Use skeptical reference checks to find great employees at your agency

Use skeptical reference checks to find great employees at your agency
Written by: Karl Sakas

Reference checks are a vital step in vetting your agency’s new hires. But you have to do them right, because candidates have an incentive to lie—and so do references.

Why would a reference lie about an employee? If the reference likes them, they’ll present a positive picture. But past managers will give positive references to someone they fired or laid-off, because they feel guilty and want them to get a new job.

Doing skeptical reference checks help you ferret out what’s real about each candidate. Here are my ground rules for reference checks at agencies:

  1. Don’t skip reference checks. You’ll be tempted to save time, but checking references is worth it (if you do it well). Being good at interviewing doesn’t automatically mean someone will be great at the job you’re hiring for. References provide third-party verification.
  2. Reference checks are only useful if you’re talking to one of their current or past managers. That’s because coworkers aren’t good references—only their manager knows about the quality of work, their follow-through, etc.
  3. As the agency owner, do not outsource reference checks to someone else, unless you have a full-time HR person at your agency. That typically happens at around 30-50 employees.
  4. Never outsource reference checks to an external commission-based recruiter—even when they mean well, they have the wrong incentive alignment. That is, they only get paid if you hire the person, so they aren’t looking for problems. Finding problems means they wouldn’t get their recruiting fee.
  5. Always do reference checks by phone—never by email. You need to hear the reference live; email lets them them craft a certain message. And phone lets you easily ask probing followup questions, which often get more helpful answers than the original question.

Are you the kind of person who only wants to see the best in others? That’s a good attitude in general—but not during reference checks. For now, try to uncover the worst about each candidate—so you can find the best person for the job. You owe it to yourself and the rest of your current team.

Still tempted to skip reference checks? Why would you want to save an hour or two when you’re about to pay someone five or six figures a year? Checking references helps you get it right!

Let’s look at specific questions I recommend during your reference checks.

My Questions for Reference Checks

Here are 10 key questions I ask when I do reference checks for my agency clients. You’ll want to customize to your situation.

  1. Warm-up the reference with a softball: “Could you share how you worked with <Candidate>? From when to when was that?”
  2. Confirm the terms of their departure: “Why did they leave?”
  3. Assess quality (and probe deeper): “On scale of 0-10, how likely are you to re-hire them?” // “Why did you choose that answer?”
  4. Seek superlatives: “What’s something they did in the role that only they could have accomplished in that role?” (From the Ask a Manager blog)
  5. Make them choose: “Are they more like New Rope or Wet Twine?” // “Why’s that?”
  6. Confirm ownership vs. being on a team: “<Candidate> mentioned accomplishing <Accomplishment>. Could you share more about their work on that?”
  7. Understand strengths: “What is <Candidate> great at?”
  8. Understand weaknesses: “What did you coach <Candidate> on?” // OR comparisons, like: “Employees tend to lean toward structure vs. flexibility. Is <Candidate> someone who prefers structure or who prefers flexibility?”
  9. Probe weaknesses: “If I hired them and a year later regretted it, why do you think I’d regret it?”
  10. Identify hidden references: “Which other people managed or oversaw <Candidate> at your organization?”

Be sure to have a written list of the questions, or else you’re guaranteed to forget something!

How to Improve at Reference Checks

Again, insist on speaking with managers for reference checks. Think back to coworkers you liked personally… but who were terrible employees.

As a skeptical reference-checker (and you should be, if you want great employees), one of your most powerful questions is an iteration on “Why do you say that?” Asking “why” helps you understand what’s really going on, rather than a superficial first answer.

What if the reference won’t say anything beyond confirming dates of employment? That’s where your sales and persuasion skills come in. You can try appealing to the common good—”Imagine if you didn’t have an opportunity to do this yourself.” And you can try appealing to their helping the candidate—”I want to hire them but I can’t without a complete reference check.” Or you can let them punt—”Is there someone else who might be able to share more about <Candidate>?”

Check out the article “Extreme Referencing” by venture capitalist Josh Hannah—it’s a powerful (albeit time-consuming) approach. Even if you don’t apply the entire framework, you’ll likely see some ideas to apply as you hire people.

Question: How do you approach reference checks when hiring at your agency?

Book Cover: "Work Less, Earn More" by Karl Sakas

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