Home Blog Uncategorized The power–and risk–of the personal job referral

The power–and risk–of the personal job referral


Earlier this year, my son was talking about how much he wanted a membership at the Edina Life Time. Keep in mind, he’s 16 years old and the Edina Life Time is a Diamond Club, so it’s the most expensive of all the Life Time clubs. Needless to say, we didn’t rush out and buy him a membership. Instead, we encouraged him to get a job there.

Since I knew that might be a tall order, I called a friend of mine who works at Life Time. I asked her if there was anything she could do to put in a good word for my son. She did. And, not surprisingly, a few days later, my son had an interview.

It was the power of the personal referral–and we’ve all probably seen it play out many times in our careers.

If the person giving the referral–in this case, a senior-level corporate Life Time employee with a 8+ year track record of success–is highly regarded, it usually works pretty darn well.

However, the referral game isn’t as easy–or risk-free–as it might seem.

There are many pitfalls to this process–both for the person giving the referral and the person receiving it.

Let’s start with the person giving the referral. By way of my job (independent social media consultant), I get asked to provide referrals a lot. And, I’ve learned a lot over the last 12+ years of doing this. Here’s what I’ve observed:

1 – Don’t give referrals to people you haven’t worked with directly before.

Should go without saying, but I’ve done this before and it’s come back to bite me. Without direct work experience, you have no idea what kind of performer you’re referring. Save those referrals for people you’ve absolutely loved working with in the past.

2 – Make sure you’re as honest as you can be with the person you’re referring

Sometimes people will ask for referrals to employers in town who don’t have the best reputations. I’ve tried to be as open and honest as I can be with people whom I’ve referred about such places, because I don’t want to refer someone to an employer, only to have them hate their job six months later. Give your referees all the information up front–let them make their own decision.

3 – Don’t over-promise

Friends or colleagues may ask you for referrals from time to time (more often lately considering the tight job market!). And, because you’re a nice person, you probably say, “Sure, I know a few people! I’ll send you some names.” But, in reality, you don’t have any names. Resist the urge to be nice–and instead, be honest. It’s OK to say you don’t know anyone looking at this time–again, especially right now with the labor market being as tight as it’s ever been.


Now, let’s talk about the person receiving the referral. I don’t have much experience in this area–at least not in the last 12 years. But, that doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions! Here are my thoughts if you’re the job seeker:

1 – Don’t ask for referrals from people you haven’t worked with in the past.

If you go around asking for referrals from people you haven’t worked with in the past, it puts those people in a very awkward and uncomfortable position. Don’t be that person. Preferably, you want to ask two groups of people for referrals: Previous managers and former colleagues. Those people know your history and performance best–let them vouch for you.

2 – Don’t overuse your “asks”

Be judicious about who you ask for a referral. Again, I go back to those two groups: Former managers and former colleagues. Don’t just ask anyone–focus on the people who know your work experience best.

3 – Be overly gracious with anyone who has referred you (regardless if you get the job)

Whether you get the job or not is inconsequential to the referral game. No matter what happens, I’d suggest going above and beyond to thank that person for the referral. That could mean a hand-written note. It could mean a small gift. Whatever the case, it’s more than just a text or email. Make your thank you and gratitude count so it stands out. Because, chances are you may ask that same person for another referral down the road and you want to make sure they feel good about that first experience doing it.



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