How Kevin Bacon Can Help You Recruit No-Cost Referrals

Having been coined the unofficial “Godfather of referrals,” I am frequently asked how to utilize referrals in the all-too-common case in which the organization has no formal referral program or budget. Because the situation is more common than you might expect, it’s no surprise that some great workarounds have been developed by leading practitioners. My favorite approach leverages the whole “six degrees of separation” phenomena made famous by the Kevin Bacon connection. It centers around holding small parties where employees open their Rolodexes in whatever form they may exist to recruiters. T

hese events are typically so low cost that they are almost free, they require little structure, and have been used successfully by recruiting powerhouses like Eli Lily, Booz Allen Hamilton, and FirstMerit Bank, to name a few.

What is a Rolodex Party?

Rolodex parties are informal departmental or business unit meetings where top performers are brought into a conference room and are then asked to “download” and share from their personal contacts the names of the very best individuals that they know at other firms. If you were around in the ’60s and ’70s, that data might be stored in a Rolodex; if you’re a product of the ’80s and early ’90s, it might be an organizer. And if you’re current, it is most likely in a PDA, mobile phone, or email-based contact manager. Regardless of where the information is stored, the very best names are gathered at the party and are then targeted by recruiters to fill current and future job openings.

Why Do Rolodex/PDA Parties Work?

Most referral programs rely on advertising or marketing materials to motivate employees to produce referrals. Unfortunately, those materials stop working after a short period of time. In addition, many of the top-performing individuals in your organization who are well connected are just too busy to offer referrals on a regular basis. What is needed is a proactive approach that seeks out these individuals and asks them directly to join in a team effort to identify recruiting targets. Yes, part of their motivation for showing up is a free lunch or cake or ice cream during a slow work period, but the primary inducement is that Rolodex parties are a team effort, in which everyone chips in and does his or her part. The energy at these parties is contagious, and everyone strives to produce both high quality and a high quantity of names.

The reason that you target address books and contact lists is because, just like Kevin Bacon’s famous six degrees of separation, the very best at other firms can almost always be connected to the very best people in your own firm. Now, you can ask your own employees in a one-on-one meeting to identify these top performers; but, it turns out invariably they draw a blank if you ask them in an unstructured way to identify who is really good at other firms. If you don’t believe the degrees of separation phenomena, test it yourself. If you look through well-connected employees’ Rolodexes, PDAs, address books, mobile phone listings, and email addresses, the number of people that well-connected individuals know is phenomenal.

Frequently Asked Questions about Rolodex/PDA Parties How often should they be held?

Because individuals don’t add names to their PDAs or Rolodexes at a rapid rate, there’s not much benefit to holding Rolodex parties too frequently. I recommend twice a year and certainly no more often than four times a year, unless a sudden need arises. In addition, if you request information too often, you’ll frustrate or bore your employees.

Where should they be physically held?

The most effective parties have participation limited to the department or the business unit in which the recruiting will occur. This is simply because the individuals who are most likely to know the great names in a particular field are generally concentrated in a single department or business unit. Because everyone participating is from the same team, there’s more willingness to attend and contribute to help the team. A lot of the energy is lost with a large group, so the team’s own conference room is generally the best size and location to hold the event. Other options include holding these events during regularly scheduled quarterly business meetings, during group training, or at off-site meetings.

How do I entice individuals to attend? Generally, the best way to start the invitation process is to send out an e-mail “red alert,” notifying only the targeted individuals that their help is desperately needed. Other approaches include making a simple announcement at the regular staff meeting and directly asking the local manager to set aside 15 minutes at the beginning, during a break, or right at the end of regular staff meetings for the name-dumping event. If you decide to hold a separate event, try to schedule it during a slow part of the business cycle when an offering of a free lunch or cake will likely attract almost everyone you want. Individuals who cannot attend for some reason can later be approached individually. If you have the funds, offering something as little as a $10 Starbucks coffee card or having a senior manager attend will also dramatically impact attendance. If you want continued participation and attendance over time, communicate how successful the effort has been by providing a “feedback loop” that notifies participants if any of the names presented at their session resulted in a successful hire, or eventually, a hire who turns out to be a top performer.

Why not offer regular referral bonus rewards?

The key motivator and the prime reason that Rolodex parties work is because it is a team effort in which everyone pitches in to identify recruiting targets. It’s a group activity and the competitive pressure in the room is generally enough to get attendees to participate and provide names. Once you add an individual referral bonus, you change the “do it for the good of the team” mentality. In addition, you essentially waste money on rewards that are not necessary. Before you offer significant individual rewards, remember that the end product of these events is generally just names. The participating individuals have not completed the time-consuming process of prescreening, pre-selling, and convincing the individual to apply, which normally are required in order to earn a referral bonus.

Who should be invited?

Almost everyone knows someone, but top-performing individuals like Tiger Woods tend to know more highly qualified people than someone like Homer Simpson. As a result, focus on recruiting participants who are top performers in the job family you’re targeting for recruiting. You should also invite “super-knowers” – well-connected individuals who just seem to know and remain connected to almost everyone. Next, focus on individuals who are currently in the particular job for which you are currently recruiting, followed by well-connected managers, contractors, or even consultants currently working for you. In most cases, the optimal number of people to invite is 12 or fewer because large numbers of people are hard to manage. It’s also true that the sheer volume of names offered by large groups often results in meetings that last longer than an hour, which is a mistake if you want people to come back to these events in the future.

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Are there technology alternatives?

In the case where your team cannot meet physically very often due to geographic dispersion, Internet meetings, conference calls, and even team instant-messaging sessions can work, provided that the person directing the meeting is well-respected and the time is limited to 30 minutes or less. Another technology option, which for some reason very few people have taken advantage of, is a software package known as ActiveNet (there are several competing packages also available). This type of software has the capability of searching through your entire corporation’s emails, PowerPoint slides, and online address books to identify the individuals who are most likely to know someone at a targeted firm, or to know someone with a specific area of expertise. This kind of software can search files and assign a probability to which employees, for example, are likely to know “Tiger Woods,” which employees speak Korean, which used to work at Apple Computer, or which employee has expertise in nanotechnology.

Should I target specific individuals or firms?

Most definitely. Some firms create a most-wanted list of individuals whom they identify at the beginning of the year, and then target them throughout the year. The names of these game changers are already known, so in these cases, you are looking for individuals who have relationships with them, so that they can eventually use the relationship to help convince the individual to actually come in for an interview. If your organization is trying to learn from specific competing or benchmark firms, start the session by saying you’re looking in particular for individuals from certain targeted firms.

What should you do after you gather the names?

The right approach here varies by company. Some enter the names in a centralized who’s-who database for future sourcing. Other firms look for situations in which identical names are provided by two or more different employees, and in these unique cases, the individuals will be immediately targeted by recruiters. Some organizations with limited recruiting staffs ask the employees who know the targeted individual to make the first recruiting contact directly.

Common Problems

Rolodex/PDA parties are pretty straightforward, and as a result, they are hard to screw up, but errors do occur. The most common ones include having the meetings last too long, holding the parties too often, not using the manager to encourage attendance, having a weak facilitator, and not providing metrics or feedback on how successful they were.


Recruiters in many fields and especially health care (in which every nurse and radiologist knows a hundred others) are constantly whining about how difficult it is to find the names of top candidates. They spend thousands of dollars on agencies and job boards when the names of the very best people were available right under their noses in their own employees’ contact files. If you’re willing to try them, you will invariably find that holding a well-run Rolodex/PDA party can produce maximum results for little more than the cost of a few desserts. So, let them eat cake, and see if the results aren’t as amazing and as easy as finding actors connected to Kevin Bacon!

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



3 Comments on “How Kevin Bacon Can Help You Recruit No-Cost Referrals

  1. Generally, I appreciate the author’s perspective on recruiting issues and regulary read his contributions; on this particular article I could not concur.

    Although it can be a highly effective tool to gather names, this idea has considerable drawbacks both from a recruiting perspective and perhaps even more so from the standpoint of building and preserving team morale.

    I will limit my comments to the latter:

    As the article points out, the pressure is the reason these ‘parties’ are successful (by the way, I think that’s what Sen. Joe McCarthy used to say.) What is overlooked is most people don’t want information extracted from them under pressure.

    It will probably be labeled internally as a way to avoid paying referrals by forcing people to knuckle under and download their own personal network in front of their peers.

    The article does not acknowledge that most of us know/like people with whom we would choose not to work. Nor does it recognize, people also have mentors or know others who might be better for the job, and find themselves trying to escape another’s shadow. But by using an employee’s OWN MANAGER to browbeat them into participating in sharing personal information for the ‘good of the team’, you will lower the feeling of mutual respect so important in functional work groups.

    Another solution, which would probably be received better than applying pressure to employees in a group setting for cake and punch; download all address books on company computers – after all, it is the company’s property, as is the information it holds. At least then you can perhaps deflect the impending animosity to the corporation rather than creating/increasing the perception of a manipulative Manager.

    However, as a TPR, I welcome the idea. I would love to talk to candidates within 2-3 weeks of this ‘Party.’ Taking up this line of discussion, a TPR could really gain traction with a few employees by exploring their emotions after such an event. Then we’d have a different kind of extraction party…

    After reading this article, I’m not swayed that if you can’t coax names out of your current employees with a financial reward, extracting information under pressure is a better idea.

    Happy Hunting!

  2. Really a Rolladex – now as an X I know what it is but only ever see one at my 55 year old accountants offices. I can’t imagine a Y would even know what the word means.

    In the interests of public safety I hear-by rename the Rolladex Party to the Blackberry Party.

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