can be helpful down the line. Additionally, the reference will likely speak to the candidate after your call. Crushing the casual pitch can help you nail two birds with one stone.

Question 2: Tell me what it’s like to work with <candidate>.

You can get a lot of information from an open-ended question like this. Instead of diving right into specific questions, stay vague. Let the reference speak in order to get as much  information as you can.

Questions 3/4: Over the course of your career, how many <role name> have you worked with who have comparable experience? How would you rank <candidate name> among those people?

Try to get specific numbers. Another secret: I’ve NEVER heard someone describe a candidate as “bottom 50 percent.” Everyone is always “at the top.” Mathematically, that obviously can’t be true. Dig in to figure out how “top” they are—are we talking top 50 percent, top 10 percent, or top 1 percent? There’s a big difference between those answers.

Questions 5/6: What makes them one of the top 10 percent of people you’ve seen in this role?

This is another way of asking about strengths and weaknesses, but with real data points. It will lead to better answers.

Question 7: If I were reading this candidate’s peer reviews, what is an area of improvement that I might uncover?

This is yet another way to ask about possible areas of improvement. It is safer to ask this because this person is clearly a trusted friend. Asking about peers allows them to put their own identity and thoughts aside.

Questions 8-12: How well did <candidate> get along with their co-workers and management?

What kind of personalities did they work well with?

On a scale from one to five, how coachable are they? Why did you give them that score?

While you worked with them, where did you see the most growth?

These are pretty straightforward but important questions. Coachability and ability to work well with others are both critical to any successful teammate—particularly managers. Always make sure to ask about these essential traits.

Question 13: If <candidate name> were to join us, how would we best set them up for success in the first 90 days?

If you’re doing references on a candidate, you might as well prepare yourself for what comes next: Managing the person if they are hired. If you’re looking to get advice on how to manage and onboard someone new, the best person to ask is someone who has just worked with them—and that’s who you’re on a call with! This question ends up being one of the most valuable we ask.

Question 14: What is something you haven’t told me that you think we should know? Or, alternatively: What is a question that you think I should ask that I haven’t asked?

I like to start reference checks with an open-ended question and like to end with an open-ended question.

And that’s it!

If you do reference checks this way, they can be incredibly powerful. The person you spoke with will be blown away by your level of thoughtfulness. You will also come away with a much more accurate picture of the candidate you’re considering.

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