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How to Make Employee Referral Programs Work for You

By Susan P. Joyce

How to Find Jobs Through Employee Referral ProgramsEmployers LOVE employee referral programs!

Job candidates hired through employee referrals are usually more successful as employees. They stay longer than average and are high-quality employees.

Job seekers LOVE employee referral programs! ERP programs really are the “fast-track” to a new job.

Nearly 80% of employers with 1,000 employees or more have formal programs.


A 2017 survey of hiring practices revealed that 30% of all hiring is done through referrals. (Job boards account for less than 12% of hiring.) So, if you are not exploring referrals to find your next job, you are missing the "inside track" to a new job:

  • 1 in 3 referred employees are hired (vs. 1 in 18 via other sources) *
  • Referrals are the fastest way for an employer to fill a job, averaging 29 days vs. 45 days for job boards. *

Employee referral programs typically reward employees for referring someone outside the organization who is hired for a job.

Referring employees usually receive a financial reward, from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, so employees are usually interested in finding good candidates to refer.

When/if that person is hired and performs acceptably in the job for at least 90 days (usually), the referring employee typically receives a financial reward.

Know the Rules for Each Target Employer!

Referral programs typically have rules about when and how the employee earns the referral fee. Usually, the referral should happen before you apply for the job or during the job application process, as indicated above.

Understanding the program's rules, and complying with them are essential for success.

So, checking the ERP rules on the employer’s website -- if the information is available -- before you reach out to an employee is a very smart idea.

If you can't find the ERP rules on the employer's website, then you will need to ask the employee to look for the program's documentation which may be on the "intranet" (internal, employee-only website) or available through the HR organization.

Applying without complying with the employer's rules can permanently end your ability to use that employer's employee referral program.

Look for the employer's policy on each of these criteria:

  1. Timing of the referral.

    You can be disqualified for the ERP if you apply at the wrong time in the application process!

    Some programs want the employee to refer you before you apply for the job, or, in some cases, before you register on their website.

    Others allow the referral to happen after you have officially applied for the job.
  2. Who can make a referral.

    A hiring manager cannot typically refer someone, especially not for their own department. People in HR and recruiting are usually not able to refer a candidate, either.
  3. Who can be referred.

    Some employers prefer not to have an employee refer a relative.
  4. Which jobs qualify for the reward.

    Typically, the jobs that are in the ERP -- or pay the best reward -- are the jobs that are the hardest to fill, like jobs that are senior or jobs that are hard to fill because qualified candidates are scarce. So, not every job may be included.
  5. Which location may qualify for the reward.

    Some locations have a plentiful supply of job candidates, which means no — or a minimal — reward is offered by the employer. So, location and job matter.

Life is never simple these days. Be sure to understand the rules each employer has for their ERP program so you can be that referred candidate.

Proceed VERY Carefully -- Employee Referral Programs Can Differ Greatly!

While the basic elements are the same, each employer has their own approach to the process, and every program is different!

Be VERY careful! The very act of applying before being officially referred may disqualify you for some programs, depending on the rules of that particular program.

You may need to have the employee first register you as their referral, and then you can apply as a referred candidate. Or, you may be able to apply and then be referred. Qualifying depends on the requirements of the program (more below).

Employee referral programs for large employers operate two main ways:

1. Referral as part of the automated job application.

When you complete an online application for the job, you provide the name and contact information of the employee referring you.

There will probably be a section specifically for employee referrals (usually in the how-did-you-find-out-about-this-job section). Or, you may need to type the referring employee’s contact information into another section.

2. Referral form submitted by the referring employee (before OR after the application).

The employee who is referring you submits a form officially referring you. In many cases, they don’t need to specify the job you are applying for. Other times, they do. It depends on the employer

After their form is accepted, you are typically notified of the referral, and invited to look at the jobs and apply.

With smaller employers that may not have automated referral systems, the process will be different. The employee doing the referral may simply hand your resume to the hiring manager or Human Resources manager.

Making an Employer's Program Work for You

When you have a contact at a target employer, ask the employee to send you the rules for their employer's program. Then, make sure that you both comply with those rules to make the referral (and the reward to the employee) happen the most easily.

I recently heard from a job seeker who had a friend send them a link to a job with the friend's employer. The job seeker immediately applied for the job and immediately disqualified himself from the employee referral program because -- for that employer -- the application was supposed to come through the employee. OOPS!

If someone has offered to refer you, be sure you have shared contact information, like this:

  • Their name at work (you may know her as Debbi, but at work everyone calls her Debra).
  • Work email address.
  • Their department/division or office.
  • Their location.
  • Their job title.
  • Their work phone number.

Also, be sure to provide the employee with:

  • Your name (as used on your job applications, resumes, LinkedIn profile, etc.).
  • Your personal (not work!) email address.
  • Your personal (not work!) phone number.
  • A copy of your resume.

You must both be sure that you have the information you need to complete the process successfully. You want this person to be rewarded for their kindness, and you also want the advantage that comes from being a referred candidate.

Finding the People Who Can Refer You

Today, connecting with people who can refer you is much easier than in the past. That's the good news and, sometimes, the bad news.

Rather than making a bunch of phone calls or trying to track down email addresses, Google and social media are excellent resources for finding contacts.

Have Target Employers

Start with your target employers:

  • Employers with reputations as good places to work.
  • Employers in the "right industry" for you.
  • Employers which are the "right size" for you.
  • Employers in the best location for you.

Asking random people to make a referral doesn't usually work well. You could end up finding a job with an employer which is close to going out of business, and being unfocused usually makes the whole process take longer.

Start with LinkedIn

If you search through the jobs on LinkedIn, it will show you any connections you have to the employer along with the job posting. Then, you can reach out to them via LinkedIn without needing to do any additional research.

If you are not applying for a job through LinkedIn, you will still find it handy for identifying people who work at your target employers.

Type a company name into the search box at the top of most LinkedIn pages. Click on the word "People" above the initial search results, and LinkedIn will show you people who are 1st, 2nd, and 3rd level connections working for that employer.

Choosing LinkedIn People Search

Then, to find current employees, "filter" the results by "Current companies" for employers on your target employer list, as shown below. Choose your target location and LinkedIn also allows you to specify the level of connection (1st, 2nd, or 3rd).

LinkedIn People Search by Current Company

To find former employees (who probably still have contacts at the target employer), click on the "All Filters" link to "filter" the results by "Past companies."

Then, look for contact information that enables you to reach out. If there is no contact information, try a Google search on the person's name plus the term "email address."

For example, if you wanted to reach someone named Mary Jane Smith, you would do this search on Google -- "mary jane smith" "email address" -- and hopefully Google would find a web page with contact information on it.

Check out Job-Hunt's Guide to LinkedIn for Job Search for much more information.

Check Your Facebook Connections

Like LinkedIn, Facebook also offers a "People" search capability. The most effective searches are accomplished by simply typing:

  • people who work at [company name] OR
  • people who worked at [company name]

As with LinkedIn, then check the person's Facebook account to see if they have included their email address in the About - Contact and Basic Info section of their profile. If you don't find contact information, try the Google search described above.

Check out Job-Hunt's Guide to Facebook for Job Search for more information about using Facebook for a successful job search.

Leverage Informational Interviews to Find More People (and Inside Information)

Informational interviews can be a gold mine for collecting information about employers, jobs, and also for learning about additional people to contact. With a good relationship with any of these contacts, you can likely receive a referral. See Job-Hunt's Guide to Informational Interviews for more information about successful informational interviews

Reach Out Carefully and Gracefully

Ideally, when you ask for a referral, the person you are asking is someone you know reasonably well. They are putting their credibility on the line by referring you, so they need to be comfortable that you would perform well in the job (and not embarrass them).

Do research in advance, if possible, to learn how their employer's referral program works.

Employee Referral Programs requirements vary widely! So, don't make assumptions!

You also don't want to put the relationship at risk, and, particularly if you haven't been in touch for a while, you also want to catch up with what's going on in their lives a bit too.

For example, this could be an initial message to the person who might be able to refer you. Replace the content in brackets, [like this] with the information appropriate for this situation:

Hi [first name of the employee],

It's been a few years since we worked together at [employer name], but I'm hoping you remember those times as positively as I do. I am in job search mode, and your current employer, [name of their current employer], interests me as a great place to work.

I understand from the information available on the company website that you may receive [the amount you found in your research] as a reward for referring me. So, both of us will benefit if this works. Excellent!

If possible, I would like to talk with you about your experiences working there and, of course, the possibility of having you refer me for a job [or job title]. It would also be great to catch up.

Let me know if you have time available to talk in the next few days. I'd be very grateful for any advice and assistance you can provide.

[Your name]

Bottom Line

Employee referrals are a very effective way to land a job, but don't assume that all employee referral programs are alike. It is too easy to mess up and disqualify yourself permanently for an employer's program.

* Source of data: 10 Compelling Numbers That Reveal the Power of Employee Referrals.

More About Employee Referrals:

About the author...

Online job search expert Susan P. Joyce has been observing the online job search world and teaching online job search skills since 1995. A veteran of the United States Marine Corps and a recent Visiting Scholar at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Susan is a two-time layoff “graduate” who has worked in human resources at Harvard University and in a compensation consulting firm. Since 1998, Susan has been editor and publisher of Follow Susan on Twitter at @jobhuntorg and on Facebook, LinkedIn.