Tuesday, October 06, 2015

The importance of doing reference checks (1(2)

This is a guest post by Jenny Buch, who recently joined us as a Talent Manager. It's the first in a series of two posts. The second one will appear here soon. 

To follow up on the recently posted interview with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, I’d love to share my experience about reference checks with you.

So, many of you probably made the experience of hiring someone that you would have stated as “a really promising candidate” upfront. But after four months into the job it turns out that the hire was actually a total fail, that your staff is thinking you’re an idiot for bringing him on board (even if they don’t tell you) and that you now have to pay the debts by firing that person and start a whole new time consuming hiring process again to reduce the mess you’ve just done to your organization.

Well, even though things like these sometimes just happen and can have many reasons, there are ways to dramatically reduce the likelihood. One of them is to have a strong hiring process in place with its most important asset, you can guess it – reference checks!

Or, to say it with Christoph’s words “In God we trust, all others bring references”

Reference checks have been quite common in the US and most of the English speaking countries ever since but are still fairly new to many of the European countries. This is due to cultural differences and different common practice that was established in each country years ago. So why changing that good old practice and do references checks? Here is why:

There is only so much you can get out of a certificate, a CV or an interview. Your goal is to get to know your new “promising candidate” as best as you can within a short period of time to make sure you don’t mess things up! Today, and especially in the startup scene, there’s a different need for different skills than there was when “written references” were the way you did it. Here are some classics of the “must have skills” for any kind of candidate that can only really be proved by a good reference check:

  • Interpersonal skills: Interpersonal skills for any kind of role matter much more these days than they did in the past (or to state it correct: people are more aware of them, they’ve always mattered). The interview situation is not the best way to find out whether or not your candidate is actually a great fit since some candidates are extremely good at selling themselves during an interview.
  • Integrity: Today, an intern can become the CFO. Maybe the company sucks and he only became CFO because he went to the same university as one of the founders. As Ben Horowitz likes to say in his amazing book “The Hard Thing about Hard Things”. “There are two kinds of companies in this world. One where matters what you do and one where matters who you are. You can either be the first one or suck.” You want to make sure that his previous company was out of the first category and that besides his great university connections, he actually was the best candidate for the role and that’s why he got it - because he knows shit, works hard and is an awesome guy. I’m not saying that hiring from your university environment is bad, but it shouldn’t be the only reason for a hire - which it is sadly in many startups these days.
  • Right kind of ambition: You are looking for people with the right kind of ambition. So people that love your idea, bring a “get shit done mentality to work” and that thrive to make your company successful. As a side effect it will help them grow their career - not the other way around.
  • Right kind of person: You are not looking for “the Facebook Head of Sales” or the “CMO from Google”. Even though those guys do an amazing job at their current companies, every company is different and every time in every company is different. You need to find the right candidate for your company at this time. So one of your challenges is to make sure that your candidate has the right skillset for YOUR COMPANY.

I guess I don’t have to tell you how big the impact of a bad hire can be for your organisation. Simply do the math. Really do it! Sit down and calculate how much time and money it takes you to get rid of the wrong hire and find a new person and tell the people that you are sorry rather than using this time to talk to 5 people for 10 minutes upfront. If you do that math correctly you’ll figure out that doing reference checks is going to be the easy, cheap and most efficient way for busy startups to get the right people on their rocket ship!

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