Sourcing: Employee Referral Solicitations

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, 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 and Lanyard, 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.

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 really 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.

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 employees 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.

John Vlastelica originally wrote this article and posted it on in 2012.