Recruiting in a world with so many “friends.”
By John Sumser

Referrals are the best way to find new employees, right? Sort of. But you are no more likely to hire all of your employees through a referral program than you are to broil everything you eat.
When you’re hunting for team members who will give the company a powerful competitive edge in a specific technology, do you want the VP of marketing’s frat brother or the Nobel prize winning scientist? Conversely, when you’re staffing a call center, do you want a hotshot Harvard Business School graduate or the brother-in-law of your best performer?
Pretty much, you never want to use referral programs to staff functions with check writing authority. Referrals, like any recruiting methodology, have their place. They can be powerfully useful. They can also cause culture-rot if managed without care. Sometimes, referrals are not referrals.
Referral programs range in design from high-volume candidate flow drivers to the sort of referral you might make about a bottle of wine or a good restaurant. While the implementation approaches range widely in effectiveness, the idea that all referral programs yield predictable and repeatable results persists.
At its core, an individual referral involves some key elements on both the employee side and the employer side.

It benefits from an employee who:
• has the best interests of the organization at heart;
• knows the sorts of people who can help the company
meet its goals;
• is willing to stake her professional reputation on a recommendation;
• believes that her recommendation will help her friend get the job;
• can adequately distinguish among her interests, her friend’s interests, and the company’s interests; and
• is willing to live with the cognitive dissonance associated with integrating her social and work personae.

It benefits from an employer (really, a hiring manager) who:
• values the employee’s recommendations;
• believes that the workforce will be better if there are “more like her”;
• is willing to give an advantage to someone the employee recommends;
• is comfortable blurring the lines between work and social life;
• wants accountability for acting on referrals to be a part of the employment relationship;
• is willing to risk the morale damage if it doesn’t work out; and
• is willing to be vigilant on the discrimination front.
Referral programs can differ markedly, depending on how much emphasis is put on each of these variables.
All referral programs are more or less like lottery drawings. The most effective versions of the game are played in close quarters (I recommend you to my friend in HR, and you get the job).
Like any process where actual dirt gets under actual fingernails, an astonishing intimacy ties the recommendation to performance in a very direct way. When executives say that referrals are the best source of new employees, this is what they are talking about.
Close, personal referrals are those in which everyone has real skin in the game. While there is some chance that your friend won’t get the job, the whole idea is that your recommendation improves the likelihood that she’ll be coming to work for the company. Still, there’s always the chance that it won’t work out.
At the other end of the spectrum are mass efforts to increase the number of names that go into the top of the funnel. Each and every employee, regardless of performance or attitude, is asked to contribute friends and connections to the company’s talent pool (perhaps, talent cesspool is closer). There is little intimacy and even less chance that one’s recommendation is meaningful. All of the names collected in this sort of a program go into the same queue as the other people applying for jobs. It’s just like buying your friend a lottery ticket—and every bit as likely to pay off.
This new form of referral, divorced from all of its social intimacy, is the stuff that social media recruiting tools are peddling. Since Andresson-Horrowitz founded Top Prospect, there has been a rush of lemmings racing toward the nirvana of social media-generated referrals. For all of the supposed innovation in that segment, there sure is a lot of “chase the bunny” going on.
At any rate, the kinds of referral programs that work are the ones where all of the players have real skin in the game. A one-in-10,000 shot at winning the prize, getting the job, and achieving the recognition is not skin in the game. Investing one’s reputation to help a friend and the company is.
Since we no longer know what a friend is, it’s no surprise that we’re forgetting what a referral is.
John Sumser is a technology consultant, trade show producer, and webmaster of He can be reached at

Tags: Consultants & Advisors, Enabling Technology, HRO Today Forum APAC, HRO Today Forum Europe, HRO Today Forum North America, HRO Today Global, HRO Today STA, Professional Contribution, RPO Staffing, Talent Acquisition

Recent Articles