The most important part of your employer brand is not the candidate experience.

It’s the referrer experience. Creating a culture of referrals for hiring both inside and outside your company depends entirely on this.

Your product brand depends a lot on customer referrals and by proxy the customer experience. Similarly,

Your employer brand depends a lot on candidate referrals and by proxy, the referrer experience.

A lot, if not most, of your stellar candidates come through referrals. Referrals may not always be through your official referral program. They might come from someone on your team, someone in the community, or Ran Doe on the internet.

If you want to make referrals a sustainable and scalable hiring strategy, you have to care about the referrer experience.

In order to build a great customer experience, you have to talk to a lot of customers and develop a strong sense of empathy. You have to walk in their shoes and see through their eyes.

In order to build a great referrer experience, you have to talk to a lot of referrers and have empathy for them. Let’s put ourselves in the prospective referrer’s shoes. It usually starts with a request from the hiring team.

“Hey do you know any good Software Engineers? Acme is looking for one.”

You think —

Ok, I do, but everyone I know is either gainfully employed — and some folks I would have a coffee with but not really want to work alongside.

They get requests from people like you all the time. If they took those calls, they’d never get any work done, they’d just be interviewing 24x7.

But you still want to help. You keep thinking.

“I bet there’s someone who might be open to a new job.”

You rack your brain. You’re late for a meeting at work and forget about it.

You go home that day to find that Acme has announced a $5,000 referral bonus. That’s cool! You want to think of someone.

You start going through your mental rolodex of favorite past colleagues and think of Henry. You wonder what he’s up to these days so you Google him. Henry is a Senior Software Engineer. But his profile says he just joined Pied Piper 3 months ago. He’s probably not looking for something new.

The next day you run into your friend Julie at a party. She comes up to you and asks if Acme is hiring any Product Managers, because she’s getting tired of her job at Dunder Mifflin. Oh. Er uh. You’re not sure, but you assure her you’ll check and get back to her. You ask her if she’s open to being an engineer since Acme’s definitely looking for those. She introduces you to her friend Joe who’s also considering leaving Dunder Mifflin.

That time when you ask someone for a job and they tell you they’re quitting

After you politely exchange contact information, Joe emails you the next day with a link to his Github and asks you if you could forward it to the hiring team. He seems like a nice enough guy and you want to help him out.

But what if he doesn’t interview well? You never worked with him so you can’t really vouch for him. You decide to table the issue and ask your colleagues for advice in person.

You decide to refer Joe, because your colleagues advise you that he’s worth at least a conversation. You set out to forward his email to the recruiting team, and as you stare at the compose window you get anxious about exactly what to say. After about half an hour of deliberation and editing your email multiple times, you end up with something neutral like this

Emails are hard

A couple of weeks go by, and you run into Joe again. This time you grab a beer with him and talk about the new React Native programming framework from Facebook. He’s actually quite knowledgable about it, and has some really good points about the tradeoffs. You think “this guy knows his stuff. Phew, glad I referred him.” when Joe asks

Hey so I came in to interview the other day but didn’t see you around. I was hoping to swing by your desk and grab a coffee on my way out. Any inside info about how it went?

Woah. Joe already came in and interviewed? You didn’t even know that they’d decided to move forward with him! At least this means they got back to him, which is something. You’re tongue tied.

Er uh, I’m not sure — I’m not really involved in that side of things, but I’ll keep my ear to the ground for you and see what’s up.

“Oh,” says Joe. “I just figured that if they gave me an interview on your word then you’re probably pretty well respected around Acme. No sweat, I really appreciate you putting me on the radar there, I applied to a few other places and they didn’t even respond to my emails.”

Leaving the bar, you’re kind of annoyed. Why didn’t anyone tell you that Joe came in for an interview? You could have been helpful! And now you looked like an ass in front of him, which may have damaged his impression of you and the company.

That’s approximately where your experience as a referrer ends at most companies, until one day you see Joe in the cafeteria and say,

“Hey Joe, fancy seeing you here? I presume things worked out?”

“Oh yeah, I started like 3 weeks ago. I actually referred Julie for the Product Manager position on my team and since they just announced a new referral bonus I’m going to make an extra $3,000!”

Just got jipped out of my referral bonus.

Experiences like this are more common than you might think. They might even be happening in your company.

So it’s important to take a step back and try to intentionally design an exceptional referrer experience.

Here’s a way to start doing this, but I’ll save the details for another post.

  • Interview the last 5 people in your company that referred someone and ask them what their experience was like.
  • Interview the last 5 candidates that came in through referrals, and the last 5 candidates that didn’t. Map out the differences between their experiences and identify where the referrers helped. Figure out how you can make more of that happen.
  • Write down a 1-page set of guidelines about how you’d like referrers to be treated by your company.

If you enjoyed this story, give it some love ❤

(adapted from the originally published version on

Also, if you want to make the referrer experience better at your company, we can help with that.