Employee Perception a Common Roadblock to Diversity Referrals

All Recruiting Sources Are Not Equal

Given the fact that the working population of the U.S. has become more diverse in recent years, you would think that it should be easier to recruit and retain a diverse workforce. Unfortunately for many corporations, diversity recruiting is a never-ending fishing expedition that continues to yield undersized fish.

Newspaper advertisements, once the standard tool for driving all types of applicants to a firm, now produce only a trickle of applicants that often leave you wondering if the applicants even read the ad before submitting their resumes. Diversity job fairs pool great entry-level candidates together, but often fail to deliver when it comes to the ever-elusive professional-level diverse candidate.

When it comes down to identifying which source of hire truly produces the greatest volume of professional-level diverse candidates, the numbers speak for themselves: referral programs rein supreme. And therein lies a problem.

Employee Referral's Achilles Heal

Like most systems, employee referral programs have an inherent weakness that if not addressed significantly reduces both the quality and quantity of output, or in this case, top-performing diverse candidates. The weakness that bogs down so many referral programs is that they rely upon an employee to articulate and communicate to potential applicants why they might want to consider joining your firm.

If you don't immediately see why this is a problem, consider trying this simple test:

  1. Call upon a friend or colleague whom you personally know who is diverse and in a field related to one your organization would hire people for.
  2. Have that person contact a current employee of your organization chosen at random from a pool of employees whose jobs are related in nature to the professional qualifications of your friend or colleague.
  3. Have your friend or colleague introduce themselves and explain that they had found the employee through a network of friends and they were calling simply to find out what it is like to work there and if the employee would recommend applying.
  4. If the employee does not immediately brush off your friend or colleague or launch into a litany of reasons not to apply, have them write down what the employee says word for word.
  5. Once the call has been completed, read through the documented response from the employee and cross out anything that an employee of an organization competing for similar talent could also say with a relative degree of honesty.
  6. Are you left with anything unique and compelling?

The point of this short exercise is that, when put on the spot, the average employee cannot adequately market your organization or make a compelling argument as to why someone would want to join your organization. Further complicating this issue is the fact that people are motivated by different things, making it more difficult to reach diverse populations with a message (or value proposition to use the marketing term) unique to each diverse population.

Employee Perceptions Drive Employee Referral

The truth of the matter is that the success or failure of your employee referral program is largely driven by the perceptions of your current and former employees and their ability to articulate unique reasons why anyone should want to join your organization.

Assuming that all of your current and former employees share the same perspective and are capable of adequately marketing your opportunities is a fatal mistake. Perspective and perception are both influenced by one's situation, which, like it or not, is largely influenced by their demographic profile.

World-class employee referral programs recognize this and routinely measure employee perception relative to their demographic profiles and seek to manage perception so that both current and former employees are empowered with emotion, knowledge, and the information necessary to articulate why they work where they work and why someone might want to consider joining them.

Improving the effectiveness of your employee referral programs requires that you manage it like the system that it is. It needs to be evaluated using metrics, fine-tuned using maintenance and upgrades, and more importantly, adopted by end users. To get started, consider each of the following steps I've outlined below.

1. Find out what current and former employees are saying.

If you don't know how current and former employees would respond to questions about what it is like to work at your firm, shame on you. In particular, you should know what employees would say if asked about:

  • Why they chose your firm to join when they did
  • What keeps them there
  • What they think about their manager and senior leadership in general
  • What they think about the work environment
  • What they think about the firm as a fair employer
  • What they would change if they could

2. Determine whether any employee demographic groups have more negative perceptions than others.

No one doubts that your programs and practices are non-discriminatory; in fact, statistics could show that they are 100% fair yet employees could still perceive otherwise. Without determining if any particular demographic groups perceive something outside the norm, you have no method to determine if your diversity referral program is being impacted by the views of one particular subset of the population.

You should look at the answers provided to the question in Step 1 relevant to:

  • Race
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Tenure
  • Union status
  • Management level

3. Develop methods to communicate with employees and actively manage their perceptions.

Perception is easily influenced if you know and understand what experience or knowledge leads someone to view things the way they do. Knowing that one subset of your employee population perceives things more negatively than others tells you that they either have had a different experience or that they are operating with imperfect information.

If it is a matter of experience, then you may need to investigate the fairness of your programs and practices further. But if it is the latter, you need to provide credible information to address the issues. Referral programs provide an excellent excuse to push out communications about what makes your firm a great place to work. Tailoring those communications to address certain issues helps you actively manage employee perceptions.

Things to consider in this step include:

  • Realize that blanket communications will not be as impacting as targeted ones.
  • Accept that the notion of the employer as an impartial jury or judge of fairness doesn't fly with the employee population. You will need to rely on external sources to point to your fairness, equality, and leading position with regards to employee issues.
  • No issue is too small to address!

4. Persistently push out stories to employees that provide unique and compelling reasons why diverse individuals (or any individual for that matter) would want to join your organization.

Telling employees what to say in their private conversations doesn't go over very well unless they ask for such guidance. On the other hand, consistently arming employees with information and stories that are interesting and concise enough to relay when asked is a way to subliminally control what employees say.

Things to consider in this step include:

  • Avoid sharing stories that focus on benefits or successes that are only relevant to senior-level people. Focus on stories that relate to the little guy.
  • Pack your stories with credible information from outside sources that are easy for the public to find.
  • Be persistent in communicating with employees. If you want capture enough mindshare to enable recall of your stories or implants, your communications will have to be more persistent than other messages that routinely barrage the employee from both inside and outside the corporation.


Diversity recruiting is easy when you rely on proven systems and remove the roadblocks that often limit their effectiveness. When it comes to systems that help recruit diverse candidates, nothing beats employee referrals, and once you start managing employee perception you'll see that no other tools even warrant your attention.

Understanding perception and managing it to your advantage isn't that difficult. Professional advertisers do it everyday when they convince you that one brand of soap truly does do something the others don't, when in reality they are produced using the same methods and the same ingredients. It's time to manage using science, it's time to understand what limits the effectiveness of various solutions and address them. In short, it's time to perform.

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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