Jason Fried

August 23, 2021

Questions I ask when checking references

When hiring for key positions, speaking with references is important. For us, it's typically the last step in the hiring process. A phase for the final-finalists.

Anyone who makes it to the final stage of the hiring process has already been well vetted for skill and disposition. We have a great sense of how they interview, and their tours at previous companies. If they've gotten this far, we know they can do the job.

But we don't really know them. Or know what it's like to work alongside them. Or above or below them in an organization. We can imagine, but hearing is better. That's why we check references.

When someone provides references, there's a good chance they'll be generally positive. You probably aren't going to intentionally make yourself look bad (and if you do, you may have a self-awareness problem). And while there are ways to check backchannel references — people who someone might not share but would be a good source of realistic information — I still put a lot of value in talking with the people they provide themselves.

When I talk to a supplied reference, I'm curious about nuance, feel, and paradox. What are the things people are great at, and not so great at. And do they always know which is which? I'm curious about trust, how people interact with different roles, and which side of the decision they often find themselves on. How often does someone change their mind, and why? If they tend to hold grudges, or if they disagree and commit all-in. What are they great at communicating, and where do you need to read between the lines?

Below is a collection of questions I think about when speaking with references. It isn't a definitive list, and it depends on role, but it's a library I pull from, improvising from there. I'd never come close to asking all of these — I usually just ask a handful at most, depending on who I'm talking to. In conversation, words, phrases, and angles may vary, but essentially what I'm trying to get at stays the same. And remember, we already like this person a ton otherwise they wouldn't have progressed this far, so many of these questions are trying to suss out some of the limitations and blindspots we may not have noticed during the formal interview process.

  • What's something that would surprise us about them?
  • Specifically, any areas where you were surprised they weren't as good as you expected with A, B, or C? Or much better than expected with D, E, and F?
  • What's the difference between how they interview and how they deliver on the job?
  • Is there a difference between how a boss, a peer, or a direct report would describe them? If so, what's the difference?
  • If you were at another company, would you absolutely hire this person again for a similar role?
  • Who do they naturally gravitate to inside an organization? Or naturally avoid?
  • What are they better at than they think, and, on the flip side, worse at than they think?
  • What sort of things do they do that often go unnoticed or are under-appreciated?
  • What don't they get enough credit for?
  • Can you tell me about the kind of people they've hired?
  • Do they leave disagreements on good terms?
  • Are they more curious or critical about what they don't understand?
  • What's the one thing nearly everyone would say about them?
  • What kind of company feels like a natural fit? And which kind would be a challenge?
  • Can you describe a time when they changed their mind? From what to what, and what caused the change?
  • What's the best thing about working with them? And the hardest?
  • If you could change something about them, what would it be?
  • Are they better working with what they have, or working with what they want?
  • When have you seen them get in over their head? And how did that turn out?
  • Have you seen them get better at something? Worse?
  • Do they make other people better? How?
  • Are they better at taking credit or giving credit?
  • Are they more likely to adjust to something, or try to adjust the thing?
  • Primary blindspot? And bright spot?
  • As well as you know this person, what do you think their secret career ambition is?
  • If they hadn't been at your company, how would your company have been different?
  • Can you remember a time you wished you had their advice on a decision, but you didn't?
  • Have they ever changed your mind?
  • What's the easiest thing for them to communicate? And the hardest?
  • How have they changed during the time you knew them?
  • Do you still keep in touch even though you don't work together anymore?
  • What do they need to be successful?
  • Why do you think we'd be a better company with them on board?
  • Who else should I talk to that would have something to say about them?

There are many more, but those are among the things I'm most curious about. They're all contextual based on what I feel like I know — and sense that I don't — so I don't ask them all about each person. Feel free to take them, use them, tell me they're great questions, or terrible ones. Either way, I hope you found them useful.

BTW: We've been hiring a bunch at Basecamp lately. Customer service, designers, and programmers, specifically. We'll be hiring a lot more people in the coming months and years, so sign up at basecamp.com/jobs to be notified when a public opening appears.

About Jason Fried

Hey! I'm Jason, the Co-Founder and CEO at 37signals, makers of Basecamp and HEY. Subscribe below to follow my thinking on business, design, product development, and whatever else is on my mind. Thanks for visiting, thanks for reading.