How to respond when your employer asks you for a candidate referral

Posted March 29, 2018 by


Don’t be surprised if your employer asks you to refer your friends or other contacts as candidates for open positions. Employers depend on a variety of sources to recruit new people, and a favorite, time-tested method is to get employee referrals. Many organizations find that employee referrals are more likely to fit in and perform well in their jobs. We checked in with two experts to advise entry-level employees with this question. Vicky Oliver, author of 301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions (Sourcebooks, 2005), and Toni Newborn, Diversity and Consulting Services Manager at the City of St. Paul  give their advice about how to respond to the request for a candidate referral. 

What implications are there for me if I refer a good candidate? A bad one? 

There are multiple reasons why you should take the request seriously and really think about who you want to refer to your employer. It is important to provide a good candidate referral.

  • It is a reflection on your reputation and judgment. Referring a good candidate reflects well on you, says Vicky Oliver, “particularly if you refer a few good candidates.”
  • Giving referrals shows a sign of loyalty. Oliver says that by referring candidates, you show “bosses and superiors that you are planning to stay at the company for a while.” If they sense that you’ll be around for a while, they are more likely to invest in your professional development.
  • Toni Newborn says, “If you refer a good candidate, your employer may see you as a resource in the future from a recruitment standpoint.”
  • Depending on the company, they may even offer you a referral bonus.
  • If you have a knack for spotting potential talent, this could help you move up at your organization. “Being able to spot potential is essential in upper management,” says Oliver. “Referring good candidates indicates that you have this special skill.”

Be careful providing a bad candidate referralOn the other hand, if you refer a bad candidate, Newborn says your organization may not seek you out in the future for referrals. This may not seem like a big deal, but it does impact how HR and other leaders see you. Newborn’s advice is to “be careful about who you refer and be sure that this person has a good work history. Your reputation and brand is essential for the success of your career. You don’t want to be associated with the company’s ‘bad apple.’”

You only have control over who you refer, and you likely will have no control over who actually gets hired. Oliver points out that referring one bad candidate may not do terrible harm if that person does not get hired. However, “where you get into trouble is if you refer a bad candidate who does get hired. Then his or her performance reflects poorly on you. Your colleagues will be less willing to hear about other referrals you have. ‘We listened to you once,’ they will think, ‘but never again.’”

Your recommendation could be tied to your skills and competencies. “Proceed with caution,” says Newborn.

How are you supposed to know the difference between a good and bad candidate referral? First, read the description of the open job. Scan your contacts in LinkedIn to see if anyone has the experience or skills described in the job description. Also, it’s important to think about your organizational culture. Is it very competitive? Or more like a family? Is everyone focused on results and effectiveness? Or is there more focus placed on learning and development? Before you refer a candidate, think about whether they’d fit within that culture.

Related: Networking: A Definitive Guide for Students and Grads to Succeed in the Job Search

How do I respond if I don’t really like working at my organization?

If you don’t feel comfortable referring any of your friends, you might feel awkward responding. Newborn suggests the following responses:

  • I don’t have a broad network of friends.
  • I don’t think that my network is interested in the types of jobs that are available.
  • My friends/network mostly work in this field. The jobs available are not of interest to my network.
  • My strength is not in recruiting, are there other ways for me to contribute to the mission, vision, and values of the company?

Oliver has different advice. She thinks it shouldn’t matter whether you like your job. If your friends are looking for jobs, and they are good candidates, refer them and “be open to discussing your thoughts about the company if your friends ask.” It’s important to be transparent about the culture and what you know about the job opening, but a big caveat that Oliver points out is: “always be aware that what you say may come back through the grapevine. So, tread carefully in a situation where you are not enamored of the company.”

Your friends will be grateful to you for referring them, says Oliver. And, they will probably think of you down the line for other opportunities, so your favor may come back to you.

Diversity in candidate referrals is importantWhat diversity has to do with it 

If you have a diverse network, you hold an important opportunity in your hands to help your employer hire more diversity. Many people criticize employers who depend very heavily on employee referrals. Why? If an organization has low diversity and seriously wants to diversify its workplace, one sure way to impede those efforts is to hire the friends and families of current employees.

Related: What executives want students to do about diversity in organizations

Why should you care? Being on diverse teams at work can be very good for people, and for organizations. On a diverse team, you hear different perspectives, which makes you think outside the box. A diverse team is collectively more creative and innovative. There is plenty of research around this and evidence of its impact. So if you have a diverse network, take advantage of the opportunity to help your employer hire more diversity.

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