How to reference candidates in order to find A-players


    References are almost as important as the interview itself. 

    Yet almost everyone does it wrong, if at all! They hold off conducting references until the end of a process, using them to confirm that the person worked where they said they worked for the amount of time they said they did. If a bad reference springs up after you’ve made the offer, powerful psychological bias will try and normalise bad references or mark them as a ‘one off’.

    In this article, we are going to show you how you conduct real references that end up with you hiring more A-players.


    Take a reference from a line manager or direct report

    You are trying to find out what this person was to work like. Peers may have a good view of the candidate as a person, but they may not have the full view of the quality of their work.

    During the interview with a candidate, you should discuss who their line manager was at some of their former companies, and actively ask if you can contact this person for a reference.



    Is the reference easy to schedule?

    If the referees has a lot of goodwill towards the candidate, they will usually be quick and enthusiastic when scheduling the reference.

    However, this is only a minor indicator as people have busy lives!

    Make it as easy as possible for the referee to schedule by using tools such as



    Don’t share too much information with the referee before a call

    Try not to reveal too much about the company that the candidate has applied for. Every piece of information you provide a reference biases the answer. If they know the end company is a start-up, they are more likely to provide a reference that makes the candidate seem like an ideal fit for a start-up.


    Pay close attention to the tone of the referee

    Once you have conducted a few references and compared them, it’ll be extremely easy to find the A-players.

    While what is said is essential, how it’s said is equally critical:

      • People naturally avoid confrontation. A vague or overly diplomatic response might indicate underlying concerns.
      • Beware of hesitations like "umm" and "ahh." These could be signs of a referee trying to phrase things cautiously.
      • If the praise is just "fair," consider it a red flag. Genuine appreciation is evident in the referee's enthusiasm and specificity.
      • Positive references will brim with admiration and enthusiasm. Such endorsements are the best indicators of a candidate's potential contributions.


    What questions should you ask a referee during a reference call


    In what context did the referee work with the candidate?

    Begin by understanding in what context the referee worked with the candidate. Was it a project-based association or long-term employment? The nature of their relationship can provide insights into the candidate's adaptability and collaboration skills.


    Rate their Performance

    Ask the referee to rate the candidate on a 1-10 scale. But don’t stop at the number. Dig deeper. Ask, "What were they like to work with?" The tone of the response can often be more telling than the content.


    Why isn’t the referee re-hiring that person?

    If the candidate was great, and the candidate is great, why aren’t the offering the candidate the role? A good response will occur off the cuff because the referee probably has considered re-hiring that person. Common responses would be “I can’t afford them!”,  “I already offered!”, “I’m not allowed to hire anyone.”

    If the referee says they don’t have the right role, then probe deeper. It may even be worth checking the companies careers page to double check.


    Compare the referee with similar professionals

    When compared to similar professionals,

      • Identify two areas where the candidate outshines their counterparts.
      • Understand the primary area they might fall short.


    Ideal Work Environment: 

    Everyone has a preferred work environment. Some people enjoy the chaos of start-ups, others enjoy the orderly politics of multinationals. So we ask our referees “What good company would the candidate hate to work at?”

    If you are hiring for a start-up and the referee says that the candidate works best in large organisations, then the candidate is probably not a great match.

    An alternative question to ask is “What is the candidates' ideal work environment”


    Getting specific

    The candidate and the referee share an overlapping history. During the interview, the candidate told you about the biggest successes and the biggest mistakes. They also told you about the reasons for joining and leaving. Ask those same questions to the referee and see if they match.