When You Must Hire The Very Best… Extreme Referral Tools Will Have The Most Impact (It’s time to shift to bolder recruiting tools)

Tired of weak results? Blame cautious recruiters that won’t try more aggressive recruiting tools.

Understanding Why Extreme Recruiting Approaches Are Necessary 

One of the primary reasons why most hiring managers have long been frustrated with the number of top candidates that they are receiving. This is because risk-averse recruiters (most fit under that label) routinely only use a narrow array of recruiting tools. And unfortunately, the tools that they select to use are exclusively low-risk tools (because literally everyone else uses them). And this conservative “copycat approach” will mean that the most aggressive and extreme recruiting tools and approaches will never even be tried. 

So if you’re committed to dramatically improving your recruiting results almost immediately. It’s time to “grow a pair” and commit to trying some of the most extreme tools under the umbrella of the most powerful sourcing tool, the Employee Referral Program (ERP). It’s also important to note that each of the many tools listed here has been tried and proven successful. The primary reason why most haven’t even considered using them is because they appear to many to be too aggressive for many in HR. And as a result, if you expect to successfully implement any of them. You will need the courage and the ability to overcome the serious resistance that you are bound to encounter.

Why Start With The Employee Referral Program? 

The data is in, and well-designed data-driven employee referral programs win out as #1. Because they routinely produce the highest volume of hires, as well as those that perform best on the job. Referrals also provide retention impacts. Because research revealed that of hires made from referrals, 46 % stayed for three years or more. In comparison, only 14% of employees who came from job boards stayed for three years or more. 

The Top 12 Extreme Referral Actions To Consider

Note that the most impactful recommended actions appear first.

  • Focus on getting referrals from your top-performing employees –– The effectiveness of this simple but logical approach should make it your first choice. Because it turns out that referrals from every employee group are not equal. And that referrals from your own top-performing employees are the very best. These referrals from top performers produce new hires that generate higher productivity. In fact, one study found that a referral from a top performer employee will produce nearly 3 times more. Compared to a referral from a below-average performer. And as a result, your most impactful extreme action is likely to be focusing on getting referrals from your top performers. This is in line with Google’s referral program slogan, “Great people know other great people.” They know so many great people. on the way to becoming top performers. Successful professionals were continually reading, benchmarking, learning, and expanding their network with other top people. With this targeted focus, your organization will not only get quality referrals but will also avoid getting a single weak referral (professional pride prevents top performers from suggesting anyone but the best). 

The tool itself is quite simple. You approach each individual top-performing employee (preferably in person and usually during a break around a regularly scheduled team meeting). And you explain why they alone are likely to make the best referrals. Next, you simply ask them to provide you with a few names for your open job. Alternatively, you use the more structured approach known as aided recall. And incidentally, don’t settle for a copy of their contact list. Because merely acquiring the list won’t tell you which of the contacts on it are the best fit for your open job (because even top performers know a lot of duds).

  • Referrals may actually be the answer to your diversity recruiting problems – The second most impactful action is utilizing referrals to find most of your diversity candidates. Improving diversity recruiting is essential because currently, less than 2% of surveyed HR leaders confidently say that they are actually achieving their DE&I goals. However, before this shameful data point can be turned around, you must realize that many in HR falsely believe that referrals will have an adverse impact on diversity. While that might have been true decades ago. Your ERP may now become your #1 source of diverse candidates. 

Start off by educating your hiring managers and your recruiters about the many benefits that accrue from reaching your diversity goals. For example, the results from one survey revealed that 32% listed “increased diversity” as a top reason for having an employee referral program. Also, in one targeted referral program experiment, Pinterest proactively prompted its own engineers to focus only on recommending diverse referrals. The result was that they saw a 24% increase in the number of women referred. And an amazing 55-fold increase in the percentage of candidates from underrepresented backgrounds. Pinterest also found that simply asking for “leads” (rather than a complete referral). Resulted in a dramatic increase in their number of diverse referrals. Other research has also shown that diversity referrals can also positively impact employee retention.

The second diversity action step is to make it clear to your employees that diversity candidates are a high priority. You can reinforce that goal by offering (as several companies have) a higher referral bonus for diversity hires. Targeting diverse former employees to come back as boomerangs (or just asking your diverse former employees to act as external referral sources). Also, it’s important to use data to identify the most effective sources for diversity talent and then make your employees aware of those best options. Finally, institute a diversity retention program to reduce the diversity recruiting target by slowing down the loss of your current diverse employees.

  • Boomerang referrals may be your easiest and best referral target – This approach qualifies as the fastest, cheapest, and most important tool for producing quality employee referrals. Fortunately, this approach is even more effective today. Because of the recent high employee turnover rates, coupled with significant layoffs. Together they mean that your organization likely has had a good number of recent top employee departures to target. That’s important because boomerang referrals that target the very best that have left often produce the highest-performing referral hires. To recapture the best among them, ask (only) the most desirable employees during their exit interview if they would consider returning someday.  Also, ask them if they would be willing to continue acting as an external talent scout for your organization. Next, you must take steps to maintain a continuous relationship with these high-quality former employees (corporate alumni) with the goal of someday rehiring them through an employee referral.
  • Get your new hires involved early by soliciting referrals during onboarding – Get your new hires to immediately start thinking that every employee is expected to be a talent scout. Make it a regular part of your onboarding effort. Highlight your employee referral program and provide new hires with a referral toolkit. But then you add another process step to onboarding where every new hire is asked for additional referrals. One firm even provided a significant “cash bounty” for the new-hire. For any employee at their former company that they helped to successfully recruit away within a month. Another related extremely aggressive approach to consider. Is to ask each of your offered finalists to provide referral names as a required part of the process for becoming an employee.
  • Solicit referrals from each candidate’s references – Because it would be rare for any reference to only know a single top prospect. When you are contacting the references provided by each top candidate. Start by thanking them for being a reference. But after you have asked all of your reference-checking questions. Continue on by asking them if they “know any other prospects that are equally as qualified.” And if they provide good names, ask them to be a continuous external talent scout for your company. When it is possible, you might reward them with some sample products or a purchase discount.
  • Expand your referral program to include college hires college – Although they are seldom used, referrals also work for upcoming college grads. Because of their widespread usage of social media, college students are well-connected with other students in their field around the world. College referral programs have proven to produce excellent referrals for both interns and permanent hires. Obviously, you should ask professors for referrals. However, a superior approach is often asking the grad assistants for the best professors to also make referrals. And finally, ask each college hire during onboarding for referral names.
  • Be willing to accept “name-only” referrals – As mentioned previously, top performers make the best referrals. However, these employees are almost always extremely busy. So they often don’t have time to assess a referral prospect fully. So if you expect to get referrals from your top performers, consider allowing them to provide “name-only referrals.” This is where an employee provides your recruiter with “name-only referrals,” only the candidate’s name and their link to the LinkedIn profile are submitted. As mentioned previously, simply allowing “leads” (rather than a complete referral with a resume) will by itself increase your number of referrals. 
  • Ask the leaders of the relevant professional associations for names – No one keeps track of industry experts and up-and-coming talent better than the leaders of professional associations. Because they need to seek them out as possible speakers or panelists. So build a relationship with as many of the well-connected functional and industry leaders as you can. And ask them to let you know when they spot either exceptional current or upcoming talent. You might offer to send a handful of your employees to their event or to participate yourself in one of their sessions as a reward for successful referrals.
  • Hiring managers should supplement their corporate ERP with “team-generated referrals” – Because not all corporate referral programs are well-designed. It’s a good idea to supplement that program with referrals generated by your own team members. Team-generated referrals are more effective because the team members will not only feel the direct impact of both great and subpar referrals. But more names can be generated faster because every employee works in the same field as the open job. 
  • Offer a charity donation as a reward option – This initially may seem like a small thing. However, in reality, there are always some employees that are concerned about the appearance of making referrals for self-enrichment. And still, other employees would rather appear to be more concerned about helping others and being altruistic. So it is wise to offer your referring employees the option of donating part or all of their reward to charity.
  • Allow internal movement referrals for open jobs – If you can’t find sufficient talent externally, it makes sense to supplement your overall recruiting effort with internal referrals. Not only will expanding your referral talent pool let you see more candidates. But it will also simultaneously be an effective tool for improving your company’s internal movement. The internal referral program will be more effective if employees are rewarded for making successful referrals, at least for key internal positions”. Some companies use internal recruiting teams to help speed up finding hidden internal talent.
  • Proactively approach your targeted employees – This last, but not the least, impactful action has an extremely high impact on both the quality and the volume of referrals. Unfortunately, most referral programs communicate their need for referrals using a broad, impersonal communications approach. Some even call it “spamming for referrals.” Instead of sending out general requests when trying to get employees to pay attention to your pleas for candidates, realize that the most effective approach is personalizing the initial message. The employee feels that they are literally the only one getting this request. And rather than relying exclusively on electronic communications. A superior method is approaching employees and managers on a one-to-one basis (and, when possible, in person). And then, during that initial meeting, you should explain to this employee exactly why they have been targeted for referral names. The personal and targeted nature of the communications is motivating. The response rate and referral quality will likely be significantly higher. 

Some Additional Extreme Recruiting Actions That You Should Consider

Each of the following extreme actions is a little less powerful than the dozen ones that were presented above. However, these remaining extreme actions will still have a significant impact.

  • The first step involves conducting a little research – Your first step in the referral improvement process must be gathering information about what is working and not working in your referral program. So survey your recruiters, your hiring managers, employees that made referrals, and recent new hires that were an employee referral. In that survey, ask participants to first identify ERP problems. And then make recommendations for improving your ERP results. When you have successfully gathered that information. Next, consider implementing one or more of the “extreme referral tools” that were listed above.
  • Ask your employees that mentor others to make referrals Most mentors are constantly on the lookout for upcoming talent to mentor. And that makes these mentors a great source for quality referrals. So if you have a formal mentor program, approach those in it for names. Otherwise, work with your recruiters and HR generalists to help you identify which of their employees mentor others. Once you identify them, explain to each mentor how they are uniquely positioned to provide referrals. It’s also important to realize that each mentor’s protégés should themselves be primary targets. Because mentored employees usually have higher long-term success and retention rates. 
  • “Do it for the team” should be the primary motivator – It is critical to instill in your employees that the primary reason that they should refer people is because their team wins “when it has the best players.” It is a superior motivator over monetary rewards because it turns referrals into an opportunity to provide their teammates and themselves with the opportunity to work alongside the very best coworkers. By emphasizing the superior capability of employees (over recruiters) to make contacts, to build relationships, and to assess potential candidates. You can educate your employees about the critical role that only they can play in filling the team with top talent.
  • Expand eligibility to include managers, executives, and non-employees – When you exclude certain individuals from making referrals, you obviously reduce your referral candidate pool. Your first referral eligibility expansion step should be to include managers, HR people, and executives. Obviously, each should be warned not to make referrals as it may appear to be directly unethical. Next, expand referral eligibility to non-employees that know your firm well. These non-employees often include corporate alumni, retirees, vendors, spouses, references, strategic partners, and even customers. Of course, working with finance is important to find the easiest administrative ways to reward non-employees. This expanded eligibility approach is even more impactful at smaller firms. Where the employee population simply isn’t large enough to generate enough referrals.
  • Establish referral targets for your managers in order to encourage internal competition – When each manager and team have clear goals and quotas. These goals themselves serve as another incentive for increasing participation. And if the results produced by each manager and team are widely distributed. This practice can also foster a competitive mindset among hiring managers. That will drive healthy competition between teams. And because this distribution will result in every employee knowing who the most successful referrers are. Everyone has the opportunity to seek out and learn from the best. One organization even sent their iRefer dashboard to all employees to encourage this healthy competition and learning. 
  • If your reward budget is small, consider these cheap alternatives The best inexpensive reward option is to increase the amount of recognition that is given to each employee that successfully refers. You might also offer each one a ticket to a luncheon with the CEO. Another cheap option is to offer an extra day of vacation for those that make a successful referral.
  • Rename your referrals and instead call them “talent recommendations” – I recommend that you stop using the term referral altogether. Because, to many employees, it means little more than the “submission of a name for money.” Instead, the process should be called “an employee talent recommendation.” Because the title carries more weight because it infers that the employee is instead making a professional recommendation. With the weight, accountability, and responsibility that this term infers. 
If you only do one thing – as a recruiter, proactively identify. And then approach all of the top performers that work in your group when it has a critical open job. Next, try to find an opportunity to meet each face-to-face. Then ask them to provide you with a handful of names of people who could actually do your open job. And after the hiring is complete, see if any of the people that were recommended by your top performers made it to the final interview cut.

Final Thoughts

During these tough times for recruiting, when you must make the filling of every open position count. In my view, it’s time to shift to a much more aggressive recruiting approach. So why not start that shift on the most impactful of all recruiting sources, employee referrals. And because so many employee referral programs take a cookie-cutter approach. Take this as an opportunity to provide a competitive advantage for your company. And to increase your own job security because you now come across as a bold innovator!

Author’s Note

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About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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