How to Do a Reference Check in 60 Seconds

These days folks just … aren’t doing reference checks like they used to.

Why?

  • Hiring is accelerated, and everyone’s poaching.  Many folks don’t feel like they can really do reference checks well for someone they think they are poaching from a current role.  I see many founders doing no reference checks at all anymore.  They assume they can “tell”.
  • For VCs, deals happen so fast now, over Zoom, there’s less time.  Not no time, but less time.  I see fewer and fewer VCs doing founder reference checks at all.

Maybe it’s changed, but in the age of the Great Resignation, reference checks may be more important than ever.  To make sure it’s really, truly a fit for both sides.

But we are in a fast-paced time.  Here’s how to do a reference check in 60 seconds, or close to it:

#1. First, ask the candidate for 2-3 references, just like we always did.  And at least make sure there’s one she or he worked for — not just peer references.

#2. Reach out to that ex-boss and ask if the candidate was one of the top folks that ever worked for them.  A 1 line text or email response is fine here, if that’s all the time there is.  Even just a text will suffice.

You’ve already learned a lot.  First, if the candidate can’t find a single ex-boss to vouch for them, that’s a flag to slow down.  Folks with only peer references rarely work on in my experience.  Sometimes, but rarely.  And second, that boss reference, if they weren’t great … they’ll be slow to respond.  And you’re only asking for a binary response:  “Was Jason one of the best that’s ever worked for you?”  Get a Yes, even from a hand-picked reference, and it’s a good chance your instincts are right. Just make sure that boss reference is real.

Now, this isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t substitute for a deep reference check, especially with “off the list” folks.  But you can really do it in 60 seconds.  Ask for 2-3 references, including one ex-boss.  See if you get 1 ex-boss.  And then just ask them.  Ask them if they were one of the best.

You’ll be far better off than if you never did.

Published on March 8, 2022

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