Learn How to Make Your Reference Checks Awesome


“Can you believe it?” my wife asked me last night. “I have to fill out an essay because my friend asked me to be a reference.”

“Is she applying for college?” I asked.

“No, for a job!”

My wife was not very happy about having to spend the next 45 minutes writing an essay. Who would be?

Count me out if this is the latest HR trend:

I admit it. I am a dinosaur. I like making the reference calls myself, and I like making backdoor reference calls.

Yes, I know it takes time, but there’s so much to gain from making your own reference calls:

  1. You can hear the reference’s voice tone. That’s worth a thousand words to me. How invested is this person in the candidate?
  2. You can ask follow up questions. You don’t have to stick to the script. One answer leads to another. You gain a greater depth of understanding.
  3. You can double check resume accuracy. Embellishment and flat out lying are a big problem. Reference checks, especially backdoor reference checks, give you the ability to check the facts. From talking to the candidate’s former boss…
  4. You can learn how the candidate was as an employee. Here’s the crucial question to ask: “Would you hire the candidate again, and why or why not?” Because it would be unethical to call the candidate’s current boss for obvious reasons, you definitely want to talk to a former boss.
  5. You can learn how the candidate is to work with as a peer. Make sure you talk to at least one peer. Key question to ask: “Would you like to work with the candidate again, and why or why not?”
  6. You can learn how the candidate is to work for. Talking to a former employee is crucial if you are hiring a manager. Key question to ask: “Would you like to work for the candidate again, and why or why not?”
  7. You help sell the candidate on the company. Reference checks give you a great chance to sell, indirectly, yourself and the company, to the candidate. Of course the candidate is going to call the reference to ask how the call went, so…
  8. It’s a competitive world. The best talent is sought after. You need every advantage to carry the day.
  9. The reference might be a future employee or customer. You are always promoting the company, whether you realize it or not, every time you talk to someone outside the company. References are usually in the same or related industries. Today’s reference might be tomorrow’s great new hire or customer.
  10. That leads me to a brief story. One of the best hires I ever made came through a reference check I did. He was really honest as a reference, and we ended up building a relationship through that one call. That led to us to hiring him.

The cost of hiring mistakes is really high. A wrong hire that leaves after six months on the job can cost you 2½ times his salary.

That’s only the financial cost. You also have to remember the other costs:

  • The morale hit to your team
  • The loss/waste of your time
  • The bad effect on your team’s output

Let’s be honest, most of us don’t let an employee go as quickly as we should.

These problems linger on for a long, long time.

Business notesWhat happened with my wife’s friend?

My wife wrote a really good reference note, and her friend got the job. I am proud of my wife for writing the reference note with a smile on her face.   Her friend deserved the job, and her new employer will soon learn how lucky they are to have her.


The amazing thing to me was the company asking for the written reference check was a human resources company. You would think they would know better, but again, I am a dinosaur.


Like what you read? Click here for more advice for startup CEOs.

Photos: Depositphotos