Article by Sorosh Tavakoli

It is extremely hard to get an idea of what a person will be like at work through classic interviews alone. The best way I know around this problem is by making reference calls. Done well, they are gold mine.

I’m not trying to capture everything involved in checking references, but here are some things to consider:

- Always try to find some “backdoor references.” Don’t just rely on the applicant’s provided references.

- Anyone taking a reference call will usually have a desire to be helpful to the applicant. Your job is to get through that initial kindness and go deeper.

- Don’t focus on validating your own assumptions. Instead, ask open-ended questions and listen. Be quiet and let the reference speak.

- One good way to get the reference to open up is to frame the conversation as “help me best manage my future recruit.” It’ll be easier to get information about weaknesses and how to manage them if you do this.

The 8 Questions You Should Always Ask When Checking References

Here’s the reference-checking script I’ve used for the past seven years:

  1. What was your relation to the applicant and for how long?
  2. What were the applicant’s major accomplishments?
  3. Key strengths? If I hire her, what are the things this person should totally be doing, the areas where she kills it?
  4. Weaknesses or areas for improvement? What things should I not have her do? Where will I get the least out of her?
  5. (Explain the role you are hiring for, then ask) Do you think she would be a good fit for this role? Why?
  6. Do you have any advice for us if we hire this person? How do I best manage her? What motivates her?
  7. Would you hire this person again? (It is important to listen to the reference’s tone here.)
  8. Compared to all the people you’ve worked with, how would you grade this person on a scale of 1-10?

Master the art of checking references and remember it’s one of the best ways to spend your time. Bad hires are probably the most expensive mistakes we make – and many of us make these mistakes often.

A version of this article originally appeared on

Sorosh Tavakoli is the founder of Videoplaza and entrepreneur in residence at Founders Pledge.

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