When Bad Referrals Happen to Good People

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By Vicki Salemi

Ah, the good old employee referral. It should be a win-win situation, yes? After all, as a job seeker you're looking to get a foot in the door. Companies are looking to hire the best possible talent, which is typically connected to their best employees. Studies have found referrals are a top source for hiring volume and hiring quality.

What better way to become a positive statistic when submitting job materials to a company than to receive a nudge from someone who already has clout and currently works there? If there's an employee referral system in place, who wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of this robust recruiting mechanism, particularly since some companies have compensation incentives?
Well, word to the wise. There are a few pointers to keep in mind if you're a job seeker scouting out people who work at your prospective employer, plus tips for the referrer who needs to ask a few questions first before submitting that résumé to the internal system.

For the job seeker ...

As the job seeker the key is connecting with someone reputable. For instance, if someone's name in LinkedIn appears through a connection, you're e-introduced and he or she is more than willing to forward your résumé, then great! Sort of.

How do you know this person isn't a slacker and on a performance improvement plan of his or her own? If you use an applicant tracking system to apply to a company with an employee referral program, then your résumé will be noticeably attached with a little icon (typically in the shape of an ear). But what if the recruiter opening your résumé sees so-and-so's name attached and thinks: "Great, just what we need – another troublemaker?"

Your reputation follows you and in turn, so does the referrer's. While you won't necessarily know what your referrer's performance track record is, you could ask for a quick phone call instead of relying on emails for an introduction. In only a matter of minutes, you should be able to determine if this is a person you can trust with submitting your résumé. Does she or he sound coherent? Positive about the company? On the phone you can leverage the conversation to learn more about the role and corporate culture. Considering you may not get this one position you're pursuing, view this call as an introduction to a potential long-term networking contact; highlight your skills, experience and enthusiasm during the call as well.

If the person is invested in your candidacy, then you may also ask if he or she can also reach out to the hiring manager or recruiter on your behalf. When recruiters have hundreds of résumés to review in the system an email or phone call will definitely grab their attention to seriously consider you.

For the employee ...

For starters, you're essentially your reputation. Before blindly submitting your neighbor's son-in-law's niece's (got that lineage?) résumé, do your homework as if you're the potential employer screening the candidate for the first round of interviews.

Do you feel comfortable associating your name with this potential candidate? Do you know anything about him or her? Begin by looking him or her up on LinkedIn. Ask the connector to schedule a phone call even if it's only for a few minutes. The goal? Ensure this person can cohesively construct a sentence. Ask about his or her career goals, ambitions, strengths and weaknesses as if you're conducting a mini-interview yourself. Again, it doesn't have to be a lengthy call, but just long enough for you to assess whether you want to associate yourself with this candidate.

Here's why: What if a candidate whom you suggest the company interview and strongly consider is weak, unprepared and unprofessional? This will reflect badly on you. It may be tempting to blindly submit a candidate on your behalf if there's a compensation payout involved, but bad hires do occur, and some new hires many not even last as long as the 90 days required for some of these payouts.

Net-net: Do your homework. As long as you feel comfortable with your name on this candidate's application, submit away and spread the word for the group to take a look at this candidate. Potential rock star performers need to get noticed. But if your gut is telling you not to proceed, listen. Tell the candidate you may not be the ideal person to submit his or her CV and wish him or her well. If the candidate is weak, chances are recruiting will end up ruling him or her out anyway, but do you really want your name associated with vouching for this candidate?

There are situations that make this more tricky when the referral gets political. For instance, your boss may be ineligible for a referral payout, but may ask you to submit the résumé of his or her cousin so you may be rewarded if a hire is made. In this case, you probably need to just submit it and trust your boss's connection.

Above all, the key to referral success on both sides involves tactfulness depending on the situation, using your judgment and of course, the quality relationship of both the referrer and candidate.
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