candidates waiting for interview

“Rajesh is slow.”

I was given this feedback on a plate, so to say.  I didn’t check up on it.

For the next 4-months, it was suffering – for both Rajesh and me.


“Rajesh” worked as a teller in our Chennai branch.

When we moved a 6-member operation from Mumbai to Chennai, Rajesh applied for, and then joined this team as a Supervisor.

Before he joined, I remember his manager – my peer – seeking me out in a Managers Meet, and giving this feedback, “Rajesh is slow.”

I took it lightly, assuming not everyone can be exceptional. Also, we had almost finalised Rajesh for the job.

It was a mistake.

I realised later that while Rajesh could cope with the relative routine of a teller job, in the new Loan Operations department, with multiple products, frequent regulatory updates, he was not fast enough.

It started affecting the speed at which we (ops) gave sign-off to sales & product teams on new product requests.

After four months, Rajesh left, unable to cope.

To be sure, I too suffered –

–  I had to take the hit from my boss, for the delays and lapses in Rajesh’s department.

–  And long term, every hiring I then did, was vetted by my boss.

If only I had done a thorough reference check before hiring, the pain to Rajesh and me could have been avoided.


Hiring is the most important job you will do as a manager.

But more than that – as my example shows – your success grows directly out of the ability to choose the right people for your team.

How should one hire? What do the experts suggest?

To understand, I have been reading books on hiring, written by the world’s experts on the subject.

Of the many I read, I found the following to be good:

1.   Hire with your Head  – by Lou Adler

2.   Great People Decisions – by Claudio Fernandez Araoz

3.   It is not the How or the What but the Who – by Claudio Fernandez Araoz

4.   Who – by Geoff Smart and Randy Street

5.   Work Rules  – by Laszlo Bock

Two things that all the books agree on:

– In spite of its importance, few managers get any training on hiring.

– Hiring, like any other job, is a skill which can be mastered with training and knowhow.

I hope to share what I have read in the books through a couple of articles – how to conduct a structured interview, how to assess a candidate, etc.

This article on reference check is the first of such articles.

In the words of author Claudio Araoz, in his book Great People Decisions:

“Most specialists agree that although reference checks aren’t particularly useful in predicting a candidate’s job success, they may be the only way to turn up information that would point toward an unsatisfactory job performance.…… I can’t emphasize it enough: Be disciplined while checking references. Don’t take any shortcuts.”

The experts advise the following (15 points) on how to conduct a reference check.


1. It is important for the hiring manager to do the reference check. Don’t delegate this task to the HR department. (Lou Adler)

List of Persons 

2. At the beginning of interview, make sure to agree with the candidate on a comprehensive list of referees to call. Don’t just stick to what the candidate has given you. (Claudio Araoz)

3. Strong candidates have strong references who will openly tell you about them. Lack of good reference is a sign of a potential problem. (Lou Adler)

4. Google has an applicant tracking system that would check a candidate’s resume against the resume of Googlers. If there was overlap, say you went to the same school in the same year as a Googler, or worked at Microsoft at the same time, the Googler would often get an automated mail asking if they knew you and what they thought of you. (Laszlo Bock)

When & How 

5. It doesn’t matter when you conduct the reference check, although sometime after you have established intent and before the last round of interview is best. (Lou Adler)

6. Plan 20 to 30 minutes for each reference. (Lou Adler)

7. Ask the candidate to contact the references to set up the calls. We have found that you will have twice the chance of actually getting to talk to a reference if you ask the candidate to set up the calls, whether during business hours or after hours at home. (Geoff Smart & Randy Street)

Starting & Questions to Ask 

8. Start the conversation with how important it is to have a reliable reference, since the candidate in the end won’t benefit from getting a job in which he is likely to fail. Emphasize that the referee’s comment will be kept completely confidential. (Claudio Araoz)

9. Some sample questions: In what context did you work with the person? What were the person’s biggest strengths? What were the person’s biggest areas for improvement back then? (Geoff Smart & Randy Street)

10. Avoid asking vague questions, such as “Did Jack do a good job managing the department?” Instead ask more specific questions, such as “What was Jack best at? What did his subordinates like best about him? What did they like least? Are there any jobs that would be inappropriate for Jack?” (HBR book – Hiring and Keeping the Best People)

11.  Use “What, How, Tell me more” to clarify responses that you get. (Geoff Smart & Randy Street)

12.  Make sure to ask referees about the candidate’s social and emotional-intelligence -based competencies, focusing on self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. (Claudio Araoz)

13.  At the end, ask, “How would you rate this performance on a scale of 1 to 10?” Then ask, “What it would take the candidate to move up a couple of points?” (Lou Adler)

14. In case of fresh graduates, with not a great deal of work history, the references would probably be personal. In such cases, ask the referees for exceptional, above-the-call-of-duty activities. Then determine how this relates to on-the-job performance. (Lou Adler)

Analysing Reference’s replies 

15.  Lukewarm or qualified praise is likely to signal ambivalence or worse about a candidate. A truly positive reference, by contrast, should brim with tremendous enthusiasm and obvious admiration. (Geoff Smart and Randy Street)

The Big Picture

‘Hiring’ is only one of the long-term relationships we engage in.

There are others as well – marriage, deciding on a doctor / hospital for a major operation, renting out your property long-term, getting into a business relationship, etc.

In that sense, the need for reference checks has a much wider applicability than we realise.

I share an example how a reference check helped me in this outside-of-office area.


A friend of mine had a court case going on pertaining to an ancestral property.

I went a couple of times with him to the court, and could make out that the lawyer he had hired was unable to get his point across in the hearings.

I discussed with my friend and he too agreed. We decided to look for another lawyer.

In our area, there was an office of a well-appointed lawyer.

We paid him a visit. It was a husband-wife team, and the first meeting left us impressed. They didn’t seem the money-grabbing type, and patiently addressed all our queries. Some of their points validated what we had read about ancestral property disputes on Google.

In the course of the meeting – to validate his credentials – the lawyer referred to a case he had fought for a person, who stayed in a building near to where we lived.

Changing a lawyer is a costly proposition, and a decision that one has to live with for years, considering the time court cases run.

We didn’t want to make another mistake. So we decided to do a reference check.

We visited the person for whom this lawyer had fought a case.

The person’s first words were, “Don’t hire this lawyer!”

He explained that this lawyer’s modus operandi was to impress in the first couple of meetings, take the initial big lump-sum, and then outsource the court appearance work to freelance lawyers. These junior lawyers then fleece you, in the guise of conveyance & appearance fee (Rs.5,000 – Rs.7,000 per hearing).

This person in turn recommended the lawyer of his opposing party! Someone whom he had a chance to see in action over the course of the 3 years that the case had run in court.

So we visited the lawyer of the opposing party. He stayed 20 kms away from where we lived.

The meeting took place in his home. This lawyer had recently given up full-time practice, and now took only a few cases. He seemed genuine.

He said it has been a long time since he fought an ancestral property case but was confident he could read up on it and be up the curve, as the subject challenged him.

We decided to hire him based on the strength of the reference.

Luckily for the friend, the case in the interim was mediated through the intervention of seniors in the family. So he didn’t have to hire this lawyer.

To summarise,

– Our success depends on the people in our team.

– It is worth spending time, knowing and incorporating what the experts recommend on how to hire.

How has your experience been with reference checking? What did you find?



Anil Karamchandani is a Mumbai-based former manager.

He is author of 21 Office Situations & How to Deal with Them available on