How to Hire – Part 7 – References

Passing the baton from one manager to the next.

Read How to Hire – Part 6 – Offer

I come across a lot of resistance towards reference checks, usually in one of these forms:

  • The manager doesn’t see the point and/or claims they don’t have the time.
  • The manager feels totally awkward about conducting them.
  • The manager believes this is a task that someone else can do.

And you know what? I get it. I used to be one of these kinds of hiring managers myself. I felt that my interview process was so bloody slick and thorough that talking to a former employer wouldn’t add any value.

Cocky docky is what my former husband used to call me when I get like this. And he’s right.

Only sometimes. Like, rarely.

Anyway, the point is I wasn’t viewing them with the right mindset.

Now there are just two things I want to get out of reference checks:

  • I want to see if the candidate’s most recent employer will carve out time for the task.
  • I want them to “hand over” anything that would be helpful to me or the candidate.

As a result, collecting references has become simpler and more meaningful.


1. Email the referee asking to set up a time to talk.

Here’s an example:

Hi XX,

I’m the <role> of <company>. As you know I’ve recently offered <candidate> a role with us as <job title>. We’re really excited, we think they’ll add a lot of value to our company – no doubt you’re sorry to see them go.

<Candidate> has chosen you as a referee, and I would love to set up a 15-minute phone call this week if that suits? Because you’ve managed <candidate>, I’m keen to get a handover on anything that you’re currently supporting them with, as well as hear any general advice that ensures we work together effectively from the start.

It would also be great to connect on LinkedIn.

2. Conduct the call.

I like to build up rapport first. Here’s an example call script:

Hi XX, thanks so much for taking time out of your day for this call. It’s great when managers invest time in employees who are leaving or have left.

Actually, it would be great to first hear a bit more about you – I looked at your LinkedIn profile and you have a really interesting background.

(At this point you should probe, show enthusiasm. You never know where a connection will lead, or if they’ll end up being a future candidate.)

Thanks for sharing – I love taking any opportunity I can to learn about people.

Now it would be great to learn more about <candidate>. As I mentioned, I’m keen to learn if there’s anything I can help them with, as well as get your advice on the best ways of working together.

  • Maybe you could start by sharing what you consider to be <candidate>’s strengths?
  • What would you say are skills I should help them develop?
  • How is <candidate> best motivated?
  • How would <candidate>’s colleagues describe them?
  • Is there anything else that would be useful to know when working with them?

Ask follow-up questions as appropriate.

Thanks again for your time. It’s been great talking with you and certainly feel free to reach out if I can help you in any way.

Useful tips

Some referees will state that company policy is not to give references – only a statement from HR outlining dates. I don’t accept this.

I politely but firmly ask the candidate to explain the importance of this to their referee, and ask if they can give an informal personal reference.

There have been only two occasions where the candidate has been unable to supply two referees. That’s two out of literally hundreds of offers I’ve made, and on both these occasions I retracted the offer.

I like to believe that humans aren’t assholes for no reason. If a referee knows their refusal will cost the candidate a job, there has to be a reason. If I can’t get a good reason, then that’s that – I’m not prepared to gamble with the integrity of my company. Especially if it wasn’t brought up by the candidate during the interview process.

It’s not necessarily an issue if negative things come up, so long as you understand the context and it’s in line with what was said during the interview process. Fact is, not all employees will get along with their managers.

I myself have reached the point in certain companies where I was at odds with the CEO. It’s a byproduct of growth. That said, I’m confident every employer I’ve worked with has respected my work and would give 30 minutes of their time to speak honestly of my strengths and shortcomings.

Conduct references via phone, not email. Email can mess with tone and doesn’t allow for discussion.

Start the call by warming up the referee. Most will expect a set of very standard reference questions, and may find the whole interaction awkward. Get them talking about themselves first. Not only will they relax, you’ll get a sense of what kind of manager they are (which puts what they say into context).

Use the opportunity to expand your network. The referee you’re speaking to may be a future client, candidate, supplier, friend, lover …

Represent your brand well. Be on time for the call, put in as much effort as you would with someone you were trying to impress. Trust me, people talk.


It’s normal to feel awkward about conducting references. Don’t view them as a set of formal questions. You really just want to see if the former employer is happy to give you some time, and get their advice on how best to manage the candidate.

Talking to referees is networking – act accordingly.

Read on to Part 8 – Candidate Experience

All parts:

Introduction, Part 1 – Job Description, Part 2 – Agent Briefing, Part 3 – Phone Screen, Part 4 – Skills Interview, Part 5 – Cultural Interview, Part 6 – Offer, Part 7 – References, Part 8 – Candidate Experience.

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