Employee Referral Programs – The Good, Bad, and Ugly

There’s a lot of noise in the new category of “social recruiting” software, designed for large enterprises to tap their employees’ social connections to help find qualified, “passive” candidates for open positions.  While there is a lot of promise in this space (worst case scenario it creates a new channel for company recruiters, best case it revolutionizes the way companies attract talent), it’s helpful to be realistic about expectations with employee referral programs.

The promise of software is always to automate human processes to make them quicker, better, more effective.  Software that makes it easier for people to do their jobs, and makes them more productive, is, in most cases, going to be successful.  However, software that expects new behavior from users, specifically behaviors they were not quite engaged in prior to using the software, is tricky.  Employee referral programs are a perfect example.

Let’s break it down like this.  Anyone who has worked for a company of any size that at any point was hiring for any kind of position, has been asked to “keep an eye out” for someone for that role.  Or, more specifically, “can you recommend anyone for this position”?  The answer, 9.9 times out of 10, is, “I’ll give it some thought”.  We all know what happens next – you go back to your job and never think twice about who you might know for the position.  After all, you weren’t hired to recruit your friends for your employer – you’re busy coding, or selling, or washing dishes for goodness sakes!

HR Managers and company recruiters have gotten creative with tactics to help motivate employees to refer talent for open positions.  Generally this is in the form of spiffs, or cash rewards for successful referrals (referrals that lead to an actual hire).  These come baked with terms: candidate must stay on the payroll for at least 3 months, candidate can’t already be in the company database, etc.  My personal belief is that a financial reward as bait to “recruit” does not make that much of a difference, even if it is $1000 or more, for a few reasons, but primarily because the motivating factor to refer someone for a job wouldn’t be the money, but the chance to HELP, both the company and the job seeker.  Unless you are a sales rep who makes their money on commission, but that’s an entirely different story.

Social recruiting or employee recruiting software comes in a variety of flavors but all share the same general idea:  get your employees to sign up and connect their social network accounts (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter) to share open positions with contacts in their network.   Many of these solutions use “matching” (like Jobmagic.com) to make it easy to see who in your network would be a good fit, without having to think much about it.  In theory, that makes it dead simple for any employee to click a few buttons and push job opportunities out to highly targeted candidates.

Regardless of the features of the software, there are a few issues to consider when thinking about social recruiting/referral recruiting software; I’ll highlight the most obvious ones:

1.  Employee referral software doesn’t improve/enhance/automate pre-existing behavior

I touched on this above, but participation rates in employee referral programs even years ago have always been very low.  This is because, again, employees are busy doing their jobs, and recruiting is a job in and of itself.  When an employee is measured on their performance at the job they were hired to do, why take time away from it to focus on something that even if they are successful with, won’t keep their manager off their back?

(This is slightly different in early stage startups, where the sense of “we can change the world” trickles down to everyone, and may provide the motivation to share the gospel with friends and recruit the people you want to work with.)

2.  Recruiting is still a job

No matter how you look at it, recruiting takes time.  You’ve got to identify the candidate, present them with the information, answer questions, help them determine if it is the right fit for them, make the introduction to a manager, and so on.  Again, it’s a risk/reward scenario for employees that are being asked to do pro-active recruiting – is the time I am going to spend on this worth the risk of not spending that time on the job I was hired to do?

3.  Adoption

Let’s say you do decide to roll out a social recruiting solution and engage your employees to use it.  What is your strategy to ensure that your employees actually adopt the software?  Will they be held accountable if they don’t?  What is their motivation to add yet another system to their workflow, especially one that not only doesn’t help their daily workflow, but actually takes them away from it?

The war for talent, especially in technology, continues to heat up, and companies of all sizes (the 2-man startup in a garage up to Microsoft) need to be creative in how they go about attracting talent to their teams.  Job boards are becoming increasingly less reliable, and new solutions are popping up that make it easier for recruiters to find “passive” talent through not just LinkedIn, but Twitter, Facebook, Meetup.com, and in the case of software developers, tech friendly sites like GitHub.

There is no doubt the social networks/social graphs/social recruiting is the future – there’s never been an easier way to discover talent in what has become a series of giant open-source candidate databases.  Even better, these systems make it easy to find mutual connections between the people you want to get to, and we all know how much more effective a “warm” introduction is then a cold call.

The challenge for anyone looking to leverage their employees for referral recruiting is not “what is the best software solution available”, but “how can we train our employees on this behavior” first, then give them the tools to be successful.

The best technology solutions will do both.