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The Importance of a Strong Referral: How to Qualify and Make an Impactful Candidate Recommendation

By Nikki MacCullum

SEATTLE, Wash. (June 20, 2019) –One of the most over-used sayings in business and in life is, “it’s all about who you know.” The reason the phrase is so cliché is because it’s absolutely true. When I look back over the trajectory of my career, almost every job or opportunity I’ve landed has been a result of some sort of connection. My role at Lighthouse, for example, came from a long history as a vendor working with Lighthouse and an internal endorsement.

Being a connector and helping to create opportunities for others is a wonderful trait. Making an introduction for someone is an awesome thing to do, not only are you helping someone else, but you’re also adding value by being a resource for your organization. That said, it’s important to remember that by making a referral you are also putting your own name and reputation on the line. Whether or not the individual you endorse succeeds is often times a reflection on you.

There are also ways to make referrals that are more productive than others. This article is going to touch on how to understand what makes a strong referral, when it might behoove you to gracefully say “no” to someone you don’t feel comfortable referring, and how to present a referral in a productive way.

Use discretion when evaluating a referral. It is better to make one strong referral than ten average ones. It is in your best interest to limit the number of referrals you make and make sure the few that you do submit knock it out of the park. The likelihood of you knowing twenty people who are perfect for a role at a company are slim. Set the bar high! Being in talent management, I get upwards of five requests per week from individuals in my ediscovery network asking for an interview with Lighthouse. Unfortunately, if I recommend every single one of those candidates I would be inundating hiring managers and creating more work for them, which would result in a loss of credibility on my part.

Remember that your name is attached to every referral you make. You are essentially trusting this person to represent you. Before I make a referral I always ask myself, is this person someone I want to be affiliated with? Would I put my name on the line for this person? Will this individual make me look good and will it be beneficial to my colleagues and career goals?

If you use discretion and make it a point to only refer folks who you feel will represent you well and will genuinely add value to an organization, then your referrals will be taken more seriously overall and you will build credibility and trust amongst your peers.

Understand the skillset of your referral and what you’re recommending them for. This is extremely important. I can’t tell you how many times someone has presented me with a “strong” candidate who has three degrees from Harvard, is an overall generally impressive person, but isn’t remotely right for the opportunity at hand. Or worse, the candidate is being presented to me “just because they are awesome” and there’s not necessarily even a specific role open. This is not at all meant to deter one from making a referral, it’s simply a reminder that it is important to be able to articulate what you’re recommending the referral for.

We all often have the instinct to recommend someone who is generally impressive, but when you aren’t referring an individual for a position that matches their specific strengths and skillset it not only shows a lack of understanding on your part, but you also run the risk of wasting someone else’s time as they try to figure out both what this person does and if they are even a fit for the role. Relationships with your current colleagues are just as important if not more so than your relationship with the person you’re recommending. By making a specific and well-informed referral, you can even save your colleagues time!

Just because someone has ediscovery experience does not mean they are a match for every single ediscovery opportunity. Take the time to sit down with your referral to understand their strengths. In turn, take the time to be specific in your recommendation. This saves so much time across the board and will make you look like a rock star.

In the same vein, make sure to consider all elements of the job you’re recommending them for. It’s just as important to evaluate the culture of the company you’re recommending them to as it is to evaluate their skillset.

Be specific in your recommendation. There’s an epidemic in today’s corporate America that volume is good. In reality, volume is only good when it’s targeted. Don’t just throw spaghetti at the wall and hope it sticks. One of the best referrals I ever received was from a colleague who presented a former co-worker. The colleague outlined the top five reasons why their former co-worker would be a fit for the specific role at hand and had already spoken to them about timelines and why they were looking to change jobs. This colleague not only made a solid referral but presented me with data to back up their claims. I spoke to the candidate, they were hired two weeks later. That colleague came out looking trustworthy and credible and had added value to the organization.

It’s okay to tell someone you’re not able to refer them at this time. It is human instinct to want to say “yes” because rejecting someone often feels bad, but in circumstances where referring someone is going to be a waste of time for both parties, it is absolutely in your best interest to say no. It is appropriate to say something like, “I’d love to be able to help you but unfortunately I know this role ultimately isn’t a fit and I don’t want to waste your time.” It is also totally great to say something along the lines of, “I’d happily recommend you in the future, but, unfortunately, I’ve been told we’re not looking to see any resumes for this role.” Another great route is to say, “I’m not able to refer you but please feel free to use my name when applying directly.”

Along these lines, if the person you’re referring the candidate to isn’t interested, it’s important to respect that. At the end of the day, they understand their own hiring needs best.

Always be transparent with the person who’s asking for the recommendation. It is always best to be up front and candid with referrals as opposed to the alternative which is saying, “yes I’ll refer you” and then not doing so. At least give someone the opportunity to go ahead and apply on their own. In this same vein, always be honest with the person you’re making the referral to. If the referral is someone you need to help out, it is absolutely fine to tell a hiring manager, “listen, I don’t think this person is right for the role but I want to be able to tell them I passed along their name.” Set the expectation. That way you’re getting the best of both worlds and you’re letting the hiring manager know that it’s okay to not prioritize this referral.

Helping others is great! Just make sure to explore all of the “others” in the equation. When making a referral be sure to consider the individual you’re making the referral to, in addition to the candidate who is being referred. When you recommend someone, you are connecting them, elevating them, and ultimately helping them, but it’s also important to consider what negative implications there may be if this is not a strongly qualified referral. Doing the recipient of the referral a solid is just as, if not more, important than adding value to the candidate whom you’re referring. Is your referral strong enough that you feel they are worth someone else’s time? Are you 70% sure the result will be positive?

Referrals can be so powerful. They’re a great way to create opportunities for people within your network who have demonstrated a solid track record of success and they can also save your company time, effort, energy, and money. Just make sure that your referrals are working for you, not against you! Use discretion, understand their skill set as well as the role you’re recommending them for, be specific, be transparent, and make sure to consider all parties involved in the equation.

If you have questions or would like to discuss this topic, feel free to reach out to me at NMacCallum@lighthouseglobal.com.