How to ask for a referral

How to ask for a referral

A time of crisis calls for ingenuity, especially when looking for a role at a top company. That’s why seeking out a referral can be a good way to get your foot in the door. But what is the best way to go about getting one?


Asking a friend to let you know if there are any posts coming up has always been a good way to get the inside track on developments at desirable companies. In recent years, however, many businesses have regularised the process with referral schemes that often pay a “finder’s fee” of thousands to staff who introduce suitable candidates.

At Salesforce, the cloud-software giant, 52% of new hires are found through referrals by employees. It does this by holding regular recruitment “happy hours” to which staff can invite potential referrals for a few drinks and a chat. This way the company gets to meet fresh candidates, who also get to meet their potential boss.

Other companies such as Google offer their staff trips to exotic destinations, such as Hawaii, as an incentive to introduce fresh talent. Twitter and Facebook hand out cash bonuses. This is an attractive option because companies have found that the turnover rate of staff found using referrals tends to be lower. Referred workers are less likely to quit and they earn slightly higher wages than non-referred employees.

So if you are thinking of asking for a referral, go ahead. You might be doing everyone a favour. To find out the best way to go about this, we asked Lawrence Cooke, who heads up the executive and senior level resourcing at Severn Trent, a FTSE 100 water utility company, for some advice. Here are his top tips.

Start with your personal network

When it comes to deciding who to ask for help, look at your personal network first. Does a member of your family or one of your friends work for a company that you would like to target? Then go ahead and start a conversation, says Cooke. “Generally, people should use their network—people they know and trust, and who know and trust you in return. So if someone in your network works for a company you’re interested in, then ask.”

Close contacts, such as family, former colleagues or college friends, should be your first port of call, followed by acquaintances and others who can vouch for you. Cooke doesn’t believe in approaching those you don’t know or who don’t know your work to ask for help––no matter how attractive the company. “It’s easier to think of referrals as recommendations as that’s what’s normally happening. Person A is recommending to person B that person C is suitable for the role they’re trying to fill. I would avoid going to people you don’t know,” he said.

Give them reasons to refer you

Once you have decided to broach the subject, it’s a good idea to explain a little bit more about what makes you a good fit for the company. A former colleague may know that you are a good team player and a technical whiz, but they may not be aware of your qualifications, earlier experience or volunteer work. “If you ask someone in your network, for example someone you’ve worked closely with previously, then the conversation should be easier,” said Cooke, but don’t expect them to know everything about you, even if it’s all up there on LinkedIn. They may not have seen it. You are reaching out, therefore you have to make the effort. “Ask yourself, why should they refer you?” he said. The more they know about what makes you a good candidate, the easier it will be for them to speak up on your behalf.

Do your homework

Make sure that you read up on the company beforehand as if you were preparing for an interview. Is it in the process of expanding? Has it closed a round of funding? Or is it suffering because of the pandemic? If your contact is facing potential redundancy, they may not be keen to try to bring others on board. You can still take the time to sound them out.

Take the time to find out whether the company encourages or discourages referrals for fear of hiring too many similar people. “Some companies will actually discourage referrals due to the impact they may have on the diversity of hires,” said Cooke. “Generally I think referrals are a good tool if there is a strong and unbiased recruitment process underneath, but if it bypasses a fair recruitment process then it risks inclusion issues.”

Be professional

It’s important not to expect your contact to do the work for you. Treat this just as seriously as if you were applying for a job through an advertisement. Do not rely solely on the referral to send in your CV to the manager,” said Cooke. Apply via the normal recruitment channels. The person you’re relying on to recommend your application may forget, or they may not have as close a relationship with the hiring manager as you believe.”

Know what you want to happen

Remember too that you should know what you want to achieve and be honest about your aims. Don’t ask for a referral from a friend at Vogue, for example, just because you are impressed by the company––unless you really want to work there. That can have repercussions for others if it does not work out.

“For me, referrals or recommendations are all about trust, said Cooke. “If I were to refer someone into the company I work for then [I need to ask] do I know and trust that person in a work context? I have great friends, but I honestly have no clue what they’re like at their work or if they’re average or great at their jobs.”

Cooke is reluctant to recommend friends for posts now after a bad experience. “I did refer a friend into a vacancy previously. They went through a normal recruitment process and got offered the job––then they turned it down! We’re obviously still friends but it’s made me think twice about personally recommending anyone for a role again.”

Take nothing for granted

Although many companies have structured referral programmes, even a strong endorsement is no guarantee that you will get a positive response, according to Cooke. Regardless of what happens, you should remember to say thank you and let them know how you get on later. “A referral alone won’t get you a job. It might not even get you an interview,” said Cooke. “However what it will do is help draw attention to your application, whether that’s the hiring manager looking at it or someone in the HR team. The rest is up to you!”

Asking for a referral may feel embarrassing, but you really have nothing to lose. If you are gracious in your approach, it can be an effective way to get yourself noticed by the right people. In a crowded market, it just might give you the edge.

Photo: WTTJ

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Rose Costello

Editor and writer

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