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  • Writer's pictureBen Kettle

The Reference-Reference & the Side Reference

Updated: Jan 3, 2022

Two ways to leverage candidate references for fun and profit.

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The Reference-Reference and the Side Reference

The second most popular reason, according to SHRM/, that organizations perform reference checks is to improve the quality of their hires.

Improving the quality of your hires is very different from the background checks we discussed last week. Whereas background checks are almost exclusively about protection, reference checks are almost exclusively about candidate success. In this post, we’ll talk about how to improve candidate quality, and maybe even network a little, by using reference checks.

A Warning

Before we dive in a quick word of warning. If someone is interviewing for a new job there’s a pretty good chance their current employer doesn’t know that they’re looking. And you really don’t want to be the person to inadvertently inform their employer.

It is always a good idea to err on the side of discretion when checking references. At the very least it’s OK to ask the candidate if their current employers know that they are looking and if their current employers don’t know you need to be respectful.

Skepticism of Candidate Supplied References

For obvious reasons, it’s not a great idea to take the references provided by the candidate at face value. Particularly for meaningful roles, it’s a bad idea to view reference checks as a “check the box” activity.

Skepticism of candidate supplied references
From QuickMeme

So what do you do instead?

Go next level. There are two approaches you can take here. Neither takes the candidate’s references at face value, but both increase the probability of candidate success if done well.

The Reference-Reference

A favorite of the federal government¹ (and my friend Nick)² is a move I call the Reference Reference. The Reference Reference is particularly useful if you don’t (or can’t) know anyone at the candidate’s current company.

To run the Reference Reference talk to the original reference but toward the end of the conversation ask them “hey, I appreciate your time today, is there anyone else [the candidate] worked with who would have a good perspective on [thing you are most concerned or unclear about]?” Once they tell you who to talk to then go talk to that person.

The key benefit of this approach is that the abstraction gives you a clearer picture of how the candidate operates with less influence and coaching from the candidate. You’ll get a much clearer picture of the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses and thus, reduce the risk that you will make a bad hire.

Side References

The other approach is the Side Reference. This is a technique that is much more common in smaller communities where you may know someone who has worked with the candidate in the past or it makes sense for you to cold reach out to a previous colleague or manager.

In his excellent “What’s going on here, with this human?”³ the investment manager Graham Duncan strongly advocates this approach:

I now consider in-person references with someone who knows the candidate well 5x more valuable than an interview. They can be 10x more valuable when you are already in a high-trust relationship with the reference-giver, and the reference-giver is in a position to see the candidate clearly, with no agendas and few blind spots of their own.

Notice the implication there. You have to be able to understand the reference-giver’s perspective and agenda clearly, and ideally in a professional context. In other words, the reference is a data point that needs critical evaluation just as any other part of the process.

Further in his essay, Duncan goes on to describe his mindset when conducting reference calls. His approach is refreshing, he focuses on where the candidate fits best, regardless of role.

I try to imagine myself as head of people operations…. that I’m agnostic as to where they should sit and just trying to help them get to the best spot.

I have used the side-reference and it works well. Once, while interviewing a candidate, it became clear to my colleagues and me that the candidate still harbored some shock, bitterness, and hurt feelings. Which we assumed stemmed from a recent layoff. While we were sympathetic to the candidate’s situation, we also wanted to make sure that the negative attitude was a direct result of the layoff rather than a consistent personality trait.

Thankfully, I knew an executive at the candidate’s former company and gave them a call. I’m glad I did. The executive I talked to was unconditionally supportive of the candidate, confirmed the candidate’s strengths without solicitation, and provided some guidance on how to best manage them.

Since then the candidate has gone on to have a thriving professional (and, for what it’s worth, personal) life. My colleagues and I used the side-reference to answer one of our biggest questions about the candidate and, that risk abated, were able to hire someone with incredible talent who I’m proud to call a friend today.


  • Be discreet.

  • Don’t take a candidate’s references at face value.

  • Run a Reference-Reference by asking the candidate’s reference for someone else to talk to.

  • Leverage your network to use Side-References and get a clear picture of how the candidate works on a day-to-day level.

  • As always, think critically and consider the source. If a reference-giver can’t or won’t provide detail, has clear biases themselves, or seems disengaged, you may want to find someone else or maybe accept the fact that the candidate isn’t so great.


1 The federal government loves this approach, particularly for background checks. Once while being investigated for a Top Secret clearance (it’s a long story) the investigators took my list of two references and expanded it to at least ten people. In the end, I got the clearance.

2 Nick was in the Air Force. Which may explain his affinity for the method (see above footnote).

3 Duncan’s piece is really worth the read. Don’t be surprised if you see it repeatedly referenced on Lying to Ourselves in the future. Or, if podcasts and Tim Ferris are more your vibe, you can listen to Tim interview Graham Duncan here.

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