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Why Great Employee Referral Programs Fail

Hand Putting People NetworkAsk and ye shall receive.  Ah, why are employee referral programs never so simple?  Across businesses, sectors, and geographies, employee referrals consistently rank as one of the best sources of quality hires.  Which is great … if you can manage to get referrals at all.

Time and again, we’ve seen employee referral programs fall flat – not because of poor program design or rewards or even the employees themselves.  No, these failures come down to lack of one simple thing.

A communications strategy.

To be effective, a referral program should have a full communications strategy that includes a minimum of four core elements:

1. Launch Awareness.

Quick way to fail: Create a new program with great rewards and opportunities, and hide it away so that no one knows about it, or cares.

Simply put, no one will refer candidates to a program that they don’t know exists.  If you are launching an employee referral program, or attempting to reinvent or reinvigorate an existing program, don’t just place a notice on your intranet or send out an email – it’s time to make a splash.  Clearly explain what the program is, why employees should care, and the type of rewards the program provides – and provide links to current or upcoming opportunities.  Look for as many opportunities as you can to get the word out: intranet, email, employee newsletters, company blog, Twitter, LinkedIn, a promotional contest – you name it, go for it.

2. Leadership Buy-In and Promotion.

Quick way to fail: Make the employee referral program seem like “just an HR/Recruitment initiative,” rather than a program that benefits the entire company.

Engagement and buy-in from leadership is often key to making employee referrals part of the company culture.  Leaders at all level need to be able to explain not only that the program exists, but also how and why referrals are valuable to the business.  Understanding how great employee referrals connect to achieving business goals is a great motivator – and engaged employees are motivated to help the company succeed even without a financial or other reward.

3. Ongoing Program Promotion.

Quick way to fail: Assume that employees will remember about the program and actively review current postings to seek opportunities to refer family/friends without reminders, encouragement, or further information.

Following a great launch, don’t let your program fizzle out.  All the techniques used to launch a program can help you gain and keep long-term momentum.  Consider including employee referral success stories in company publications, running referral contests or promotions, delivering regular communications in corporate social media, and even offering an award or extra bonus for top referrers.

4. Follow-Up with Candidates – and Referrers.

Quick way to fail: Promote the program and its many benefits, then ignore referred candidates and referrers alike.

If candidate experience is important in the recruitment process (and it is!), then it’s especially critical when dealing with referred candidates.  Referrals have often heard an insider’s perspective about the company, and have certain expectations.  Dropping the ball on candidate experience – even if the candidate is entirely unsuitable for the role or company – risks damaging your employment brand.  Provide a great experience, and even the individuals that you pass over for jobs can become brand champions and referrers.

And don’t forget about your referrers.  Give updates on where their candidates are in the process, feedback on the alignment of their referrals, and thanks for spending the time/effort to help the company recruit great new hires.


Image courtesy of Ohmega1982 /

Tags: employee referrals, communications, HR, recruitment



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