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I've heard various people say "References are BS". I actually hadn't done them while hiring at @google or @classpass. But I've been doing them at @figmadesign for ~2.5 years, and I have to say, they've been incredibly helpful if you use them well. Quick thread 👇
1. Ask specific questions. It's not enough to just say, "What are their strengths and weaknesses". You want to get moments, stories, anecdotes. Have a real conversation. If you feel you're getting an answer that's too high level, push more for examples and discourage platitudes.
^ Consider asking something like: “how would you rank them in the top 25 designers you’ve worked with?”. While this can be tricky, it causes them to think more deeply and offer better specificity.
2. Pro-tip: use it as an opportunity to be a better manager for the future candidate! It shouldn't just be about evaluating them or validating a hypothesis. Use this moment to gather great advice from former managers on how to best set them up for success.
^ You'd be amazed how many times when I ask “how can I best support this person?", the references are pleasantly surprised because they'd never been asked that! I've even done references after an offer to make it clear the call is strictly about how to best grow the person
3. If you want to learn more about a specific area you didn't get enough color on during the interview, don't be afraid to ask about it directly. I also encourage you to ask the candidate these things too after the interview over a phone call!
^ Direct conversations can uncover so much about what may have just been nerves during the interview, and also sets up the relationship with the candidate off to a good start about how you would treat them as their manager; ideally with consideration, curiosity, and honesty.
4. Pay attention to subtle cues. Use hesitations as opportunities to dive deeper. People are often worried about being critical. Remind them that you are genuinely interested in what's best for the candidate, and just want to help them be successful.
5. You don't know the full story of the person's last job, so don't over-lean on the references either. Their full potential may just not have been unlocked in certain environments. Be aware of recency bias, and remember to look at the full data set when making a decision.
6. THANK THEM. This person volunteered their time and energy to support another person as a reference. What a beautiful self-less thing for them to do. They didn't have to do it.
7. If you're a candidate, consider REVERSE REFERENCES. Learn about the company through either past-employees, or current ones you didn't meet yet. Learn about the manager by talking to current or prior reports. It's a 2-way street; you deserve to learn more post-interview too!
I’ve got more thoughts on this, but that’s enough for now. I’d love to hear your thoughts too! What do you think of them? Are they BS? Helpful? How can they be improved?

My Notes:

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Noah Levin

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