in Angel Investing, Startups, TechStars

Hacking Reference Checking 

We all acknowledge the critical nature of thorough reference checking as it relates to hiring or investing in someone. However, given that most people are reticent to offer a negative reference, most of us struggle with extracting the type of valuable feedback we’re seeking in order to make better decisions. 

Many years ago, a mentor of mine shared a hack for reference checking that I still use today. For me, it still delivers more signal than any other method I’ve come across. Here’s how it works:

Dear Samantha,

I’ve discovered that you worked with Daniel Jones at DKR a few years ago. I’m evaluating an investment in Daniel’s new startup and I’d be grateful if you’d be willing to share some insight with me about your experience working with him. However to be respectful of your time, I’m only asking you to follow up and reply to this email if your experience with him was exceptional. 

Thank you, Mark

We all want to hire or invest in exceptional people. Well, anyone who’s had a terrific experience working with someone will be happy to reply to an email like this, right? Mediocre or less though and they’d probably rather go to the dentist. As you can see, this method allows people to gracefully opt out of those uncomfortable calls while at the same time, delivering the signal you’re looking for. The most important aspect of this approach though is to send at least 10 emails like this, even more if possible. The more data points, the better.

I’m always thrilled when I get a bunch of responses with people telling me that they’d be more than happy to tell me how great someone is and how I’d be foolish not to work with them. On the other hand, a handful of non-responses is a sure sign that I’ve got some more diligence to do. 

Give it a try and let me know how it goes. I’d also love to hear about any other methods people use to make better human capital decisions. 

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  1. I’m sharing this with my young-adult children. This is such good advice, especially for those just getting started: understand that every day is a job interview, and no matter where you are today, earning a reputation for being exceptional is going to be the ladder up.

  2. Your test methods do not justify the strength/robustness you place in your conclusion. I might not respond to this email because, in many sentences, the verb tense is incorrect… for example you should not use the past tense and thus, “you will be grateful for a response”, (which implies that a response is all you need even if it is negative, but you reason that a null response is negative while not accepting the possibility of a response that is negative. However, I appreciate the logic of your approach, I was raised to think twice before saying something negative, gosh that is a whole other can of worms…, but I understand “If you do not have something nice to say, then do not say anything at all.”…Bambi reference.

  3. Hey Mark,
    Interesting insight, but for having worked in humans recruitment I would say this technique is more accurate when calling people over the phone. You never know what can happen to an email (read or not, lost somewhere,.). Most of the people I would call for a reference that’s negative would rather not speak to me and say it’s against their policy. Leave them the choice upfront too after your intro, clearly stating that if they choose not to respond, you’ll interpret it as negative.