Amp Up Your Employee Referral Program

Author: Master Burnett | Source: HCI | Published: February 25, 2010

Last week I was asked by a staffing manager how I would go about quickly sourcing several dozen candidates for a development function that was severely behind schedule and that needed several quick high-caliber hires to close mission critical vacancies.  When I started to explain that I would use proactive employee referral sessions, I could see the frustration forming in the person's face, and before I could finish explaining my position she interrupted me exclaiming that they already had a great referral program and that she didn’t have that kind of time.


Lots of staffing managers think they have a great referral program, but what they really have is an overly generic, ad-hoc managed program that isn’t designed to produce results when needed.  Such managers are used to receiving referrals when employees feel like submitting them (most often when prompted to do so by the candidate), not necessarily when needed to build a candidate pipeline.


Following the staffing manager’s exclamation, I went on to explain that proactive referral sessions are an advanced practice in use by best-practice firms, many of which hire more than 60% of all external hires via referral.  The sessions are designed to produce immediate results.  In a proactive referral session a recruiter or staffing manager engages a group of targeted employees in an exercise to map all possible talent they have a connection to that is relevant for a specific role. Instead of asking a generic question like “who do you know,” the recruiter or staffing manager asks:

  • Who have you worked with in the past or met at industry events that work in this type of function at XYZ Corporation, ABD Limited, etc.? (Each of the companies listed would be known talent competitors pre-identified by the recruiter or staffing manager.)
  • At your previous companies, who was the best at “X?” Replace X with a key skill for the role being sourced for.

These questions are known as priming questions because they help the individuals participating in the exercise remember people they wouldn’t necessarily recall if asked a broader question.  By developing 5-7 priming questions, recruiters and staffing managers can often extract more than enough leads from an employee group to close a mission critical search.   With the leads in hand, recruiters can then validate them and work closely with the employee that generated them to reach out the prospective candidate and convert them into a referral.


Proactive referral sessions often produce a hire for every three referrals made, often within 1-2 weeks of the session, if the organization is prepared to fast track the candidates through the process.  Managed correctly, proactive referral sessions are a sourcing approach that cannot be beat.


If you’ve got some mission critical vacancies, give it shot, you might be surprised how many great people your employees already know that will not ever become referrals unless you pull them in.


Master Burnett is the managing director of Dr. John Sullivan & Associates, an advisory services organization dedicated to emerging issue research, thought leadership, and talent management best practice evangelism.  As a talent management strategy advisor, Master Burnett’s role is to partner with organizations to identify and develop innovative solutions to emerging talent issues that leverage the latest global thinking and technology. He has worked with leading organizations in more than 37 nations and is an avid proponent of taping the wisdom of crowds.  You can follow him on Twitter, connect with him via LinkedIn, or friend him on Facebook.


Image: Roomic Cube