Making Reference Calls

This post is the last of a three-part series that starts here.

As companies scramble and fight for the best talent (especially software developers and engineers), companies are always tempted to cut corners. Good recruiting takes time, process and salesmanship. For startup and growth companies, everything needs to be done quickly, and the best entrepreneurs smartly separate what must be done well now, and what can be improved later. However, every time I’ve made a bad hire (and I’ve made my share), it was because I chose to cut corners. Among the many mistakes I’ve made…

  • Expediting a candidate through a shortened interview process (or skip one altogether) based on a referral from a trusted source.
  • Choosing the best candidate among those we’ve seen (aka, “settling”), since great candidates haven’t been found and the process is dragging on.
  • Over-selling the candidate so that they accept quickly before they’ve had a chance to get comfortable and fully bought-in to the job/company.
  • Skimming through reference calls as a closing formality, not an extension of the interview process.

I’ve learned that with recruiting, there are few shortcuts that don’t significantly add to your risk of a mis-hire. And the costs of a mis-hire at a startup can be catastrophic. The only way to speed things up, I’ve found, is to have a great process and make recruiting part of every employee’s job description.

One of the best blogs I’ve read on the topic was written a couple of years ago by Yishan Wong, former CEO of Reddit. During his 3-year tenure running engineer for Facebook, his group grew from 30 to over 200 engineers and users grew from 10 million to more than 250 million. The pressures to constantly add developer talent, in an increasingly competitive market, were (and continue to be) intense. Mr. Wong’s advice: “Hiring is number one. This means “make hiring your number one priority, always.” This means that it needs to be your organization’s first priority, it needs to be each manager’s first priority, and it needs to be each engineer’s first priority.” Mr. Wong is not in HR and not a recruiter. He had a product to build, software release schedules to maintain, and a team to manage. Along the same lines, serial entrepreneur and VC investor Mark Suster looks askew any startup management team that isn’t always recruiting: “One of the ‘tells’ for me of a management team that will not be extra-ordinarily successful is that they’re not always recruiting. I’ve seen it before – I send a talented member to a team and they say to me, ‘we don’t really have a role for that person.’”

To keep up with the demands of growth, Messrs. Suster and Wong have both developed a scalable, repeatable process for identifying and engaging talent in a way that does not slow things down. In previous posts, I’ve discussed ways that startups can improve their hiring success rate through good preparation and process. To close out this series on good interviewing, I’d like to talk about the importance of reference calls as a corner you cannot cut. Reference calls are typically viewed as a formality: “Did so-and-so work there? Anything you can share about their performance? Blah. Blah. Blah.” Of course you’re going to get positive, even glowing, general responses that don’t tell you anything new or insightful about the candidate. The candidate provided you with these references for a reason. And that’s why most people see reference calls as a box to check off their list before sending an offer.

However, reference calls should be viewed as a vital extension of the interview process. Here’s why. If you’ve asked probing behavioral questions during the interview (and took good notes), you’ve got a list of specific instances where the candidate claimed responsibility for certain results; gave you names of colleagues and managers they worked with; and described how well they performed in challenging situations. Rather than asking broad, open-ended questions about the candidate, refer to these specific situations and ask the reference to provide their side of the story. Ask the same probing questions about each situation in the same way you did with the candidate. I’ve found that the outcome, even when the stories align, gives me a much greater picture of who the candidate really is and how they operate. If the stories don’t align, then you’ve got a problem.

Either way, asking specific questions about specific events is the best way to get a meaningful, third party perspective on your candidate. Also, it should go without saying that you must find at least one (preferably several) references that the candidate did not give you. So-called “back-door references” are another essential tool to getting the complete picture on your candidate. If you use LinkedIn, you can likely find other folks in your network that have worked with the candidate, or know other people who have. Now, this can be tricky, especially if you do not know these people very well. Any negative feedback can get them and their company in trouble, and they may be reluctant to share anything meaningful or direct when it comes to critical feedback. When giving a reference, it is good to follow the “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything” policy. However, if a back-door reference worked closely with your candidate and doesn’t have good things to say about them, that should be noted as a red flag.

Finally, lots of my clients are pretty nervous about the sort of questions they cannot ask a candidate or reference for reasons of discrimination. This is a very real issue and should be taken seriously. You or anyone in your organization that is interviewing candidates needs to keep these basic parameters in mind when interviewing candidates:

  • Think about every question in these terms: “Is this question going to reveal information that is related to the job we are seeking to fill?”
  • Describe the requirements of the job upfront and in the job description – including travel and physical requirements.
  • Do not ask questions of one candidate that you wouldn’t ask of all the candidates

A great list of questions you cannot ask (as well as some legal ways you can get the necessary information) can be found here. All of this process stuff sounds like a big time-suck to most entrepreneurs that have a lot on their plate to begin with. It is true that good interviewing and recruiting take up a lot of time. Add this to the fact that most people suck at interviewing and the temptation to cut corners is hard to resist. But if you are leading a high growth startup, you need to hire great (not good) people. And every time you make a hiring mistake, you will put your business in jeopardy, demoralize your current team, spend more time than you would have if you did things right the first time. If you know what you are looking for, stick to a good process, and make recruiting part of each employee’s job description, you’ll find that it just becomes a part of your daily routine. Moreover, you’ll be creating a company with the best chances of succeeding.