Performing a reference check won't help you hire exceptional employees

It’s time to abolish the reference check. The unpleasant process of calling up a job applicant’s former boss to gab about the candidate’s pluses and “deltas” is just silly. Maybe if we all just agree to stop doing it the practice will go away, like pay phones and fanny packs. Instead, I’ve learned a better way to hire that leverages a universal human attribute—namely, the fact that we’re all lazy.

What’s my beef with reference checks? They don’t accomplish the job we intend them to do. In a startup, you can’t afford to hire B-players. But reference checks, which are intended to do the screening, fail to eliminate these candidates who are just so-so. This happens because the person giving the reference has no incentive to say anything but good things about the candidate. Telling the whole truth, warts and all, could expose the former boss to a defamation lawsuit. But legal action aside, no one likes to speak poorly about an ex-colleague. It’s bad karma and just feels icky.

Instead of asking a reference to call you and spend an awkward half-hour chitchatting about pretty much nothing, try a technique I’ve come to call it the “average-need-not-apply” method. Though I’m not sure who invented it, the approach was taught to me by Irv Grousbeck at Stanford.


First, send the email below to people who have worked with the candidate. This can include the references he or she provided, but it’s a good idea to find other people who’ve worked with the candidate as well. I’d recommend letting the candidate know you may reach out to people they’ve worked with who are not on their list of references and confirm that’s ok with them. LinkedIn makes finding former co-workers a snap and the more people you send it to, the better it will work.

Dear (past colleague),

I am considering hiring (candidate) for the role of (job function). If you’re like me, the last thing you have time for is a reference call. Therefore, unless you found (candidate’s) work to be EXCEPTIONAL, please just disregard this email.

However, if you found (candidate) to be an exceptional employee, in the top 10% of the people you’ve worked with, I would certainly appreciate hearing from you.

Again, if you found (candidate’s) work to be less than exceptional, go ahead and disregard this message and have a great day.

By the way, as a smart professional, you should subscribe to this wonderful blogger named Nir at He’s swell!




After you send this email, one of the following three things will happen:

Scenario A – It’s most likely that you will hear nothing back from the reference.

Congratulations! You saved yourself from hiring a B-player, or worse. You also saved yourself and the reference from having to conduct an uncomfortable, time-wasting phone call.

Scenario B – You receive an email back from the reference informing you that the candidate was in fact exceptional and they’d be happy to tell you more.

Congratulations! Looks like you found a star, now it’s time to have a chat to confirm the candidate is as great as you think they are and learn more about your soon-to-be employee.

Scenario C – You receive a call within 5 minutes of sending your email asking if the candidate is on the market for a new job, and if so, can you have the candidate call the reference back ASAP.

Congratulations! You’ve definitely found a winner. Don’t let the candidate return the call and make an offer immediately before someone else does. This scenario has actually happened to me a few times. It’s the best predictor of the quality of candidate I’ve ever seen. We immediately made offers to those candidates and without fail they turned out to be our best hires.


So why does this method work? It leverages the power of choosing a default option. Research by Eric Johnson and Daniel Goldstein demonstrated how opt-in versus opt-out decisions dramatically affect participation in organ donation programs; using a default option in the reference check allows you to affect results in a similar way.

Unlike the traditional reference check method, which elicits an overly positive response in order to preserve social harmony, the “average-need-not-apply” method uses the opposite bias.  By giving the reference an easy default – in this case doing nothing – this technique gauges just how great the reference thinks the candidate is.

Those who have a strong positive opinion of a candidate take the time to write back. By using this method, an employer can collect more data points on the potential hire with just a few emails instead of scheduling phone calls. In my experience, the results are binary. Most of the emails yield glowing replies or radio silence; both speak volumes.

By utilizing a bit of behavioral engineering instead of performing the reference check, employers can make better hiring decisions and make the hiring process better for everyone involved – except maybe the B-players.

Here’s the gist:

  • Reference checks suck for everyone involved. They take a lot of time and, on average, yield mediocre results.
  • Use the power of default settings to make the reference check process better.
  • Instead of scheduling a long call to discuss how good the person you’re considering hiring is, make the default setting “no action.”
  • This cognitive trick will get you what you really want: truly exceptional candidates.

Photo credit: Omarukai

Note: This essay originally appeared in TechCrunch

Get my latest blog posts by subscribing now!

Share this essay:

  • Randy Halbedl

    This technique seems pretty straightforward to use: the “opt-out” filter and does get you thinking about a dynamic of filtering recommendations–and it does save time in making calls.

    But it doesn’t always take into account the laziness, apathy or several other factors going on with the person that would give the recommendation.

    There might be a number of equally legitimate reasons why a recommendation source might opt-out of responding for a candidate hire. Busy-ness, not a friend, laziness, apathy, too much time passed, etc. What if the candidate thought the recommendation would give a glowing response (and gave less than that?). Would Salieri give Mozart (ref: “Amadeus”) a glowing recommendation or would he opt out? I think the latter.

    Another factor here is what if I want to hire someone who is solidly in the B-scale? Maybe my hiring budget only allows for that. What if I want to hire someone who is reliable/steady but not exceptional (top 10%)?

    This “opt-out” technique should be used as only one weighting factor among several in my opinion. If I’m having trouble short listing candidates for a project I’m running, I need to get some counsel or other eyes to help me grow where I’m needing help to see the implications of people+skills I’m interviewing for.

  • Randy Halbedl

    I’ve known people in the past who’ve approached former employers and coworkers and said to them…”if I apply for a job in the future, would you be willing to give me a good recommendation?”. If they say yes, they do them some favor and I’ve saved HR people who make lots of calls the trouble of filtering me out. The psychology can work in the reverse. The candidate would only give references for “opt-in” recommenders.

  • I’ve been in recruiting for 20+ years and received this reference check template about a contractor I worked with and was simply horrified. This is not good advice and I strongly recommend you not send this template as-is . Hiring and reference checking is not cut-and-paste work.

    The truth of the matter is that there aren’t “good people” and “bad people” – everyone has their strengths and weaknesses and hiring is about fit.

    Inquire whether the person you are checking the reference on is good for the *work you need them to do* (which you’ll need to explain) and if they are going to be a good fit for *you and your style* (which you’ll also need to explain) and if you work for a fast growing startup whether they are good in a chaotic environment and if they can learn things fast. The truth is the person you are checking a reference from may or may not have insight into these things.

    This sort of brute force template, simply, is insulting to the hiring process itself and makes you come off like some sort of elitist (insert expletive here) who doesn’t understand how people work.

    There’s no harm in asking if someone is great, or absurdly great, but if you’ve found someone you like take the trouble to ask if they’ll be great for what you need to get done & how you want to work with people.

    People who can provide references can only do so in the context that they know the person.

    You send the template above as-is.

    1. The person responds and says they are awesome. what they did for the person was take out the trash. you are looking for them to be your cto.
    2. The person responds and says they suck. In fact they are the worst micro manager in history and every good person who has ever worked for them has quit.

    Dan Arkind