Employee Referrals That Matter

Employee referrals can be one of the least expensive and most effective recruiting tool human resources professionals have.

We know this. The emphasis on networking, connecting and reaching inside people is the focus of so many blogs, articles and social networking sites.

If you have friends, colleagues or neighbors who are seeking you out to help get an insider track, here are a few tips to provide an effective referral to your HR staff and/or hiring managers.

  • Know something about the person.  I have received hundreds of referrals by welling meaning and intentioned employees who know absolutely nothing about the candidate.
  • Make an effort to understand a bit about the position for which you are referring the candidate.  I had a colleague refer a statistician for an administrative assistant position.  While not necessarily a disqualifier, the candidate was looking for a way in, not the job for which I was hiring. This is not helpful.
  • Avoid comments like “my friend needs a job”  or “he/she is really a terrific person”  While potentially true,  those statements are completely irrelevant to the referral or the position for which I am hiring.
  • Do due diligence.  Spend a few minutes with the candidate and collect some concrete facts.  Focus on skill set, a few of the strengths the person potentially brings to the job and why you think the candidate should be considered, outside of the ‘good person’ assessment.

When talking to friends who are networking, think of yourself as hiring the person yourself.  Think of yourself as a partner to the HR department or the hiring manager. What would you want to know about the person?

Don’t refer someone out of pity or obligation.  I have had colleagues refer people because they were asked to do so.  When I have probed further, I have found that they don’t know the person well, don’t think the person would be a good fit or they know something that would disqualify the candidate from consideration.  Be able to say no and  understand that referrals like this can affect your credibility.

If for some reason, you find it necessary to refer someone you don’t know well, share that.  Let us know that you have been asked to provide a referral but only know the person under specific circumstances.  Frame it for us – I know this person as a committee member on a community board and this is what we worked on together.

A few small steps in the screening process will help you, candidates and your friendly HR folks.

Photo credit iStockPhoto

Deirdre is our Women of HR Featured Contributor this week on LinkedIn. Click through  to see what she has to say.

About the Author

Deirdre Honner

Deirdre Honner is a human resources professional working in higher education. She has a master's degree and Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) certification. Deirdre is a social media junkie and has presented locally, regionally and nationally on job-hunting strategies, social media and networking tools and the integration of both. Deirdre blogs about work at The HR Maven and you can connect with her on Twitter as @theHRmaven.


Meghan M. Biro

I enjoyed this valuable post Deirdre! As someone who receives countless emails each day asking for any number of requests from referrals to hiring companies, recommendations, links to social networks, you name it – I concur with your idea of keeping the lines for referrals simple and in a clear context. At some point you need to draw boundaries in order to maintain credibility for all sides of the hiring/connecting equation.

As Jennifer Miller states above, vague recommendations are not very helpful to career seekers. This is such a key bullet from your end: “Avoid comments like “my friend needs a job” or “he/she is really a terrific person” While potentially true, those statements are completely irrelevant to the referral or the position for which I am hiring” < Agree – Find the relevance and draw tangible examples in order to empower the best outcome for all parties seeking assistance. Thank you for sharing. Nice reminder today.

Deirdre Honner

Jennifer, you are always so on the mark. When I have employees providing referrals, I always ask context.

Diane, I can’t believe this! Your post is fabulous and well, Jennifer was my favorite colleague EVER. Small world.

Diane Prince Johnston

I so agree, Deirdre. A referral of someone who you don’t know, or someone who you have not experienced in the workplace, can be damaging to yourself. It is easy to get swept away with social media oxytocin and yet important to remember that real people with real job openings that require specific skills are on the receiving end.

I know this from experience as I recently had a LI referral for a position with my company. In the midst of a Twitter high, I thanked the gentlemen who referred the individual. Once I read the candidate’s resume and noticed that he had none of the requirements which I had listed on my post, I politely informed him that he was not the right fit for the job and his ranting rampage began. I forwarded the angry email to the person who had referred this guy because I thought he might want to know how it all transpired. This man, in turn, defensively agrued that he was just helping out someone in need of a job. Wow. I am exhausted just recapping. Needless to say, none would ever be hired by me.

p.s. Jennifer Mendenhall just came in my office said, “Deirdre Honner,” was my first boss in staffing and she is awesome. Now that’s a referral!

Jennifer V. Miller


Your point about people making referrals out of some form of sense of obligation is a good one. It *is* really tough to say no if someone asks for a referral, but sometimes it is necessary. Your credibility is on the line. If you need to say no, you can say something like, “You know, referrals are their most effective when the referrer can give very specific work examples. Since we haven’t worked together, I would feel uncomfortable giving you a vague recommendation. It might be better to find someone who can give very specific praise for your work.”

One thing to add to your suggestion about providing context about the person referred (“I know this person in X context and can vouch for Y….”) If I take this tact, I also alert the requester that this is what I will be saying as my “referral”, prior to issuing the referral. He or she may be disappointed, but at least the requester knows where you stand.


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