For some reason, basically everyone stopped doing real reference checks when Covid hit
Maybe people didn't want to know
Maybe it was a panic to hire so many, so quickly
— Jason ✨Be Kind✨ Lemkin (@jasonlk) March 17, 2023
These days folks just … aren’t doing reference checks like they used to.
Why? I think it probably started around 2019, when the “war for talent” became just crazy. And then running our company for the first time over Zoom in 2020 just accelerated the trend:
- Hiring became accelerated, and everyone was 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 happened so fast for a while, over Zoom, there’s less time. Not no time, but less time. I saw fewer and fewer VCs doing founder reference checks at all during the peak craziness from mid 2020 to the end of 2021.
- Almost everyone began to low the hiring bar during the great rush to grow, grow, grow. We’re all finally starting to admit this now.
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 still 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 just doing this quick exercise. 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.
Get a true Yes, I’d make the hire if everything else checks out. Get a nothing, a pause, etc. … then I’d hold off on the hire unless you can find another boss that will say it.
At least try, and see what happens.
You’ll be far better off than if you never did.