How to Use References the Right Way

Beatriz Boavida
Mar 07, 2024
5 min read

Hiring is all about finding a solid match between you and your future employee.

For that, you want to have the clearest perspective on how that person works, their attitudes, their mindset, etc. Employers usually try to form this impression on the phone screening with potential candidates. Nevertheless, potential hires will take this chance to showcase their best selves, so it can be harder to get to their not-so-pretty image.

Peter Engelbrecht, co-founder of Firmafon and CEO coach, used potential candidate references to get the “dirt” and easily decide on who to pass to the next phase. In this article, we will explore his method for obtaining this kind of valuable information.

Meet the leader: Peter Engelbrecht

As co-founder and CEO of Firmafon for 10 years, Peter Engelbrecht experienced the importance of having the right people working with him. 

During those years at Firmafon, Peter created a simple and effective process for hiring great talent, where he aligned skills with company values, and included chemistry in the mixture. One of the techniques he used in the initial phases of the hiring process was references, through which he could quickly decide if a person would be a great match or not.

Why use references

References allow you to gain information about your potential hire. Usually, they will give you the contact of their previous manager, which makes it easier to eventually validate what the potential candidate told you during the interview.

This is one of the benefits of references: To run a fact-check on the candidate.

The other benefit lies in getting access to the full picture of a candidate. Nevertheless, this can be a real challenge for employers.

Pitfalls when using references

Ideally, you want to know both the potential hire’s strengths and weaknesses, their green and red flags. 

The problem is that most people tend to be nice when giving insights on another person. The managers that only share the good profile usually do so because they sense they have nothing to win by being fully honest and, thus, they do not find it worth it to potentially risk the relationship they have with the candidate.

Nevertheless, if you manage to bypass this situation, the information you obtain is the most valuable to help you decide who continues in the hiring process.

The bulletproof formula for getting references right

To avoid the extremely positive talk about a potential hire, Peter Engelbrecht has an effective and simple method of conducting the conversation both with the potential candidate and with their previous manager. 

Here is his 3-step formula:

Ask the potential candidate for references

When you are having your interview with the potential hire ask them for references. Some people may have their manager's name and contact information on their CV, others may not have this included. Either way, make sure you obtain these details.

Once they facilitate that information, ask them: “What would [name of the manager] say if I called him and asked about your three biggest strengths and your three biggest development areas?

Then, Peter Engelbrecht advises you to ask a follow-up question – “Are you ok with me calling [manager’s name] about that?” – because in some countries you need to have the candidate’s consensus to contact the manager. 

It is a red flag when a potential candidate refuses to give you references. You can use the ratio of the managers you can contact to rank potential candidates 😉

Do a fact-check with the manager

Use the call with your potential hire’s previous manager to double-check some information and maybe even gain more insights.

Do a check for: The position your potential hire has/had, the period he was at the company, their key assignments, etc.

Look for any information that can give you a good background about the candidate’s work at the other company.

Example: “[name of candidate] said it was ok to call you. He/She’s looking for a position as a product manager in my team. I know he/she worked as a product manager for you, is that right? / When did he/she start? / When did he/she finish? / What were his/hers key assignments and responsibilities? / What are his/hers three biggest strengths? / What are his/hers three biggest development areas?

References are also a great tool to assess the potential candidate’s ability to self-reflect. If the manager’s perspective aligns with the one the potential hire shared, they are high in self-awareness, which can be seen as a green flag.

Ask the manager for a rating

To get to the “dirt”, Peter advises you to ask one key question: “So if you were to rate [ex-employee’s name] as 1 being ‘the worst product manager you’ve ever seen’ and 10 being ‘the best you could ever imagine’ – How would you rate [ex-employee’s name]?

Based on the answer, you can use Peter’s rule of thumb to decide whether or not you are moving forward with the potential hire:

These additional questions are your chance to go deeper in the search for the accurate profile of your potential hire.


References are an effective strategy to easily look for a match when hiring.

Remember to ask for those references when you are first speaking to the potential candidate.

During the conversation with the manager, start by doing a fact check and then ask them to rate the person on a scale from 1 to 10:

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