Introduction: A Lesson from my Wild West Startup Days

In my wild west days of running a startup, I was akin to a cowboy riding the range, taking risks, and making bold decisions at every turn. One of those instances brought me face-to-face with a charming disaster.

Let me set the stage for you. Picture this: I’m at this sleek startup office, a mug of steaming coffee in hand, about to interview what I thought was the perfect candidate. Let’s call him Eddie. Eddie was charismatic as hell, with a resume that looked like a tech founder’s dream: Ivy league education, a stint at a Fortune 500 tech giant, and a co-founder of a promising startup in his past.

As Eddie breezed through the interviews with flying colors, the team and I were pretty much spellbound. We were like the audience of a magic show, captivated by the illusionist’s dazzling tricks, without sparing a thought for the hidden wires and mirrors. Eddie was a corporate Houdini, and we were about to hand him the keys to our company.

But here’s where the plot thickens. Despite being ready to roll out the red carpet for Eddie, I decided to run a thorough reference check. If Eddie was a diamond, I intended to ensure there were no hidden flaws. Spoiler alert: There were.

In stark contrast to Eddie’s theatrical display, the references revealed a track record of missed deadlines, interpersonal conflicts, and a trail of unfinished projects. My impression of Eddie crashed faster than a tech glitch on launch day. We had almost hired a ticking time bomb.

This experience hammered home a crucial lesson for me: Reference checks are far from a mere formality; they are the detective’s magnifying glass in the hiring process. Eddie, my friends, is the reason why I’ll forever champion the importance of a good reference check.

So, forget what you’ve heard – reference checks aren’t just some corporate hoop to jump through. They’re the unsung heroes of hiring, the last line of defense between your team and a potential disaster. You think you’re hiring a rockstar, but without that reference check, you might just be inviting a diva who’ll trash the hotel room.

The Ensemble of Interview Feedback

Imagine reference checking as the grand finale of a symphony. Now, what makes a symphony special? It’s the harmony of different instruments playing together, right? Similarly, a meaningful reference check doesn’t stand alone; it thrives on the harmonious blend of insights gathered from everyone who interacted with the candidate. This is what I like to call the ‘Ensemble of Interview Feedback’.

Let’s cut the corporate BS; no one has a goddamn crystal ball to see if the candidate will excel in their role or go up in flames. So, what do we do? We use the next best thing: collective insights. It’s all about creating a composite sketch of the candidate, a 360-degree view that incorporates perspectives from everyone on the team.

Don’t roll your eyes yet. This isn’t some pie-in-the-sky idea; it’s ground-zero practicality. Consider your organization’s structure: the HR folks, team leads, potential colleagues – they all interact with the candidate from their unique vantage points. By pooling these perspectives, you’re not just cross-checking facts; you’re building a well-rounded picture.

You’d be surprised how valuable a quiet introverted analyst’s input can be. Maybe they picked up on nuances others missed because, guess what, they listen more than they speak. Or perhaps the bubbly marketing executive noticed the candidate struggled to maintain eye contact during their conversation. All these observations form a mosaic that might reveal patterns and potential red flags.

This collaboration between the HR and the hiring team is like a detective squad gathering around the proverbial drawing board, discussing leads, and piecing together the puzzle. It’s an often underestimated synergy that can save your ass from a bad hire.

Remember, folks, the hiring process isn’t a one-person show. It’s an ensemble act, and the best hiring decisions are made when everyone’s voice is heard. So, make sure to incorporate feedback from the full cast – from the starring roles to the supporting players. It’s a democratic process that lends depth and balance to your reference check questions.

The First Impression Paradox: Setting the Tone of Conversation

Oh, the joy of first impressions! We’ve all been there, right? You meet someone for the first time and think, “Damn, this person is impressive!” And, guess what? You’re not alone. The ‘halo effect’ is a psychological phenomenon where our overall impression of a person influences how we feel and think about their character. It’s the reason we might believe that a good-looking individual is also smart, friendly, or capable.

The challenge, my friends, is to not let this halo effect blind us during reference checks. There’s this common notion that confidence in a candidate’s abilities should set the tone for the reference conversation. Well, here’s some tough love: that’s a shit-ton of horsefeathers!

Don’t get me wrong, confidence is great. Hell, it’s necessary! But it shouldn’t morph into overconfidence that could taint the reference check. I’ve been there, done that, and nearly tripped over my own overconfidence. Let me tell you, it’s no fun scraping that egg off your face.

The key is to strike a balance. Think of it as mixing a cocktail. Too much of one ingredient and it’s down the drain. Same with your reference conversation. Confidence is your gin, sure, but you need the right measure of tonic, i.e., critical thinking, to create a perfect blend.

So, what’s the recipe for this blend? Start with a dash of acknowledgment about the candidate’s skills and achievements. Stir in some reservations or doubts you might have. Splash in questions that have emerged from the interview process. Shake it all together with a constructive and open-ended approach, and there you have it: the perfect cocktail for an unbiased, effective reference check conversation.

The Devil’s in the Details: The Job Description

Job descriptions. Just the term alone is enough to make some folks’ eyes glaze over. But hold up a minute. If you’re serious about getting the real scoop on a potential hire, the job description is your secret weapon. It’s like a roadmap guiding you through the wild landscape of a candidate’s past performance.

Now, here’s the kicker. Many hiring managers believe that a reference check is all about confirming what’s on a CV. But let’s be real, that’s as exciting as watching paint dry and about as useful. The job description is so much more than a checklist. It’s a goddamn goldmine, and if you dig right, you’ll find valuable nuggets about how your potential hire could navigate similar challenges in your organization.

To illustrate this, picture yourself in a role-playing game. You’re not playing the role of the hero (yet). Instead, you’re playing the narrator, setting the scene with a clear description of the role, its responsibilities, its challenges. Then, you pass the joystick to the reference, asking them to slot the candidate into this scenario. You’re not looking for a rehearsed response. You’re looking for the candid, unscripted insights that come from visualizing the candidate in the role. It’s like doing a dress rehearsal for the actual gig.

But remember, don’t just stick to the script. The power of this method lies in specificity, and a typical job description won’t cut it. Go beyond. Dig into those specifics that really define the role and its challenges in your organization. Probe their ability to handle curveballs, their response to stress, or their strategy in handling conflict.

After all, the devil really is in the details. Or in this case, the details are your shield against hiring the devil in disguise. Now that’s a plot twist for ya!

Digging Deeper: Open-ended, Specific Questions

Alright, we’ve reached a critical juncture in our little detective story. You’ve set the scene, painted the picture of the role, and now you’re ready to uncover the juicy details. It’s time to play detective and dig a little deeper. Or as I like to call it, it’s time to dive into the nitty-gritty.

Let’s be honest here. Asking a reference if the candidate was punctual or a team player is as basic as ordering vanilla ice cream in a shop that offers 31 flavors. Come on, you can do better than that!

The secret here is all about asking open-ended, specific questions. When you do this, you’re not just giving the reference a chance to babble on. No, you’re inviting them to serve you the scoop on the candidate’s past performance. And trust me, this scoop is a lot more interesting than vanilla.

Think of it like you’re playing a game of 20 questions. You’re not looking for a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Instead, you want the reference to narrate an anecdote, an event, or an instance where the candidate’s skills or shortcomings were highlighted. You’re not just asking about their technical expertise or leadership skills. You want to know how these skills translated into their day-to-day performance. Ask about that time they handled a tough client or when they delivered a project under tight deadlines.

And remember, you’re not interrogating the reference. You’re having a conversation, a dialogue. So, ask follow-up questions. Show that you’re interested in their perspective. This approach will not only provide you with insightful details about the candidate but also earn you some brownie points for being an attentive listener.

Keep in mind, you’re not asking if they can make a damn good cup of coffee (unless you’re hiring for a barista, in which case, please disregard). You’re looking for insights that paint a picture of how they might handle the specific challenges in the role you’re hiring for.

So, grab your metaphorical shovel and start digging. And remember, it’s not about striking gold on the first scoop. It’s about gathering enough nuggets of information to piece together an accurate depiction of the candidate.

The Fact-Check Chronicle

Okay, folks, here’s where things start to get a little murky. It’s not enough to be an ace interviewer or a sharp questioner. Nope, you’ve also gotta have the nose of a bloodhound, sniffing out the truth from the pile of information you’ve been handed.

You see, when you’re knee-deep in the trenches of reference checks, you’ve got to stick to the facts. I mean, really stick to them. Like glue-on-paper kind of sticking. You need to be looking for verifiable, factual information about a candidate’s past performance and behavior.

Let’s be clear, I’m not talking about their preference for Earl Grey over English Breakfast or their bizarre habit of speaking in haikus on Tuesdays. I’m talking about information that can directly impact their fit and success in the role.

Don’t let yourself get sidetracked by the reference’s tone or inflection. A reference might sound like they’re reciting a funeral dirge or they might sound like they’ve just won the lottery. Either way, it’s not about how they say it, but what they’re saying.

When I started my career, I was as impressionable as a newly baked play-doh. I made judgments based on the enthusiasm (or lack thereof) in the references’ voices. It took a couple of bad hires and a dent in my ego to realize that I was falling for the classic pitfall of focusing on delivery rather than content.

So how do you navigate this tricky territory? Keep an open mind, listen carefully, and focus on the message, not the messenger. Filter out the fluff and dig for the gold nuggets of information. Separate the facts from the frills.

The fact-check chronicle isn’t just a step in the process. It’s the lighthouse that guides you to the right hiring decision. So, put on your detective cap, pick up your magnifying glass, and start scrutinizing. Because in the game of hiring, the devil is often hiding in the details, and it’s your job to sniff him out.

Unmasking Emotional Quotient: The Hidden Gem

Oh boy, here’s where things really start to get spicy. We’re talking about EQ, my friends. That’s Emotional Quotient for the uninitiated. And I’m here to tell you – this stuff is like the secret ingredient in grandma’s famous chili. You might not realize it’s there, but trust me, it makes all the difference.

In the business world, we’re often so focused on IQ – a person’s raw intelligence – that we forget there’s a whole other aspect to a successful hire. EQ, or emotional intelligence, is the ability to understand, use, and manage our own emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges, and defuse conflict. Sounds pretty important, right?

Yet, somehow, this crucial element often gets tossed aside like yesterday’s news. But, let me tell you something, as someone who’s been in the trenches, I can assure you, ignoring EQ is like trying to build a skyscraper without a solid foundation. You might get a few stories up, but eventually, things are going to start crumbling.

A while back, I hired a coder, the guy was a rockstar, could spit out lines of code like Eminem spitting bars. But, guess what? The dude had the EQ of a toaster. He couldn’t read the room, couldn’t sense when he was rubbing people the wrong way, and the team’s morale? Yeah, it nose-dived faster than a lead balloon.

And that’s when it hit me – EQ wasn’t just the icing on the cake. It was a key ingredient in the recipe for a harmonious and efficient team.

So, when you’re doing your reference checks, remember to ask about the candidate’s emotional intelligence. Is this person self-aware? Can they control their emotions and handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically? Is your office about to turn into a daytime soap opera, or are we talking more along the lines of a supportive, productive sitcom environment?

Remember, folks, high IQ might get the job done, but a high EQ will get the job done right. So, don’t forget to unmask that hidden gem during your reference checks. After all, nobody wants to work with a robot. Well, unless it’s a cool, friendly, emotionally intelligent robot. But that’s a topic for another day.

The Off-Road Adventure: Finding Alternative Ways In

Alright, hold onto your hats, people. We’re going off-road for this one. I’m talking about those less conventional, often overlooked paths that can lead you to the kind of insights about a candidate that you just can’t get from a standard reference check.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Geoffrey, what the hell are you on about? Isn’t this just a bunch of HR stalking?” Well, my skeptical friends, before you raise your pitchforks and light your torches, let me put your fears to rest. This ain’t about creeping on a candidate’s private life or rifling through their trash in the dead of night. This is about looking at professional networks, past employees, LinkedIn profiles – publicly accessible stuff that can give you a broader, fuller picture of the person you’re considering bringing on board.

Take LinkedIn, for example. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for you to go full-on Sherlock Holmes, squinting at every pixel of their profile picture or parsing every single word of their self-written bio for hidden meanings. But a quick look can give you a sense of their professional trajectory, their interests, maybe even some recommendations or testimonials from colleagues. All of this can be valuable data to complement what you’re getting from your reference checks.

And let’s not forget the power of the grapevine. Professional networks are a goldmine of information. Now, I’m not saying you should believe every bit of gossip that comes your way – that’s a one-way ticket to a lawsuit and a reputation in tatters. But a discreet conversation with someone you trust, who has worked with the candidate in question, can sometimes reveal insights that formal references might not.

Once upon a time, I nearly hired a smooth-talking sales rep who had everyone charmed. That is, until I bumped into an old friend at a conference who’d worked with this guy before. Let’s just say, the off-the-record chat we had over coffee made me reevaluate some things, and I dodged a bullet, thanks to that informal reference.

The point is, the formal reference check is crucial, but it doesn’t have to be the be-all and end-all. There are other paths into understanding a potential hire’s fit with your team, their strengths, and their limitations. Like taking an off-road adventure, it can be a bit bumpy and unpredictable, but it can also lead you to some incredible views you would’ve missed otherwise. So buckle up and enjoy the ride. Just remember, folks – always respect privacy, and keep things professional. Happy sleuthing!

Conclusion: The True Power of a Reference Check

Well, folks, we’ve journeyed together through the dense underbrush of interview feedback, crossed the treacherous chasms of first impressions, navigated the labyrinth of detailed job descriptions, mined deep into the caverns of specific questioning, fact-checked our way through a forest of fibs, scoured the hidden terrain of emotional intelligence, and even ventured off the beaten path to find alternative routes in. What a ride it’s been!

Now, if you’ve stayed with me through all this (and kudos to you if you have), you’ve probably noticed a common thread running through these wild escapades. That thread, my friends, is the immense, underrated, often overlooked power of a good ol’ reference check.

But it ain’t just about ticking boxes or going through the motions. No sir. A well-executed reference check is like a seasoned detective peering through their magnifying glass, finding clues and piecing together the bigger picture. It’s about unveiling the real personality that lurks behind the polished veneer of a job interview. It’s about seeing past the façade, the rehearsed responses, the well-tailored suits, and the shiny shoes.

Through reference checks, you’re not just verifying what’s on a piece of paper; you’re decoding the human element, the complex, nuanced, often contradictory mesh of strengths, limitations, quirks, and potential that make up a person. And, if you’re lucky, you might just uncover a diamond in the rough – a superstar in the making who might not have the flashiest resume or the slickest interview skills, but who has the grit, the drive, and the raw potential to be a game-changer for your team.

So the next time you find yourself at the crossroads of a hiring decision, don’t underestimate the trusty reference check. Be that HR detective, squinting through your metaphorical magnifying glass and piecing together the puzzle that is your potential hire. And remember, you don’t need a trench coat or a deerstalker hat to crack the case. Just a bit of grit, a dash of intuition, and a good dose of good ol’ common sense. Happy hiring, folks!

About the Author: Geoffrey Byers
Geoffrey is one of the world's foremost Designers. He is also a Serial Entrepreneur, Author, Speaker, and Mad Scientist. Hypothesis-Driven experimentation is his love language.