Do employee referrals better!

A lot of companies have an awful track record at running employee referral programs. It doesn't have to be that way — here’s some suggestions.

A great hire can make or break a project, team, or company — I’ve seen that firsthand in dozens of companies I’ve advised over the years. And while employee referrals have their own quirks, doing them well can be a powerful rocket-booster to your hiring process.

1 — Build a culture where referrals are taken seriously

Pick that guy!

To your existing team, it’s important that they know what you are looking for in an employee referral. That’s harder to do than it sounds — because we rarely teach our team what we are looking for in referrals, and what the selection criteria are.

The important thing to impress on referrers is that the people they refer are people who they think are a good fit with the company, which could add substantial insights and value to the companies in question. This isn’t about “the dude I play volleyball with said he was unemployed” — this is about social currency. Build a culture where your team members understand that if they recommend someone — they are putting their own reputation behind this person. The trick is to build a culture where they aren’t just giving you an email address to someone who might be poachable — they are actively endorsing and encouraging this person to work with you.

Build a culture where your team members understand that if they recommend someone — they are putting their own reputation behind this person.

You can help reinforce this by asking for a little bit of context around the potential hire — questions like the following help guide the process in the right direction:

  1. How well do you know the person you are referring?
  2. How long have you worked with this person in a professional capacity?
  3. How did you work with this person? Were they your manager, or did you manage them? Did you work on the same project together?
  4. Why do you think this person is a good fit at our company?

It may be a good idea to incentivize referrals with referral bonuses — but in some cases that can be a perverse incentive to refer people who wouldn’t be a good fit — because suddenly your referrers have a vested financial interest in you hiring their referrals. The true benefit of referring people into your company, after all, is to get to work with incredible people. Choosing to work with the same people more than once means that you know what your professional chemistry is like.

2 — Take referrals seriously

Once you’ve built a culture where referrals are approached with the seriousness they deserve —you now have a user experience challenge on your hands. The existing employee is expending social capital to refer someone, and the person who was referred in knows that they have an ‘inside track’ into the company. What happens next is a direct reflection on you as a company.

I’ve recently been referred into a number of big companies (Amazon, HP, Apple) and a large number (10+) of smaller startups. Literally none of them did a good job. At HP, I was referred for a job I may very well have been uniquely qualified for, but I got an automated “sorry, we don’t need you” email without as much as a screening call. Do you think I’ll apply there again? And what do you think the friend who referred me in — and went out of their way to introduce me to people I could talk to to learn more about the role — feels in this instance?

You now have a user experience challenge on your hands

You don’t get many chances to make a first impression, so make it count:

  1. Contact the referred person ASAP to schedule a screening call with them.
  2. If it isn’t a good fit for the role, or if the role is filled, do a screening call anyway. Remember point 1 above (“build a culture where referrals are taken seriously”) — if you have a culture where people only refer good candidates, the candidate is good, even if the role is filled. Perhaps there are other opportunities.
  3. If it’s a bad fit, give some feedback to the referrer, if relevant. The idea is to turn this into a learning loop. A poor referral is a training and learning opportunity to further help your company improve its hiring processes.
  4. If it’s a bad fit for this role, but potentially a good fit with the company — follow up with the candidate to see if there are other roles they might be interested in / qualified for.

Got a Haje-shaped hole in your organization? I’m looking for something pretty specific.

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