The 3 Levels of Employee Referral Solicitations

  • Employee referral posters in our hallways? Check.
  • Employee referral program discussed within a new hire’s first few weeks (maybe even during our orientation)? Check.
  • Employees who make referrals are recognized (with bonuses and good ol’ fashioned public recognition)? Check.
  • Recruiters regularly soliciting referrals from employees? Most recruiters do. But what do the best do differently?

As consultants and trainers, we work with a lot of different recruitment teams, and regularly see companies doing more than just the referral basics these days. More than just “poster and pray,” sharing the program and bonus opportunity with new hires, or sending out recognition (from recruiting or the business leaders) to top referrers. And, individual recruiters are regularly soliciting referrals.

It’s one of the best low-hanging-fruit “direct sourcing” techniques out there. I mean, who doesn’t want warm leads for tough to fill jobs? But, how are they soliciting them? This actually matters. And the best recruiters do it a little differently.

Level 1: Who Do You Know Who’s Looking?

OK, this question kind of sucks. We don’t want to limit the engineer/sales person/finance director’s thinking to just people who are looking, right? Anyone reading ERE knows this — but you’d be surprised how many full-cycle recruiters we’ve worked with make this their default question when looking to generate referrals. It’s not the right question. Tell your recruiter friends to stop asking employees this question, this way. There’s a better way.

Level 2: Who Do You Know Who’s Great?

OK, this doesn’t suck. It’s a better question. Maybe even better if it’s more specific, like “I know you worked at Google for three years before you came here. Who was the best software development manager you worked with there?” This is recruiting 101 stuff. You guys know this. You probably do this. I did this for years.

Level 3: Here’s Who You Know. Please Reach Out to Them With a Note Like This …

With tools like LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+, and Facebook, we can often see — pretty easily — who our employees are connected to, who they likely worked with in past jobs, who they may have gone to school with, and with some online event tools (like Eventbrite and Meetup, which often publish the names of people who register for public events), we may even be able to tell who they’re likely to be in the same room with.

We can now easily take our referral solicitations to another level. Level 11. Well, level 3, at least. Only Matt Jeffrey knows about Level 11 (and I’m crossing my fingers that he’ll share it in his Recruiting 6.0 manifesto).

A ton of savvy recruiters are using this approach. They’re mining their employee and hiring manager networks, and getting the hiring manager to directly solicit leads, candidates, and referrals from their networks.  Of course, we have to be aware of non-solicitation agreements, so check into that before you go nuts; although I can picture one of you hard-core sourcers telling us we’re not a real recruiter if we haven’t had at least one attorney-signed, Cease and Desist letter sent to us. I got my first one when I was at Amazon in 1999. I kind of freaked out.

Anyway, I digress. The key is to make it easy for employees to reach into their networks and recruit. Some recruiters pre-write the short intro notes and ask them to forward them via LinkedIn or email, or to pick up the phone and call them directly. Others ask for an introduction (I think having the employee make contact directly is awesome-r (yes, that’s a word) than just getting an intro).

And the recruiters who want to make sure these networking contacts take place don’t just make the request, and hope the employee does it. They set up a meeting (virtual, via screen share, or side by side, at the employee’s desk) to go through their employee’s networks live. And by live, I mean “watch them send the note” or “practice and then make the call” kind of live. Real-time sourcing. Some are even grouping employees together into a Source-a-thon kind of meeting — bring your laptop, eat some pizza, help us hire the next five people onto your team, and if we make a hire, you get the bonus and the glory.

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I did this once years ago — a major people-competitor had just announced it was missing its ship deadline — again! — for a new commercial software product, so we pulled together a group of our engineers who used to work there, and generated a target list of top people who were probably getting loose in the saddle. We got three offers and two hires from a two-hour meeting and some follow on calls/emails.

This isn’t new. Great recruiters have been doing this for years. Lou Adler first did this in 1947, people!

But now, it’s easier.

Our startup clients totally get this; they live and die by targeted referrals. Great recruiters, great employees — at any size companies — who “get it” do this well. They get that referral posters that encourage employees to submit superstars are not enough.  Even raising referral bonuses past $5,000: just not enough. Those techniques alone still rely on an employee stopping in their tracks to go out to our career site, figure out what’s open, and then making the time to do the mental match-making. I still believe recruiters, more than any technology out there, are the most leverage-able (yes, that’s a word, too) piece in the recruiting puzzle. The key is turning your internal employes into recruiters. And this is one way to do it.

I’d love to hear what other cool techniques you use to solicit referrals. Please share.

p.s. Brad Warga (former Salesforce, now with Gild) was up in Seattle a few weeks ago, blowing people’s minds with some of the social listening and CRM tools his teams used to identify top performers and leverage internal and external connections to get to world-class sales hires. His presentation was the inspiration for me to write this little article.

John Vlastelica is the managing director of recruiting toolbox, a consulting and training firm focused 100 percent on helping recruiters and hiring managers recruit better. Startups to big global brands -- including PepsiCo, Google, Nike, Booking, IKEA, Starbucks, and Pokemon -- hire his team of former recruiting leaders to build custom training for their recruiters and hiring managers. Learn more at @vlastelica 


11 Comments on “The 3 Levels of Employee Referral Solicitations

  1. I believe that recruiters and job seekers and or individuals just looking to see what else they may enjoy doing should interact. We are all people so why shouldn’t we connect with each other and referrals are very important these days. It is Who you know at the company you trying to get into. Good Luck connecting with each other!

  2. John – you 100% on point with you have to stop employees in their tracks and help them connect the dots.
    Generating a list of your major target companies and then cross reference a leads list that you create from those companies (I think you all know how to do this), that is then cross referenced by your employees that previously worked at that company for calibration. Once again, yes check with NDA’s, etc. If you then schedule a call with employee who used to work at company x and ask them to see if they can calibrate any of the names on the list. A funny thing happens when you do this. (1) It stops people in their tracks and forces them to think in terms of directive Quality vs. “who do you know” (2) Every time I have done this, I find the employee comes back and says, “Hey I don’t see so and so on the list but I remember that she was the best x person that I ever worked with”.

  3. Thanks, John. I believe that ERs have been found to be perhaps the most effective (in many ways) means of obtaining quality hires. I’d like to see an EmployeeReferralCon organized to work out the details such as you’ve mentioned, as well-executed ERs typically produce far more hires than direct sourcing, social media, or TPRs combined (and look how much print/discussion we devote to them here).

    However, until internal and contract recruiters get as much credit for an ER as they do for any other type of non-TPR hire (we typically don’t) there’s going to be reluctance to improve and enhance ERPs.


    Keith “Will Work to Organize ERECon” Halperin

  4. Thanks for the kind words John. I love the idea of handing new hires a dossier with 10 targets complete with pictures, commuting information, background, and a bounty if they bring them to the table is cool.

  5. We have to figure out a way to relieve our hiring managers of the heavy lifting that is curating their vast networks to find high potential referrals. It assumes they know and have some assessment of the accomplishments of most of the people in their network and its typically not the case or at least dont have reliable retention of those accomplishments.

    1. Technology affords us the ability to actually see who our employees/hiring managers are connected to and the strength of that connection based on the shared connection point being former colleagues, classmates, professional associations, linkedin degree of connection or all of the above. So, instead of who do you know, the question has the potential to shift to…”here’s who you know, lets validate the connection and what you may know about them”

    2. We have to relieve hiring managers/employees of the pressure of potentially making a bad referral by taking on the burden of qualifying and instead give them options/levels of engagement … A. I can vouch for this persons skill and would refer them B. I cant vouch for the skills, but can make an introduction and you (recruiter) can pre-qualify C. I dont really know this person in my network (we all have them) but I can share this job or invite them into our network and see if they might be interested. Our commitment as recruiting professionals is to handle with care, no matter what the strength of the connection or relationship may be.

    We’re currently attempting to puzzling number one together and discovering some interesting learnings about how to gain the trust of our hiring managers to allow us to easily and securely access and aggregate and curate their networks in order to expand and optimize our referral opportunities.

  6. @Rob – Right on – amazing how employees suddenly remember great people when we ask. Smart solicitation with a focus on quality – not posters on the wall – are key!

    @Keith – Very interesting point about getting credit for ERs. Had a client recently who had a hiring manager who complained that he was ‘doing my recruiters job for her’ when generating referrals. So bass-ackwards to think that way.

    @Craig – I think I agree with you -unless you’re saying that you don’t think hiring managers own recruiting. HM’s own it – more than we own it, as recruiters. If you’re saying we need to make it easier – and not truly relieving them of their responsibility to be talent stewards and bring in great talent – then I totally agree. And I like your A, B, C level of referral vouching comment – I think you and I talked about that years ago when we were at Amazon – not all referrals are created equally, for sure.

    Thanks for the comments everyone! Keep ’em coming.

  7. @ John and Craig:
    Two things may help here-

    1) Make hiring quality people on time and within budget EVERY TIME be a hiring managers deliverable, as much as getting out their product or on time and within budget EVERY TIME. Recruiting provides the manpower and other resources, but IT’S PART OF THEIR JOB.

    2)Make referring at least 1 person/year who gets hired be a deliverable for every director-level or below (non-Recruiting) employee, for which they are GENEROUSLY (four- and five-figure$) rewarded. This could be a major component of a person’s annual compensation. I’ve previously mentioned the IT firm whose employees paid for newspaper classified ads to get people to refer. That’s the kind of employee buy-in you want to get….

    3) Many of us are worried about a horde of ER’d unqualified subhuman cutthroats wasting our time. I’ve previously mentioned a way to avoid this: Let interested people pre-apply to potential jobs within 60 seconds of logging on. This involves answering 5-6 “immediate-answer, can’t-be-gamed, vital-to-the-job” multiple-choice questions, and an additional “Enter the name of the person who referred you” if it were a r an ER. If they pass, they apply with a resume upload and go on their way. If they don’t pass, the get a “Thank you, try another position, etc.” message. ERs only count when the person is accepted as an applicant.

    This combines speed & ease of application for the applicant with pre-screening and avoiding a flood of unqualified resumes for the recruiter.



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