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Best Practices for Interviewing Employee Referral Candidates

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We don’t have to convince you of the reasons why you should focus on building an employee referral program, right? Just to refresh you on why employee referral programs are so effective, in a nutshell, they lead to faster hires who perform better and stick around longer. If you’d like more specific facts and figures, you can check out some of the most compelling stats here.

Let’s say that you’ve seen the numbers and you’re already bought into the idea of launching an employee referral program. What comes next? How should you treat referred candidates—and the employees who referred them—during the interview process? Remember that your referral program rests on one important factor: employee participation. Let’s explore a few best practices to help you keep employees and the people they refer happy (even if they don’t end up getting the job).

Keep everyone informed of what to expect

According to Dr. John Sullivan, one of the most prolific writers on the topic of employee referrals, “A lack of responsiveness to employee referrals is the #1 program killer that will permanently reduce employee participation rates.” So it’s important that you outline very clearly what will happen once an employee makes a referral and regularly share this information with employees. Remember that not everything has to be manual: Many employee referral solutions offer portals that employees can log into and track exactly where their referrals are in the process. In addition to making sure employees know how to use your referral software, regularly check in to see if know what happens once they submit a referral and how long each step of the process will take. Which, coincidentally, brings us to the next point...

Have clear timelines & stick to them

If possible, expedite the process for moving referral candidates on to the next step of the process. Set deadlines for a few of the key milestones such as initial résumé review, scheduling a phone screen, and inviting the candidate in for an onsite interview. Dr. John Sullivan suggests the following: “Set a target of getting feedback to the employee and the referred individual within 48–72 hours of submission. Some firms even offer on-the-spot résumé screening, which is where an employee brings a high-quality referral to a designated referral recruiter for instant acceptance/rejection. The best programs also have expedited interviewing by guaranteeing that the decision to offer the referral an interview will be made within five working days.” You may need to make adjustments to these time frames depending on the size of your recruiting team (and number of roles you’re trying to fill), but be sure to consider how you can move referrals through the process more quickly than other applicants.

Personalize the process

Candidate experience should always be a priority, but it becomes even more important when dealing with referred employees. In your initial correspondence with the candidate, be sure to acknowledge the fact that you know they’re a referral. When a referred candidate comes in for an onsite interview, look for ways that you can offer a superior candidate experience. Perhaps you can have the person who referred them available to greet them when they arrive or take them out to coffee for a brief interlude during the interview.

You should also strive for this level of personalization when a referred candidate is rejected. SocialTalent recommends the following: “send a personalised rejection email to unsuccessful referrals explaining why they are not suitable for this role and what sort of jobs you could consider them for in the future. Don’t forget to explain to the referrer why you’re not progressing with them also.” It all comes back to making the experience personal for both the candidate and the employee who made the referral.

Check your bias

Unconscious bias affects our recruiting decisions in a number of ways. When interviewing a referred candidate, our inclination might be to be more lenient. After all, we’ve seen the stats on employee referrals and know that this person is likely to be a good fit.

However, your goal is always to find the best candidate for the job. So resist the temptation to simply ask softball questions and try to assess the referral candidate in the same way you consider all other candidates. This is where having a structured interviewing process can really help since you can ensure that all candidates are asked the same questions and evaluated on the same criteria.

Measure & track the success of your program

Tracking and measuring your referred candidates is important for two reasons: first, it will help you understand how successful your referral program is, and second, it will help you ensure that referred candidates get preferential treatment once they’re submitted. You should be able to do this type of tagging, tracking, and reporting through your Applicant Tracking System (ATS).

Extra credit: Check out this case study from Stripe

Stripe has implemented a number of initiatives to boost employee referrals and seen some great success—the company boasts a 40% employee referral rate. Here are a few takeaways from Stripe’s recruiting team: Have the referrer participate in the post-interview debrief so they can answer follow-up questions or concerns that arose during the interview process. Stripe also pairs referrals with executive team members who will interview them and guide them through the interview process. This approach helps ensure that no one gets lost in the shuffle—referrers have full transparency about what’s going on with their referrals.

Now you’ve got some practical tips and tricks for interviewing referral candidates. By expediting and prioritizing referrals—while still holding them to the same high standards as other candidates—you’ll show existing employees that you really do value their recommendations. Have any other tips for interviewing referral candidates? Drop us a line in the comments to let us know!


Are you prioritizing building your pipeline with pre-qualified, vetted people? Learn how Teamable can support your employee referral program by clicking here.

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