Getting Your Employee Referral Program Just Right

In college, I remember the persistent nagging to build a network. They contended that in exchange for tuition, you’d not only earn a degree but a network that you’d have forever. This network would be full of the people who could take you to the next level and help you find work. These people could be sitting right next to you.

Here’s the catch: most of my peers were sitting in the same position I was. They also had no job and no connections. That network of drinking buddies and study partners was no help at all. At least not at graduation.

What the college really meant was that I should be networking with professors, not my peers. Thankfully, I figured that part out. My first ad agency role came from a professor’s recommendation after I completed a campaign for her class. She saw agency level writing talent in me and the rest, as they say, is history.

I tell that story not to bash my college friends, but to point out the value of perspective in this scenario. While my college friends may have known about the agency job, they didn’t know about the specific skills I had that would make me the right person for the job. We didn’t share contexts that would lend to making the proper referral.

That’s precisely what goes wrong in most employee referral programs.

We facilitate employee referral programs with software that asks our employees to refer their peers, and so far that has worked. Just look at the data. Employee referrals reduce time to hire and cost per hire while improving the quality of the hire. I can keep going. PS, there are 29 million results worth of data if you’re looking for an internet wormhole today.

But what if we shouldn’t be asking employees for referrals at all?

In most cases, we’re asking the wrong person. Getting referral programs right is about contextualizing what you’re looking for to the right person, not just any random employee. Our role is to give them a story to contextualize the skills we want so they can conjure up a picture of a human they know. To make that effective, you have to ask people who know those skills best and, in some scenarios, that person is not an employee.

Here’s what I mean. Let’s say I was trying to find a babysitter. If I ask a bunch of teenagers, I imagine I’ll get a different list than if I asked my 30-something peers. Why? My peers know what I mean when I say I want a babysitter. On time, responsible, etc. The teenagers know which kids want money and have siblings — not the same thing.

To further complicate matters, it’s not easy to get people to refer their peers. There’s a reason people give you a weird look when you say you love your job: that’s not a collective experience at work. Most people hate their boss, their commute, their actual work, or some combination of the three. They also don’t want to complicate a friendship by bringing someone into a role where they might not be happy.

Been there, done that.

So if you’re dedicated to getting your employee referral program right, it’s not about more posters or bigger bonuses. Getting the employee referral program right is a balance of building a better workplace and asking the right people in the first place.