5 Steps for conducting effective reference calls

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7 mins, 27 secs read time

Reference calls. Probably not the most thrilling part of an interview process, but when conducted thoughtfully, they can provide invaluable insight that you just can’t get through interviews and background checks.

These days, reference calls are often dismissed as an outdated and highly biased part of a screening process, which is understandable given that references are hand-picked to say the most wonderful things about your candidate. To extract the most value from these conversations, our Recruiting team decided to use a similar approach to reference calls as we do to interviews – we added some structure!

Read on for the 5 steps we take to make the most out of our reference calls at Greenhouse!

1. Start with a purpose

This might sound really basic, but can you articulate your reason for conducting reference calls? We’re big believers in the idea that in order to get the most out of any conversation, you have to set an intention. What is your why?

At Greenhouse, we define the purpose of our reference calls as such: To verify our candidate’s known performance at previous/current employers and ensure that our interview process uncovered all the strengths and weaknesses related to our Scorecard of the job the candidate interviewed for.

Having a purpose helps you decide what kinds of questions you want to ask. Your purpose might be something that evolves as you iterate on your process, but it’s better to start off with one than not have one at all!

2. Know who to ask for

To simplify things, let’s assume we’re talking about a candidate named Sally. Sally’s applied for a Sales Team Manager position at Greenhouse and has done really well on all our interviews. Now, we’re in the exciting position of asking her for references. So, who do we ask?

Essentially, references fall into the following three categories.

I’d ask Sally for 3–4 professional references, with the request that at least 2 of these contacts be former managers. Someone who’s directly managed her would be able to add a lot of color on her strengths, her areas for improvement, her development over time, and her potential—all the things a good manager should care about.

We may also want to know what her former reports think of her, since the Sales Team Manager role is a people-management position. Assuming that we’ve already assessed how Sally’s approach to management aligns with how we think about management at Greenhouse, talking to a former report would allow me to see how their experience echoes what she articulated during her interviews.

Peers are good, but keep in mind that peers are more likely to be friends and therefore would probably be the most inclined to paint Sally in a positive light. That said, if the peer is in another department, talking to them can be valuable if we’re looking for further insight into Sally’s abilities to manage cross-functional projects with impact beyond the Sales team.

The overall thought here is that regardless of who we talk to, we expect the feedback to be amazing, as each reference will have been selected to do just that for Sally. Being strategic about who we ask for and what questions we ask (keep reading for more on the latter!) is our way of battling that bias.

3. Did someone say bias? Let’s check it!

Recruiting can be a long and hard process, and by the time we’ve reached the reference call stage with Sally, we’re pretty excited to hire her. A part of me as the recruiter hopes that her references have nothing but good things to say, but that makes me especially susceptible to confirmation bias. So I make a conscious effort to battle this—I try to find the things about Sally that I don’t know, that might be opportunities for development and especially useful for her future manager/hiring manager to be aware of.

Also, if you’re someone who’s been in the recruiting space for a while, you probably know very well that no candidate is perfect. Interview processes are structured to uncover the strengths and weaknesses of candidates, and chances are that despite how stellar Sally is, there are a few things about her that could use more investigation. You can also use reference calls as an opportunity to surface these flags, keeping in mind which profile—manager, report or peer—is the best to surface your concern to.

4. Now for the call. Set context!

Okay, so you’ve reached out to the first reference Sally’s provided you: Jim from AwesomeCompany, who managed her for a few years in the past. Once you connect with Jim, start your conversation with him by setting context. Context is critical for making the most of any conversation, especially if someone’s taking time out of their work day to talk with you.

I usually start off by hitting these four points:

  • Thank Jim for his willingness to chat and let him know the call won’t take longer than 10–15 minutes.

  • Recap that Sally did really well in our interview process for our Sales Team Manager position and that we’re contemplating making her an offer.

  • Let Jim know I’m using his time to make sure I have the full picture about Sally’s fit for our role.

  • Finally, ask Jim whether he’d like any context on Greenhouse or the Sales Team Manager position or whether he’d prefer to jump directly into answering my questions.

Once that’s all covered, I’ll usually proceed with something like this: To start off, my understanding is that you were Sally’s manager and that you managed her at AwesomeCompany for 2 years. Is that correct? I do my homework before the call so that instead of wasting time asking questions I already know the answer to (e.g. At what company did you work with Sally and for how long?), I can quickly verify facts and use the leftover time to dig into more insightful topics.

5. Dig, dig, dig (and don’t be shy)!

This is probably the part you’re most interested in hearing about—the actual questions we ask during our reference calls (so thanks for staying with me this far)! Below is a list of the questions I like to use, including the reasons I find them productive.

Working Relationship: Questions that allow Jim to put his relationship with Sally in his own words, which usually leads him to talk about the aspects of Sally that left the strongest impression on him.

  • How closely did you work together with Sally?
  • Could you share some examples of the kinds of work she performed?

Strengths & Improvement Areas: This is the part of the call where Jim will be particularly prepared to say amazing things. The trick is phrasing your questions in a way you can get at the things Sally needed / needs work on without making Jim feel that he’s talking explicitly about her weaknesses.

  • Where did Sally shine? What kinds of work did she prefer to do?
  • How did your working style complement Sally’s working style?
  • What is something Sally was able to help you do better? Vice versa, what is something you think you were able to help her do better?
  • Tell me about a challenge that you overcame together.
  • Have you seen Sally grind through work she or others have considered less desirable because it was necessary? Can you give me an example of a time she did this?
  • What concerns would you have if you were to hire / work with Sally again?

Goals and motivators:
I think it’s important to get as much insight as possible into what makes someone tick. Here are some questions I’d use to dig into precisely that.

  • Tell me about a time Sally went way above and beyond on a project. What do you think motivated her most to do this?
  • Can you share any insight into what Sally would look for in her ideal job opportunity? From your perspective, why is she looking for a new role?

Final check:
A question I always like to ask in case Jim has anything he wants to share that he hasn’t had an opportunity to talk about yet.

  • Is there anything I haven’t asked you about regarding Sally that you think I should know?
  • In general, steer away from questions that are easily answered with a yes or a no. I especially like questions that start off with a phrase like “Tell me about a time when,” which prompts real-life examples. That leads to more open-ended questions, which is where all the juicy stuff is.


The fact that I’ve been able to write an entire blog post about reference calls is proof that you can put as much thought into how to conduct them as you do for interviews! Every recruiting team will have its own philosophy on how to conduct reference calls, including whether the recruiter or hiring manager should conduct them and whether there are specific roles you conduct them for. Hopefully after hearing about what we do at Greenhouse and why, you’re walking away with added perspective that will help you get the full picture of your candidates.