A lot of the success of a new company depends on the people it hires. Just today I spoke to a rather well-known start-up that has recently won an international award, and they commented on how painful it was to let someone they shouldn’t have hired go. Making a hiring mistake is very, very costly.
So how do we choose that person? Well, let’s start by making sure we don’t miss out on something that funnily enough is not done very often: a reference.
A CV can be brilliantly written, yet the best of job seekers have been known to use boring standard templates, and less than 5% of people include achievements in their resume. It doesn’t tell you all you need to know, it only tells you whether an interview with that applicant is worth your time.
Likewise, the interview itself is a minefield for both you and the interviewee. They try and answer what they think you want to hear, you try and dig (hopefully) to find the truth. Sometimes you even do psych tests to find out the things you can’t “read”.
But simply put, even if the CV is excellent and the interview goes fantastically well, in fact even if your applicant passes your tests and programs like a demon, one small phone call where the referee tells you how bad the candidate is, will cause you to change your mind.
This is because hiring someone means you’re entering into a relationship with them, and the best person to tell you how they perform is their last manager. Just phoning and asking “What can you say about Johnny?” isn’t really doing a reference. You have to script out what you’d like to know first so as not to forget asking. Did you pick up something in the interview you were unsure of?
There are a hundred other things you can ask a referee, but the most important for me is always straight after I ask a standard question, I then follow up with: “Can you give me an example of that?” More often than not, this is where you get the real meat of the matter, and find out what kind of person you are really going to hire, and mostly, manage.
I also make sure to check the person’s CV with that manager, as far as possible. Most managers know or remember quite a bit about their previous staff, and this is where you pick up discrepancies. This may sound overly skeptical, but this is your last chance – usually if a reference is good an the rest is good, you’re going to make an offer.
Something to end off with: a reference is not usually done to a cellphone number. That’s the fastest route to a “friend or family” referee. Call their previous company’s landline and get put through to their ex-manager. That way you know you’re more likely dealing with the truth.
Like I said before – recruiting, including reference taking, is riddled with potential nightmares, because you’re dealing with people, not products. Hiring the right folks is awesome, but a small error here can cripple your startup.