Naked Startup

The most important question to ask in a reference check



Co-Founder & COO at Contactually. Ex-Microsoft PM. Amateur social psychologist. Trying to be authentic & intentional every day. Slowly learning from my mistakes.


The most important question to ask in a reference check

We’ve hired over 80 people at Contactually to date, and plan on hiring another 40+ people before the year is out.  We’re growing fast and we need great people.

Before we make any hire, we always do a reference check.  We ask for three references — at least one of whom was a previous manager — and we call them up.

I think many companies view reference checks as the final box to check before making an offer.  They’re an after-thought, often done by a junior person on the team or a recruiter.  Nearly always, these reference checks are unstructured, unhelpful, and a wasted opportunity.

Reference checks, if done right, can be one of the best things you do in your hiring process.  You just need to ask the right questions.

Whenever I run a reference check, I ask the following:

  1. What was Tony’s chief responsibility at your company?
  2. On a scale of 1 to 10, where would you rate Tony’s performance?
  3. How many people were of similar experience/level at your company? Where would you stack rank him in that group?
  4. In this role, we’re looking for someone who’s good at X, Y, and Z. Which do you think would be the best fit with Tony’s skills and experience? Which would be the worst fit?
  5. Would you hire Tony again?  Why haven’t you done so in your new role? [assuming this hiring manager has moved onto another company]

We can debate whether these questions are the best to ask.  I won’t bother.  I can tell you that I’ve found them to be helpful.  Not only does it let me know whether a candidate’s a top performer, but it also sheds light on their fit for this particular role at Contactually.  Moreover, it indicates how well the reference actually knows the potential hire.

I’m always surprised at how many references will suggest the candidate is a mediocre hire.  Or say they wouldn’t be a good fit for the role.  I’ve even had references flat out tell me the candidate was a bad hire and they would never recommend hiring them.  I take all this feedback with a grain of salt, but it’s certainly a large grain.  (Side note:  only provide references you know will give you a great recommendation!)

But that’s not the point of this post.  I ask one final question in every reference check, and each time I find it to be insightful.

What should I know about Tony if I’m to be successful as his manager?

Most references find this question surprising.   Many have said they’re going to steal it for future reference checks they run.  I find it leads to a conversation that’s helpful for several reasons:

  • I gain direct insight into how to best manage the new hire.  Most previous managers will start answering this question by saying “don’t micromanage them.”  That’s a given.  I always try to dig a level deeper to understand what motivates the hire.  Is it public praise?  Hitting their numbers?  I want to understand what I need to do to ensure both the new hire and Contactually are gaining as much value as possible from this new relationship.
  • I get a better sense for where the new hire needs to develop further.  I never ask questions like “what are Tony’s weaknesses”.  Few references ever give a truthful answer.  But by asking what I’ll need to know to help make the new hire successful, references often volunteer traits or experiences they’ve found challenging in working with the candidate in the past.  This is a gold mine for further assessing fit for the role and with the greater team.
  • It further sells the candidate.  Most candidates provides references with whom they’re close.  They’re often friends.  And after each reference check, most references will circle back to the candidate with feedback.  By concluding the conversation with a question concerning the new hire’s success, I hope to sell the point that Contactually will be a place where the new hire can grow and prosper.  I want to remove all doubt that this is the right home for them.
  • I often develop a source of future referrals.  By asking thoughtful questions during the reference check — and ending the conversation on a high note — I try to demonstrate that Contactually is a great place to work.  I explain that we’re growing fast and making lots of hires across the team.  The conversation usually segues to asking “given what you’ve learned about us, do you know anyone else that would be a potential fit for future roles?”  90% of the time, a good reference will say yes — and I bucket them in Contactually to further nurture and ask for future referrals.

Hiring great people is hard and takes an enormous amount of time.  I understand why startups look for shortcuts.  But one shortcut you can’t afford to take is skimping on running great reference checks.  The benefits of a well-structured reference check far outweigh the costs.


Co-Founder & COO at Contactually. Ex-Microsoft PM. Amateur social psychologist. Trying to be authentic & intentional every day. Slowly learning from my mistakes.

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