Develop a Friends Program to Better ‘Sell’ Your Targeted Talent

It takes little effort to convince active job seekers to apply for jobs; however, the same cannot be said for currently employed top performers.

The difficulty in getting individuals actively engaged in their industry and performing at top levels to apply increases significantly during tight economic times because even the best-of-the-best are more reluctant to leave the relative security of their current job.

If you want to overcome a candidate’s reluctance and increase your recruiting function’s “convincing capability,” consider a friends program. It can add a powerful convincing tool to your arsenal and leverage your best employees to help you sell your opportunities to hard-to-convince targeted talent.

A Groundbreaking Program

The concept was developed in the late 1990s at Cisco Systems by Michael McNeil, whom I consider to be the father of employment branding and modern marketing-based recruiting.

The program is based on the premise that everyone wishes they had “a friend” inside a firm they could call and get the real, honest scoop on the job and the firm prior to applying. When the program was first launched, it was so innovative and different that Fast Company magazine wrote about it, as did a number of other management publications.

US West, now Quest Communications, employed a similar program.  The approach was one I applauded at the time because it specifically addressed the insane level of competition for top talent that firms were encountering and acknowledged the impact of providing a better candidate experience on a firm’s success rate. While the program would probably not be as effective today if it were plucked from history and implemented exactly as it was, it could very easily be modernized to be even more effective today given the advancements in person-to-person and person-to-group communication technologies.

Employees as Supplemental Recruiters

“Friends programs” are similar to employee referral programs in that they both solicit your employees’ help during segments of the recruiting process. The premise is a simple: you get a small group of targeted employees to volunteer as “recruiting boosters” to communicate directly with preselected potential or current applicants who need an extra boost to excite them. The employee agrees to communicate with them (usually on the phone) for a short, honest conversation about their job. The applicant can view the opportunity to talk directly with someone in their job as having a friend that works at the company. Also, the informal nature of the conversation with a “friend” is less threatening because it’s a conversation among colleagues or equals and is more about addressing the talent’s issues versus those of the employer.

The friends concept is powerful because it utilizes the best salespeople for convincing hard-sell individuals…top employees who currently work in the job. Current employees in the job are more convincing because they “live” the job every day. They can discuss at length how the work actually gets done as opposed to the summary the job description provides and the overly rosy characterization of the work environment recruiters push. The willingness to coordinate an honest/candid conversation makes the company more credible.


If your employees love their work, the friends program provides them with an opportunity to share their enthusiasm and the knowledge that they have about working for a great company. You might find that they have information or sales points that most recruiters and even some managers wouldn’t be aware of.  By getting a group of your best employees to volunteer to assist in recruiting top candidates, you can stretch your limited recruiting resources while increasing your capability to excite potential candidates.

Key Program Design Elements for an Updated Friends Program

If you want to implement an improved version of Cisco’s “friends program” (now discontinued), there are 12 design elements to consider:

  1. Focus on key jobs. Focus effort only on high-impact and hard-to-hire jobs. Only offer the option to talk to a “friend” for key jobs, so that you don’t use employee time when a recruiter can do the convincing adequately.
  2. Limit participation to top-performing employees. Obviously, you want your most convincing employees to hold a “friends conversation.” As a result, there needs to be a selection process which limits employee volunteers only to the most convincing individuals who work in the targeted jobs. Selection criteria should include their performance level, their ability to communicate and excite, as well as their knowledge of the job and the company.
  3. Limit applicant participation. Only offer the “friends conversation” to potential or current applicants who are highly desirable and at the same time, are also particularly hard to convince. Candidates for “friends conversations” need to be selected based on the likelihood that a one-on-one conversation would have a significant impact on their level of interest and excitement.
  4. Vary the time. Withhold the “friends conversation” until the time where it can have the most impact. Normally, it is scheduled early in the recruiting process when it is needed to convince reluctant individuals to make a formal application or to convince individuals to agree to come in for an initial interview. However, the “friends conversation” can also be effective later in the recruiting process where it can be used to persuade applicants to continue on in a long, drawn-out hiring process or at the very end to convince them to accept an offer.
  5. Educate employees. You shouldn’t assume that even top performing employees know how to effectively “sell” their job or the company. As a result, you should require the selected employees to review web-based educational materials and to utilize a “do’s and don’ts” checklist during their friends conversation.
  6. Offer multiple communications options. Although most “friends” connections are telephone conversations, you could also give applicants or employees the option of communicating through text messages, Facebook, email, or on rare occasions, in person.
  7. Limit the number of conversations. In order to ensure that employees don’t spend excessive time holding these conversations and to avoid employee burnout, the program should limit the number of conversations that any employee can hold in a given month. The time of each individual conversation should also be limited.
  8. Vary by region. The cultures of certain countries can make some employees or candidates more reluctant to participate in your friends program.
  9. Rewards. Employees are generally willing to voluntarily participate in a “friends program,” but consider giving them a reward. Offer a simple “thank you,” enter their name into a separate “friends” prize drawing, or offer a partial referral bonus if the candidate they contact is eventually hired.
  10. Consider an assessment option. Employees who agree to hold “friends conversations” can also be asked to assess a candidate both for their skills and for their “fit”. Their assessments however should only be a part of the overall assessment process (because they are not trained assessors).
  11. Feedback loop. After successfully hiring a candidate that participated in a “friends conversation,” you should ask them in a survey during on-boarding what impact it had and which elements were the most and least effective. Use this information to improve the program.
  12. Complementary approaches. Additional ways to increase the number of conversations between your employees and applicants should be used as a supplement to the “friends program.” These additional approaches might include distributing referral cards, employee blogs, profiles on social networks and providing employees with “ask me about my firm” buttons to wear at professional events or when traveling. Some healthcare organizations use a related concept known as “peer interviewing,” where rather than just interviewing exclusively with managers, candidates get to interview with, and ask questions of employees that “live” the job every day.

Potential Concerns

The effectiveness of a “friends programs” can be reduced if they are too broad and unstructured. It’s also true that employees need to be educated about what they can and cannot talk about in order to protect critical company information.

In addition, some managers are concerned that their employees might add some negative comments about the job or your firm.

However, contrary to popular belief, a few negative comments could actually be a potential benefit. Why? Because any source of information that’s 100% percent “positive” is generally viewed by applicants as corporate propaganda. By including a small percentage of the negative, you actually increase the credibility of the overall message.

Final Thoughts

Recruiting managers are constantly saying they want to be more strategic. If you are among that group, the “friends program” is an opportunity to strengthen the selling and convincing components of your recruiting effort utilizing “other people’s time.”

By involving your employees, you increase their understanding of recruiting issues and you increase the likelihood that they will assume more ownership of the recruiting process. The startup costs to the recruiting function are minimal and if you design it correctly, it can produce significant results almost immediately.

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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