Social Networks Expand the Reach of Employee Referrals

But creating a program that works is more about high-touch than high-tech.

By Mark Feffer Apr 1, 2015
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​In the quickly changing world of HR, one of the few truths that has remained constant for decades is that employee referrals are a critical component of sourcing. Consider the numbers: Nearly 74 percent of recruiters surveyed by Recruiting Trends said the best-quality candidates come from employee referrals. Time-to-hire for employee-referred candidates is 55 percent faster than for those who connected via a career site, says the recruiting platform provider Jobvite. Plus, such hires tend to remain longer, with 46 percent staying at their job for three or more years. 

Even going back to the days of the paper address book, recruiters have focused on making contact with individuals who could fill their company’s open roles. They cajoled employees for ideas and held Rolodex parties to encourage sharing. And though recruiters today rely on more sources than ever before, employee referrals remain the No. 1 source of new recruits, accounting for 20 percent of all hires, according to the CareerXroads 2014 Source of Hire report. 

What’s changed is how these referrals are generated. Today, the reach of every employee has been extended through social media sites like LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook—so much so that Gerry Crispin, principal and co-founder of CareerXroads and co-author of the Source of Hire report, says, “It’s hard to imagine that a social connection isn’t involved” in most of the referrals represented by that 20 percent.

In fact, he believes that number may understate the reality, since many times a social referral may be reported as having come from another channel. For example, a recruiter might label a hire as being from a direct source when in fact it resulted from a LinkedIn connection’s network.

It’s no surprise that social media has gotten the attention of recruiters. What before had been a laborious process—working the phones and attending conferences in a quest for industry contacts—has become far simpler. In the old days, using your network was “expensive” in terms of effort, notes Ben Casnocha, co-author of The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age (Harvard Business Review Press, 2014). “As the effort has dropped, an introduction can be a click away,” he says.

Tapping into employees’ social networks, then, seems like a natural step to take. However, doing so can be a double-edged sword, say recruiters, HR professionals and others who have studied both social media and employee referral programs. While worker input can enhance a company’s ability to connect the right candidates to the right opportunities, it also increases the pressure to provide a stellar candidate experience, lest word get back to employees that their connections are being neglected. 

Plus, in an era when privacy is a sensitive topic and the boundaries between work and personal lives sometimes get uncomfortably blurred, an ill-conceived effort can result in frustration, mistrust and outright resentment.

In short, developing a social referral program isn’t easy. Like so many things involving social media, the ability to gain real value depends on how much effort you’re willing to put in and how engaged your employees are in the first place.

“Social media and employer branding are only tools. They’re not a strategy,” says Lars Schmidt, founder of Amplify Talent, an HR and recruiting consultancy. “You have to do more than just be there. You still have to have a good candidate experience and a good workflow. You need the fundamentals.”

Ben Gotkin, principal consultant at Recruiting Toolbox, shares that sentiment. “It always comes back to the core fundamentals,” he says. “If you don’t have referrals built into your culture in the first place, [employees are] not going to be engaged. People see this as a silver bullet and a shortcut, and it’s not going to work that way.”

The Fundamentals

First, let’s be clear on what we’re talking about here: the idea of leveraging your employees’ social networks to connect with qualified candidates, active or passive. That’s a lot different from maintaining a company Facebook page or from using LinkedIn or your own detective work to track down candidates through job postings. 

It also involves more than simply encouraging employees to share openings through their tweets or status updates. While there’s certainly value in raising awareness that way, social networking shows its real power when it gets down to the individual level, where the conversations actually take place. “Social networking is good at starting relationships,” says John Sullivan, a professor of management at San Francisco State University who has worked extensively with employee referral programs. But guiding those conversations and developing those relationships require a level of exertion that no automated system can achieve.

In fact, much of an effort’s success depends on factors that aren’t related to social media at all—things like employee training and the time it takes recruiters to respond to a candidate’s query. And while your stream of candidates may grow, you’ll still face issues around quality. “You’re casting a wider net,” says Steve Levy, a global recruiter for the open-source video platform Kaltura. As a result, not every candidate will be qualified.

“Social networks enable employees to reach like-minded, potentially qualified friends, but they also have the potential to generate a lot of noise and a lot of applicant churn,” adds Antonia Cusumano Binetti, an advisory principal at PricewaterhouseCoopers who focuses on talent management. “If employers haven’t mastered the basics of a traditional referral program, they’re going to find it difficult to layer in the complexity of social networking on top of that.”

Your Employees’ World

As with traditional employee referral programs, the current workforce’s enthusiasm is key to success. Without employees’ willingness to engage their connections on behalf of the company, recruiting via employees’ social media connections may be no more effective than using job postings on the corporate website. And, though technology makes it relatively easy to analyze employees’ networks and identify connections between them and a candidate, there’s a lot more to it in terms of managing the human relationships, particularly those between recruiters and employees. Experts emphasize the importance of transparency and making sure the employee feels that he or she is the one in the driver’s seat.

“It can be a sensitive area,” Schmidt says. “The social networks are the employees’. People conscientiously build their networks, and companies have to be sensitive to how they deploy their programs.” 

Part of that involves finding the happy medium between a business’s desire to control the message and the fact that what employees post on their social networks is up to them. “I think most people don’t want their social networks to become propaganda sites but don’t mind occasional sharing,” says Jim Stroud, senior director of RPO Recruiting Strategies and Support at Randstad Sourceright US and author of Content Is the New Sourcing: Strategies for Attracting and Engaging Passive Candidates (CreateSpace, 2014). “Companies shouldn’t try to make employees feel like they have to share. They have to give them things they want to share.”

Complicating matters is the level of comfort people have with social media in general. Baby Boomers and members of Generation X have followed Millennials into the social media world, but they are still getting comfortable there, Binetti notes. “They’re often the ones making hiring decisions or even leading recruiting functions—which is why we still see so much uncertainty over how to use social media successfully,” she says.

Younger workers, on the other hand, “realize their career security—as opposed to their job security—depends on a vibrant professional network,” Casnocha says. “It’s really attractive to young, networking-savvy employees if you encourage them and enable them to develop their network. Enabling that is one of the greatest perks you can offer them.” 

That means how you approach discussions with employees may depend in large part on the age of the people you’re dealing with. Millennials may be more open than older workers to discussions that include Facebook and Instagram, for example. Most people understand that LinkedIn is a professional network used for business purposes. Conversations can be trickier if a company wants to look at an employee’s Facebook friends. Either way, being forthright is key. “Recruiters need to be upfront about why they’re looking at someone’s network,” Gotkin says. 

Connections Near and Far

Ultimately, the effectiveness of social networking lies in its ability to target connections who seem particularly well-matched to a job and the company. In other words, its value is less about broadcasting opportunities to an increasing number of candidates than it is about identifying talented individuals and looking for the most effective way to connect with them. 

So, as tempting as it might be to encourage employees to share every job posting that comes up, recruiters are better served when they focus on asking employees to promote opportunities that match the skills of people in their networks or to leverage their connections to identify and begin a dialogue with candidates whose skills and experience match the company’s interests.

For example, LinkedIn’s ability to display a user’s connections can help recruiters not only identify candidates but also develop a more personal approach to contacting them, if that candidate is connected to a current employee. An employee’s past experience with the candidate can help determine whether the candidate’s background truly aligns with the company’s needs and whether he or she will be a cultural fit. It can also help recruiters identify ahead of time a candidate’s preferences about things like working from home, travel or flextime. “Names alone have little value,” Sullivan says. “You want people to build relationships, and that takes a human touch.”

Personal connections can be used to help identify niche candidates as well. For example, a company searching for software developers may ask IT employees to identify appropriate connections on sites for programmers such as GitHub or Stack Overflow, Gotkin says. Or, recruiters seeking to build a talent pipeline could define the type of people they’re looking for—say, JavaScript developers at Apple, Facebook or Google with three years of experience—and touch base with potential candidates in their networks about their interest. Any matching connections should be further explored by asking the connected employee’s opinion of the candidate’s skills and experience and by assessing the employee’s level of comfort in approaching the person of interest or asking a mutual connection to do so.

While many vendors have products that can map a participating employee’s social networks, Sullivan says the programs themselves offer limited value. “The issue is not whether they have more contacts, but do they have good contacts?” he says. “If you don’t have a strong relationship and the employee isn’t willing to do a certain amount of selling, it won’t work. If you don’t have that part, you’ve got a telephone directory.”

In addition, the idea of a network goes beyond an employee’s direct contacts. Often, the candidates with the most value can be found several levels removed—the connections of connections of connections. For example, an employee may share an opportunity with a former colleague who turns out not to be interested but forwards the job posting to someone who is. 

It’s a concept that was explored in depth by sociologist Mark Granovetter in his 1973 paper, The Strength of Weak Ties. Granovetter described how a network’s “weaker” connections—in this context, those that are several levels removed from an employee’s primary contacts—can be particularly valuable in leading to results that otherwise may not be realized.

At the same time, leveraging such extended networks can help recruiters to broaden the type of candidates included in their search. HR professionals often note the tendency of people to refer their close connections, who typically consist largely of others who have backgrounds much like their own. “Similar people think in similar ways and are exposed to similar things,” Casnocha says. By exploring an employee’s expanded network—i.e., going beyond his or her close friends and family—recruiters have access to a wider universe of skills, experience and credentials.

Given the reality that not everyone in an employee’s social network is as close a contact as a former co-worker or classmate, social referrals increase the level of due diligence HR has to perform. “Recruiters have to probe to see how close the connection is,” Schmidt says. “The obligation is on the recruiter to not place the same weight on the referral without doing 

heir due diligence. They have to ask, ‘How do you know this person? Why do you think this person is a good fit?’ ”

Even with distant contacts, some level of personal connection is at play, Casnocha observes. “You’re still working on a premise of trust,” he says. “It might not be so close a contact, but someone’s reputation is at stake somewhere along the network’s chain.”

“HR needs to ask questions about how well the employee actually knows the person they’re referring,” says Will Kelly, recruiting director in Dallas for technical recruiter Modis. “You don’t want to get to the point where it’s like Monster.com and it’s practically generic. You want this to be like internal referrals. This should have the same dynamic as a traditional referral.”

The Experience Counts

It’s important to remember, also, that social media is a two-way street. The same connections that allow recruiters to identify and vet candidates also allow candidates to identify and vet prospective employers. Part of that equation—as important to candidates as it is to the employees whose networks you’ve asked to tap into—is what happens when an employee’s connection pays off with a candidate response. If not handled properly, recruiters could torpedo their social referral programs by exasperating candidates and upending the trust they set out to build with their co-workers.

“You can’t have a half-assed employee referral program,” Levy says. “You’re putting your employees’ credibility on the line. Your employees are trusting you with one of their most valuable assets—their reputation.”

In other words, the fundamentals are coming back into play. Setting out to enhance connections is self-defeating if HR isn’t ready to respond to candidates quickly—and to satisfy the concerns of the employees who introduced them.

“If you’re the kind of company who doesn’t respond to e-mails, this is going to hurt you. If employees don’t think the candidate experience is going to be good, they’re probably not going to refer anyone,” says Brian Murray, director of talent and culture at marketing agency Likeable Media. “You have to have a level of service in your process. You want people to have a good experience, inside and out.” 

Mark Feffer is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.


Sidebar: Engaging Employees Early

At unified business communications provider ShoreTel, recruiters begin encouraging employees to participate in their social referral program even before they’re onboarded, says Corporate Recruiter Deb Baimas. 

Using Jobvite Refer, employees can elect to share open positions with their network and customize the message that’s sent out with each. Recruiters can then track basic metrics such as who has displayed each posting and where. 

When it comes to encouraging employees to connect their social networks to the company, “You have to have the conversation carefully,” Baimas says. “You need to show people the advantages.”

Though Baimas acknowledges that some employees feel “weird” cultivating candidates or posting job opportunities on social media, a “good percentage” are involved in the company’s social referral program. They’re encouraged by rewards that range from $2,000 to $5,000. Although she can’t break out the number of hires made from social channels, Baimas says referrals overall account for 32 percent of hires at the 1,100-person company.

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