Business Development

Why referrals are powerful job search tools

An employee at work

By Andrew Seaman

Employee referrals are often thought to be the proverbial golden tickets of job seeking. While they don’t guarantee you a job, they can increase the odds that your application will be seen by a recruiter or hiring manager and ultimately give you a boost in the hiring process.

An employee referral is essentially an endorsement within a potential employer of you and your talents for a specific position. A person you know, such as an old colleague or former classmate, at the company is usually the one to offer the referral.

The referral can be informal — when a connection simply passes your name on to a recruiter or hiring manager as a good candidate. A referral can also be part of a formal program at a potential employer that awards the current employee if their candidate is ultimately hired.

“The reason that employers want to do a referral program is generally they get a better hire from that program,” said Shelley Piedmont, who is a career coach and former recruiter. “They’ll get somebody who is a good fit culturally,” she said. The referred candidates tend to know more about the company than others and — if hired — usually end up staying at the company for a long time. They also tend to know more about the company than other applicants.

All of those positive factors can result in a faster hire, which is very attractive to an employer because it can save them money in the long run.

What can a referral do for you?

“For the person who gets referred, they get sort of the inside track,” said Piedmont. When she was in charge of talent acquisition at one company, she said candidates who were referred got priority.

“What they should expect is that someone is going to review their resume,” she said. “That’s the expectation. When a job has hundreds of people who apply. Recruiters have a hierarchy of the people they’re going to look at. If you’re referred, you’re generally going to go to the top of the pile.”

Piedmont cautioned that referrals don’t always mean you’ll get an interview, because it still comes down to whether you’re a good candidate for the job.

“Referrals sometimes get the benefit of the doubt,” she said. “The recruiter may take more time to scan your information. You may get more time on your resume. Or, if there are questions, you may get more follow up. That does not mean you’re going to get the position.”

Why you should always be networking

As mentioned above, referrals can be informal endorsements or part of a formal program at a company. Either way, you need a current employee to somehow vouch for you and your talents.

In some cases, employees actively reach out to their networks to find people to refer for open positions at their companies. This is especially true at companies that offer financial incentives to employees for each successful referral. 

“That’s why from a job seeker perspective it’s helpful for you to be constantly engaging with your network so you’re constantly top of mind,” said Piedmont. If you’re regularly networking, the hope would be that a person will reach out and offer to refer you for an open position that matches your interests and talents.

How else can you get a referral?

Not all employees will reach out to their network about open positions, however. You should be doing the extra legwork to connect the dots yourself.

Piedmont says that requires you to be proactive by knowing where you’d like to work and finding out who you know at those companies. LinkedIn and other platforms can help connect some of those dots for you, but she said you shouldn’t forget other possible connections in places like alumni networks and professional organizations.

If you still can’t find a connection at one of your target companies, you’ll need to start laying the groundwork for a referral by networking. You can ask a person in the part of the company where you want to work for an informational interview, for example. Piedmont said your best bet is with someone who has a shared connection. “You either have the same profession, you went to the same school or you know the same people.”

Waiting for the right time to ask

One of the most difficult aspects of the last approach is that you’ll likely have to wait to ask the person for a referral. Asking a person about a referral during your first conversation can end up spoiling a budding professional relationship. “There will be some who feel fine, but my guess is that a majority of people would feel leery about it from the get-go,” said Piedmont. “You should try to develop that relationship first before even asking for that referral.”

The reason it’s important to develop the relationship is that the person referring you for a job is often putting some of their professional capital on the line by endorsing you and your talents.

“If a person is referring you, they’re putting themselves out there as a person who knows you and someone who would be a good fit,” said Piedmont. Their reputation could be tarnished if the person they referred ends up being flakey or not suited for the role.

“I think you have to judge where you are on that relationship,” she said. “If you’re going to ask to be referred, then you really need to make sure you don’t put that person in an uncomfortable position.”

At the end of the day, Piedmont said the referral system shows why it important for people to be networking professionally throughout their careers — whether they’re looking for work or not.

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Byron Adonis Mutingwende