What I Get from Checking References

Over the years as I’ve checked prospective employees’ professional references, the responses I’ve gotten have included delight and surprise. Why? The approach I take and the way I pose questions to those providing references seems to be a bit different from the norm. My queries get to a valuable place and provide really good perspective on new potential hires.

NB: This does come from experience working primarily for technology companies in a competitive hiring environment, so other industries will offer other experiences or perspectives.

First off, you shouldn’t be using references to ascertain the skill level of a possible new hire. There are better ways to do that. Test your prospective employees with in-office assessments, pay for spec work on a project, and conduct the right kind of technical interview for the position (this applies to designers, marketers, analysts, engineers, or any job that requires a specific expertise). Likewise, If you’re using references to “find dirt” or confirm facts, you’re wasting an opportunity. Do a full blown background check using an outside firm. If you want to get additional insight beyond official references, do a search on LinkedIn or other social networks for mutual connections and talk to them.

What *should* you use references for?

This is the starting point for the fundamental difference in my approach.

Let’s start with an example and assume that you’ve done your technical interview and the candidate has passed with flying colors. You’ve established your leading candidate’s bona fides. The team has deemed it a good cultural fit. You’re close to making an offer. You want to ensure two things: that the employee signs this offer and that they are on board they will be both successful and happy. You want to hire someone who is going to stay for some time because searching, interviewing, and hiring takes a lot of time AND once folks come on board, they acquire valuable institutional knowledge that can be detrimental to lose.

So what do I ask?

There are four key lines of questioning.

  1. What makes this person happiest in the workplace? How I can I help them to be happy? What helps them to produce effectively and with joy?
  2. What things should I know about work style and process?
  3. What are some ways I can address specific issues that came up during the interview process? These issues are not stoppers, mind you.
  4. What can I and the company do to help the person grow overall, both in their chosen field and as a business person?

You may note the focus here is positive. Often times people are reticent to serve as a reference due to concerns they are going to be asked for negative feedback. When I begin the conversation and explain this will be the direction of the reference conversation, people audibly relax. If they are willing to serve as a reference, they obviously think highly of the candidate and want to help them. However, previous employers and co-workers also understand that none of us are perfect and that we’re all best served by managers, employers, and co-workers who understand how to help us achieve our best at work. By asking a reference these positive questions, you give them the freedom to open up and help both you and your potential hire.

Let’s take each of these in turn.

Workplace Happiness

This is a really provocative question. It forces the person answering the question to really think about an employee, their quality of work, the speed at which they do it, and the joy in which they accomplish it. I’ve gotten all manner of answers from “this person gets bored quickly, so find lots of challenges” to “they like to learn new things” to “they need a lot of in the moment feedback.” Those are all invaluable to setting up the tasks an employee has on their plate. I’ve also heard things like “this person likes a lot of routine, so set up structured tasks.” Soliciting specific examples helps me to understand ways to structure a work environment. A pair of headphones for the audibly sensitive is well worth the investment for an engineer who gets easily distracted. A shifted work day wherein someone leaves at 3pm, takes a break and resumes work later in the evening may pay dividends for a designer who needs to exercise mid-day to stay motivated.

Work Style and Process

When we get into process, it’s important to understand differing styles. Does someone need to work solo for a while and then have a check in, or might they want to have daily check-ins? You may find some people like thorough documentation while others will soak up a quick chat and move along from there. From your conversation, you’ll learn what adjustments you might need to make to your current process, or where you might have to encourage someone to work in a different manner. This means for some employees I have weekly check-ins that are formal sit down sessions and others grab me at times when they need help. While some managers believe employees should bend to them, it rarely produces awesome results — or any loyalty. It’s also good to understand how people prefer to communicate. Are they heavy into chat/messaging? Is email better? What about face to face? Knowing this before someone walks in the door means you can put the right tools into place.

Questions Based on the Interview

This is definitely the thorniest set of questions. I want to underscore that if you have reached the point where you are checking references, you should be really serious about hiring this employee. This set of questions is meant to clarify something you interpreted in an interview. In one case I interviewed an engineer who didn’t like to ship with too many known issues. Most engineers feel this way. So how much was this engineer going to push back in times when shipping may be a priority? What are the types of things he deemed unshippable? How about the analyst I wanted to hire who tended to spend more time on qualitative than quantitative research? Was this because of the demands of the previous job or a comfort level? Can they provide some context for the rationale of certain projects that the employee handled? While these aren’t make or break points in deciding to bring someone on (again, you’re well past that decision),it’s information that details where to spend coaching time with the new hire.

Personal Growth for the Employee

This is the most important set of questions, and it can feel nebulous to some people, so I provide examples of what I mean. I explain that growing an employee is about both technical expertise and general business acumen. What can they share with me in regards to this person? In some cases, people have suggested a potential employee be encouraged to attend meetups or go to classes to acquire additional valuable skills. Other times they’ve suggested specific types of projects.

The recommendations that arise most frequently center on soft skills.

I want this sentence to stand apart because it gets at the core of growing good business people. Especially in technology when people have good engineering, design, marketing, community, and analytical skills, the thing that makes candidates stand out from one another is the soft skills.

Specifically with regards to these, one of the most common recommendations is to teach people how to sell their ideas. They need to understand not only how to persuade, but how to research and provide the data and the story to get a team to see why one path is better than another. There are some recommendations that cut across certain categories of roles. Many designers, when providing a reference for another designer, will say something like “they get really wedded to a design so you may need to un-stick them.” For engineers I’ve heard “involve them more with product decisions so they can understand the big picture.” It can be as common as “they need to learn how to manage up better.” Obviously, these are generic, but you get the idea.

Then there are people who don’t want to move into a management track, so references have mentioned that these folks need to continue to feel valued in their role and to help identify room for satisfaction in that way. Some will suggest the prospective employee be cultivated as a people manager, others may suggest a path forward as a distinguished individual contributor. These are all very different ways to bring on an employee and to think about them in the long term.

These final questions tend to be received as more unusual than the others, but it also makes people happy. Recently,  in response to some inquiries for an engineering hire, someone commented “this is ambrosia to my ears.”

Final Steps

Once I’ve had about 3 conversations, I type up notes for the managerial team. This loops in not only me as the direct manager, but those to whom the individual in question will have dotted line responsibilities. In well run organizations, everyone is responsible for growing employees. Putting specific plans in place in advance and thoughtful hiring make it that much easier to onboard someone and to ensure their first weeks provide a smooth transition. It also provides an initial template for how to spend time coaching in those early weeks and sets the groundwork for the long term cultivation and retention of an employee.

In One Sentence

See the people you’re hiring as whole people.