Picking the Best Startup Job References

November 26, 2019
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You’re a few steps into the interview process and things are looking good—the job lines up with your skills and goals, the people you’ve met all seem competent and interesting, the product is cool, and they keep calling you back in—and now it’s time for references. You could always share contact info for your most recent manager and be done with it, but (especially when you’re interviewing at startups) you should give your choices more thought if you want your best shot at the job.

Startups are almost paradoxically risk averse when it comes to adding a new team member. They’re small enough and tight-knit enough that they hire conservatively and only when they’re truly excited about the candidate. Even if you’re the only candidate currently being considered, you have to compete with the “keep looking” option. How do you provide your hiring manager with references that will go beyond confirming dates and titles and actively sell your candidacy?

Pick references that reassure and reinforce

References are critical steps for startups’ hiring processes. While a corporate recruiter may just be calling to verify your job history, a startup founder calling your former (or current) boss is probably going to be asking a lot more questions—they want to use the call as much as they can to surface any reasons you might not work out. The good news is that you can use this tendency to your advantage if you pay attention during the interview process.

Think about the conversations you’ve had so far. Since you got this far, they’ve probably been encouraging and well-received, but nobody’s perfect. Where was the hesitance? What kinds of questions did each interviewer dig into? If you can find the friction, your reference is an amazing tool to smooth it out.

Let’s say, for example, that you’re interviewing for a job that’s a little more senior than the one you’re leaving. You’ll be the more junior half of a two-person department for now, but it’s a growing startup, so the role expects you to take on some leadership responsibilities in the future. It’s likely that the hiring manager asked about your people-management skills along the line. If you said you had never had a direct report (or just one), but you’d hired and mentored interns, how did the hiring manager feel about that? You may want to think about which of your potential references can speak best to your skills as a leader on teams or projects even if you didn’t have direct management responsibilities to any of the contributors.

Sometimes it’s worth calling in a reference that knows less about your execution or day-to-day contributions if they can be a valuable character witness or shore up any weaknesses in your own presentation of your interpersonal qualities. On the other hand, if the role’s requirements are a bit of a stretch for your skillset, you may want to build a set of references that can confidently speak to your current abilities and your willingness to quickly learn on the job.

How to secure a glowing reference

The most important best practice with regard to references is to only send contact information (or even names) to the hiring manager once your contact has agreed to provide one and you are both comfortable with the conversation that they’re likely to have.

The quality of the reference you get from your contact is largely dependent on your relationship with the person and your contributions work-wise, but you can also increase their effectiveness through the way you ask them and how well you prepare them for the conversation. As long as you have been a good employee and a decent human being, most people will be willing to give a reference (or tell you why not if they aren’t comfortable doing so), so it’s up to you to sort out the glowing review from the “yes, she was an employee”. For this reason, the best way to secure great references is to maintain your network proactively.

When it’s time to ask for a reference for a specific role, pick your contacts and reach out a little more formally than you normally would—even if you occasionally text, send an email. You’re asking a favor and the favor involves some work on their part, so your ask needs to be as polite, as clear, and as unobtrusive as possible.

To ask for a reference, include the name of the company, the name of the hiring manager, and a short description of the job along with anything you think the contact needs to know about the conversations you’ve had. The point of this step is to equip the reference with enough information to decide whether or not they are willing to help you out. Even a close former manager who was happy with your work may have reservations about recommending you for a job they view as potentially a bad fit for your skills or personality, and it’s important to remember that they have an ethical duty to be honest in these cases—you’d rather they be honest with you at this point than say something that could jeopardize your chances on the call.

In most cases, if someone has questions about your fitness for a role, they’ll just ask you about it. If they want to talk, it’s to your advantage to bend backward to accommodate them here, since they’re putting in even more work to have this conversation than they would to simply agree. Be honest and up-front about why you think you’re a good fit or why the role is interesting enough for you to make a risky move. In return, your reference will be honest about where they have reservations and, usually, how they’ll handle it if the conversation goes in the direction of whatever they’re hesitant about. You still haven’t committed to this reference, so listen carefully, and consider if you’re still confident in the reference they’ll give.

A few reference don’ts

Picking a great reference and equipping them to have a useful, pleasant conversation takes a little bit of thought and effort, but picking a bad reference takes no thought or effort at all.  To make sure we’ve covered all the bases, here are a few surefire ways to screw up a reference check:

  • Fake references. Especially when they’re desperate or have little experience, some candidates ask a friend to pretend to be a former manager. Aside from being unethical, illegal (if they’re pretending to be a person who actually exists), and disqualifying for those reasons alone, this is a terrible idea because any hiring manager will figure it out instantly—especially in the age of the internet.
  • Providing references before asking. If you don’t take the time to ask a reference first before you send their contact info along to the hiring manager, you’re not only missing out on a chance to prepare them adequately, you’re also creating an obligation they didn’t agree to. Abusing their generosity might hurt your relationship overall.
  • Lateral references. Although most hiring managers will specify which types of references they want, some don’t. In such cases, always default to either your direct managers or management-level higher-ups who are familiar with your work. Sending along a peer’s phone number or a manager in another department with whom you are friendly but didn’t work together will just waste their time and the hiring manager’s.

Job references should clinch the gig

Only you really know your work history and your relationships with higher-ups. If you think before you ask, you can approach a mix of contacts that will present you in the best way possible to the hiring manager. Asking politely, prepping adequately, and selecting carefully will help you by providing the hiring manager with every opportunity they need to go from interested to enthusiastic. Since startups only hire when they’re excited to bring a person on board, a little work at this step can make the difference between a pass and an offer.

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