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📞 Doing reference checks

Reference checks help you double-check the accuracy of what the candidate has told you, and typically takes place at the end of a hiring process.

Before doing any reference checks as part of your hiring process, decide whether or not you do background checks for everyone you hire. For example, do you reserve doing reference checks only for people who are working with clients, for every role, or for nobody at all?

Whatever you decide, it’s important that you stick to it. It’s easy to get swept up in the smiles and good vibes that are in the air after interviewing somebody that really fits in with the team and seems to tick every box, but that’s not necessarily a good reason to short-circuit your own process.

Calling references

Before you dial a single digit, it’s really important that you articulate just what it is that you’re hoping to achieve by contacting somebody’s references. Are you looking to enlist third parties to provide you with information in order to help you make a hiring decision, or have you already made a decision and you’re doing a quick check for any serious red flags?

In general, try to avoid speaking to a reference before you’ve spoken to the candidate yourself. It might feel useful to have a heads up before they’ve even come in for an interview, but you’ve also potentially coloured your own first impression of this person with somebody else’s opinion.

Remember that your goal shouldn’t be to simply confirm what it is you’ve already learned about somebody during an interview. A useful mindset to adopt would be one of “everything we’ve heard about the candidate so far is great, but we just want to make sure that we haven’t missed anything”.

It should go without saying that you should always be respectful of the private nature of the candidate’s job search: Never phone somebody’s current workplace without their explicit permission, and don’t solicit your own personal network for information without doing your homework. The world is a small place, even more so in tech.

Pro tip

It’s helpful to frame the reference call as finding out how you can support the potential employee, as opposed to trying to catch them out. This makes a massive difference in the quality of the data you get out of the conversation.

Unsure what questions to ask when checking developer references? Use questions from our list:

Reference check questions for standard roles

  1. In what context did you work with the person?
  2. What role was/is he/she in when you worked together?
  3. On a scale of 1 to 10, where would you rate his/her overall work performance and why?
  4. How did they support and/or collaborate with coworkers?
  5. How did the candidate handle work-related stress?
  6. What were the positives and challenges of supervising/working with [name]?
  7. What should we do in order to get the best from him/her?
  8. How does the candidate communicate?
  9. In what areas could he/she improve?
  10. Is there any area where they would need additional support in their first 90 days?
  11. Can you give me an example of a work setback or stressful challenge that they faced and tell me how he/she dealt with it?
  12. How does he/she handle constructive feedback?
  13. Could you share about a time they were involved in a conflict situation? How was it resolved, and did it affect the working relationship?
  14. Would you work with him/her again?

Reference check questions for management roles

  1. What role was/is he/she in when you worked together?
  2. On a scale of 1 to 10, where would you rate his/her overall performance as a manager?
  3. What qualities about [the candidate] make him/her a great leader? Any qualities that don't?
  4. Describe the candidate's management style and what you appreciated most.
  5. Does the candidate inspire and energise others? How?
  6. How, if so, did the candidate help you to grow and learn?
  7. Is the candidate respectful of people working under him/her? Provide an example.
  8. Have you seen the candidate delegate important tasks to others when appropriate?
  9. How does [the candidate] handle stress, conflict and pressure?
  10. Compared to other managers you've had, how would you rank [the candidate] as a manager?
  11. How does [candidate] handle constructive feedback?
  12. Would you work with him/her again?
  13. Lastly, Is there anything I haven’t asked that you would like to share with me?

Doing background checks

Conducting a formal background check can be important in fields such as FinTech or financial services. If you’re operating in a different space you’ll need to decide how important clear credit and police records are in your particular context.

No matter which side of the aisle you’re on, an important consideration should be how these checks impact your hiring process and the candidate experience.

Be sure to give people an adequate heads up as to why you’re running these potentially invasive background checks on them. Always provide an opportunity for the other person to be up-front about any irregularities that might come up.

In South Africa

We can recommend these services that perform background checks in South Africa:

Getting set up to do these yourself is cheaper and easier than you think. All you need to do is buy a fingerprint scanner, install some software and get somebody from your team to do a super short course from MIE.

In Europe

All background checks conducted in Europe need to be GDPR compliant, or you risk being liable to breach of privacy. Data on candidates should only be collected to the extent that’s necessary.

It’s crucial to inform candidates of any background checks that are a part of your hiring process. The candidate will be your primary point of contact for the validation process.

You can familiarise yourself with the GDPR regulations here. The specific laws and guidelines for employee background checks will differ depending on your country — be sure to do thorough research before proceeding with background checks.