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Reverse reference checks: A simple idea that wows candidates

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Stories Inc. co-founder shares her idea of reverse reference checks, in which candidates check the hiring managers’ references as manager.

Great news. We decided to add a team member—YES!

I’m recruiting again! I dusted off my tricks from years past (once a recruiter, always a recruiter). Oh, all the good (true) stories I told! And, it seemed like we created a candidate experience that’s true to our culture, one that corrected power imbalances. In an interview setting, we expect/hope/respect that candidates are evaluating us for fit as much as we are evaluating them.

We found a great candidate, and she was into us too. Salary, start date, all aligned. Time to check references: last step!

Why did checking references suddenly feel wrong?

Typically when you check references, the mutual evaluation stops. It was abrupt to go from deep conversations about future goals and past experiences, to me having private conversations about her with people she trusts without her there. I believe in reference checks, but I wondered: What’s an equivalent step for the candidate?

“Would you like to check my references as a manager?” I asked our candidate.

She said she would.

So, I asked three people whose work I used to oversee directly, who don’t work at Stories for all different reasons. I email introduced our candidate to each of them.

Then, because it could be weird for the candidate when she makes the calls because it’s unconventional, and it doesn’t really even the power dynamics since I know what to ask in a reference check and she might not, I sent her all the questions I typically ask. She knew she could ask whatever she wanted. Then:


Reverse discomfort and added time

I realized it was likely to extend the process a week. “Time kills all deals,” my recruiter self said.

Worse: why was I introducing a wild card scenario at the very end of this process? Am I botching this deal? I don’t know what she will hear. (I try to be a great manager, but I’m learning everyday). Why am I unclosing this candidate?

I admit, the fast moving, startup, entrepreneur me thought, “This might not have been a good idea.” The part of me that was over extended, because I had been doing the open job and my own, thought: “This could be a bad business decision.”

Added thoughtfulness

One of our values is thoughtfulness. And ultimately, I was at peace with what could go wrong because I was living our values. And, this was a chance to show our candidate that we are who we say we are. As a cofounder of a company that gets great employee stories that illustrate culture and turns them into engaging content, I’m all about the proof behind company culture/mission/purpose claims. Our candidate experience needs to demonstrate the reality of our relationships and preview the culture.

Back to reference checking. It’s a standard part of any process. So how would Stories show our values during this step?

Giving a candidate unfettered access to those we no longer manage shows that we are thoughtful and authentic. This also feels better and more consistent with the candidate experience, where we are getting to know each other and building trust. Previous reporting relationships can be fragile and important, and I’m trusting you to speak with mine just as you, the candidate, trusted me to speak with yours. That seems like a good last step before making a career or offer commitment.

It’s working in other places, too

And before I threw myself a parade for such a brilliant and simple idea, I Googled. It’s been done before. Read this Harvard Business Review article for more thoughts on reference checking your future boss.

Check out another way we can revamp and reframe reference checks for candidates.