The 6 elements of winning employee referral programs

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6 mins, 39 secs read time

Planning out an employee referral program can seem complicated, and there are definitely a lot of moving parts. But if you’re looking for a source of high-quality employees who are more likely to get hired, perform better on the job, and stick around longer, then it’s definitely worth the effort!

We’ve spoken with a lot of our customers to learn how they’re able to create predictable and productive referral programs. While there are many aspects of referral programs that are unique to that particular company’s culture, we’ve identified six elements that are pretty consistent through most successful programs.

What are the six things every company should do to enhance their employee referral program? Read on to find out!

1. Make employees feel appreciated so they refer again.

It makes sense, right? If employees take the time to make a referral, they want to receive some sort of recognition for their effort. That’s why referrals should be acknowledged – if not celebrated – at every organization.

Don’t wait to see whether or not a hire is made: Recognizing your employees for submitting a contact is the easiest way to demonstrate how important referrals are to you. Take the time to shout out employees who are participating. Better yet, have your leadership do it in a public forum like at an all-hands meeting!

2. Keep people informed as their referrals progress.

One of the big frustrations employees have with referral programs is not knowing what’s going on with their referral. Has someone looked at their application? Is there an interview scheduled? Will you be extending an offer? If employees are invested enough to make a referral, it’s only natural that they’ll want to stay in the loop with what’s going on. That’s why it’s super important to be as transparent as possible and make the information easy for employees to access.

The more transparency there is in your referral process, the more likely employees will be to share their contacts and make referrals in the future. So be sure to create a program where submitting and tracking referrals through the pipeline is easy for all employees.

If referrals make it to the on-site interview stage, think about how you can do a little extra to roll out the red carpet for them. Maybe get the person who referred them to welcome them, take them out for coffee or lunch, or drop by to give them a little company swag. Get as creative as you’d like, but don’t forget to leverage that personal connection during the interview stage!

3. Choose intuitive and user-friendly software to increase adoption.

Recruiting is everybody’s job, so everybody should have access to your recruiting software to make and track referrals throughout the hiring process.

Greenhouse offers three easy, intuitive ways to make referrals.

  1. All employees can generate a trackable referral link to share with their contacts
  2. Integrations with LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter make it easy to automatically post to these networks.
  3. Employees can manually upload their referral’s resume, cover letter, and other application materials into the system

Plus, the Talent Acquisition team can provide company-specific referral program guidelines within Greenhouse, so employees can stay up-to-date on how to best contribute.

4. Reward engagement, not results.

Raising your referral bonus doesn’t always lead to higher employee engagement. We spoke with a few companies who run super-successful referral incentive programs (with 50% or more of their hires coming from referrals), and a clear pattern emerged: They reward the behavior they want—not just the end result.

Here are three ways you can do this right now:

  1. Give out immediate small rewards, like a $5 Starbucks gift card for every referral, no matter what. Employ the same principle as salespeople ringing a bell whenever they close a deal – make hiring part of the culture.
  2. Establish a leader board and display it in a prominent place in the office: 10 points for tweeting a job opening, 20 points for each referral, 500 points for a hire, etc. Let employees “cash in” their points for big or small rewards.
  3. Have a few super rare, highly visible rewards, like a one-of-a- kind T-shirt only given for a successful hire. Be sure to distribute these rewards at an all-hands or other large meeting for maximum impact.

By giving out small, frequent moments of satisfaction, you keep people engaged, make hiring more prominent, and increase referrals. This can be a complete game-changer for your referral program!

5. Advertise your program.

No one will participate in a referral program if they don’t know it exists! Make sure that you clearly and regularly communicate the details of your referral program with employees. Here are a few tips to help you get the word out:

  1. Have your recruiting team lead a new hire onboarding session that introduces the nuts and bolts of your referrals program. Happy new hires can lead to even more happy new hires.
  2. When kicking off brand-new or high-priority roles, schedule quick kick-off meetings or send brief email updates. Let everyone know that you’re always available to answer questions and provide feedback on potential referrals.
  3. Send periodic reminders to the entire company. Our customers have seen a big bump in referrals submitted after sending out an email to recap the details of their referral program.

6. Experiment with a variety of employee referral tactics to ensure success.

Every company is different, so don’t be afraid to experiment to learn what works best for you. Here are a few ideas to help you get creative. You can use them as a starting point, but keep in mind the sky’s the limit when it comes to what you can do with your program!

Educate employees on the power of referrals

You know that referrals are the #1 source for new hire quality, that they produce more profit, and stick around for the longest amount of time. But do your coworkers know that? Make sure you’re educating your organization on the positive impact referrals will have on your company’s culture and bottom line.

Set and communicate recruiting goals

Some talent teams share recruiting goals with the entire organization and send updates weekly. Providing more transparency into your objectives makes employees more likely to help out.

Carve out time for everyone to recruit

Recruiting—both sourcing and interviewing—takes time. Some companies find it useful to tie recruiting into quarterly goals on a team by team basis so that hiring managers delegate time to this important task.

Prioritize tough-to-fill positions

If there are roles that are particular priorities or especially tough to fill, be sure to communicate this information with everyone. A few ways to accomplish this: Send out emails with details about the roles, hold office hours to answer questions, and throw “referral” parties where you provide email templates, search terms, and other resources to help everyone source the type of candidates you’re looking for.

Showcase your talent

Start a blog or video series around the existing members of your organization to help define company culture or talk about the exciting projects your team is currently working on. An employee might be more likely to share a spotlight on their work than a job posting.

Start a competition

Instead of a recurring cash bonus, get everyone excited with one large pool. Make it a competition and regularly update the team on who’s ahead.

Make it as easy as possible to submit a referral

Being able to submit and track a referral should be a no- brainer for your organization. Don’t make employees print out paperwork or do anything that’s too time-consuming. Remember: a user-friendly ATS can help a lot with this!


Now you’ve got plenty of ideas about the key elements of a successful employee referral program, plus a few areas where you can have a little fun and experiment. Go out there and give it a try. And let us know how it goes! If you find something that’s really effective that we haven’t covered here, be sure to let us know.

Still hungry for more? Be sure to download the How to Build a Strong Employee Referral Program eBook.

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Melissa Suzuno

Melissa Suzuno

is a freelance writer and former Content Marketing Manager at Greenhouse. Melissa previously built out the content marketing programs at Parklet (an onboarding and employee experience solution) and AfterCollege (a job search resource for recent grads), so she's made it a bit of a habit to help people get excited about and invested in their work. Find Melissa on Twitter and LinkedIn.