The Most Important Part of Your Employee Referral Program? It's Not the Candidate Experience

No, the most important part of your employee referral program is not the candidate experience – it's the referrer experience. If you want to create a culture of referrals for hiring both inside and outside your company, it will depend entirely on this.

Your product brand depends a lot on customer referrals and, by extension, the customer experience. Similarly, your employer brand depends a lot on candidate referrals and, by extension, the referrer experience.

A lot, if not most, of your stellar candidates come through referrals. Referrals may not always come through your official referral program. They might come from someone on your team, someone in the community, or a random person on the internet.

If you want to make employee referrals a sustainable and scalable hiring strategy, you have to care about the referrer experience.

A Typical Referrer Experience

In order to build a great customer experience, you have to talk to a lot of customers and develop a strong sense of empathy. You have to walk in their shoes and see through their eyes. Similarly, in order to build a great referrer experience, you have to talk to a lot of referrers and have empathy for them.

Let's put ourselves in the prospective referrer's shoes. It usually starts with a request from the hiring team: "Do you know any good software engineers? Acme is looking for one."

You think: "Okay, I do, but everyone I know is either gainfully employed  or the kind of person I'd have a coffee with but not really want to work alongside. They get requests from people like you all the time. If they took those calls, they'd never get any work done; they'd just be interviewing 24/7."

But you still want to help. You keep thinking: "I bet there's someone who might be open to a new job."

You rack your brain. You're late for a meeting at work and forget about it. You go home that day to find that Acme has announced a $5,000 referral bonus. That's cool! You want to think of someone.

You start going through your mental rolodex of favorite past colleagues, and you think of Henry. You wonder what he's up to these days, so you Google him. Henry is a senior software engineer, but his profile says he just joined Pied Piper three months ago. He's probably not looking for something new.

The next day, you run into your friend Julie at a party. She asks if Acme is hiring any product managers, because she's getting tired of her job at Dunder Mifflin. Oh. Er uh. You're not sure, but you assure her you'll check and get back to her. You ask her if she's open to being an engineer since Acme's definitely looking for those. She introduces you to her friend Joe, who's also considering leaving Dunder Mifflin.

After you politely exchange contact information, Joe emails you the next day with a link to his Github and asks if you could forward it to the hiring team. He seems like a nice enough guy, and you want to help him out.

But what if he doesn't interview well? You have never worked with him before, so you can't really vouch for him. You decide to table the issue and ask your colleagues for advice in person.

You decide to refer Joe, because your colleagues advise you that he's worth at least a conversation. You set out to forward his email to the recruiting team, and as you start to compose your own referral email, you get anxious. What should you say, exactly? After about half an hour of deliberation and multiple edits, you end up with something neutral, like this:

Fwd: Joe Smith referral for Software Engineer position


I met Joe recently through a friend, and he was interested in learning more about the software engineer position. I've forwarded a link to his Github below. Thanks!"

A couple of weeks go by, and you run into Joe again. This time, you grab a beer with him and talk about the new React Native programming framework from Facebook. He's actually quite knowledgable about it and makes some really good points about the tradeoffs. You think, "This guy knows his stuff. Phew – glad I referred him."

Then Joe says, "Hey, so I came in to interview the other day but didn't see you around. I was hoping to swing by your desk and grab a coffee on my way out. Any inside info about how it went?"

Woah. Joe already came in and interviewed? You didn't even know that they'd decided to move forward with him! At least this means they got back to him, which is something.

You're a bit tongue tied. "Er uh, I'm not sure  – I'm not really involved in that side of things, but I'll keep my ear to the ground for you and see what's up."

"Oh," says Joe. "I just figured that if they gave me an interview on your word, then you're probably pretty well respected around Acme. No sweat. I really appreciate you putting me on the radar there. I applied to a few other places, and they don't even respond to my emails."

Leaving the bar, you're kind of annoyed. Why didn't anyone tell you that Joe came in for an interview? You could have been helpful! And now you looked like an ass in front of him, which may have damaged his impression of you and the company.

That's approximately where your experience as a referrer ends at most companies – until the day you see Joe in the cafeteria.

"Hey Joe! Fancy seeing you here! I presume things worked out?"

"Oh yeah, I started like three weeks ago," he says. "I actually referred Julie for the product manager position on my team, and since they just announced a new referral bonus, I'm going to make an extra $3,000!"

Building a Better Referral Experience

Experiences like this are more common than you might think. They might even be happening in your company. It's important to take a step back and intentionally try to design an exceptional referrer experience.

Here's a way to start doing this – but I'll save the details for another post:

Interview the last five people in your company who referred someone and ask them what their experience was like.

Interview the last five candidates who came in through referrals and the last five candidates who didn't. Map out the differences between their experiences and identify where the referrers helped. Figure out how you can make more of that happen.

Write a one-page set of guidelines about how you'd like referrers to be treated by your company.

Vinayak Ranade is the founder and CEO of Drafted, the first referral network that makes referral-based hiring fast, fun, and rewarding for everyone.