Who do you know…? Asking for referrals

I recently read an interesting discussion about asking potential candidates for referrals. All of it started with a poll asking recruiters how many messages they exchange with candidates before they ask for referrals. Personally, I believe it’s not really about the number of messages at all. Back when I sourced candidates for a living, I’d quite often ask potential candidates for help, including referrals, and while I didn’t exactly track my success rate, there are roles I would have never been able to fill had I not been able to get that help.

There will of course be some cultural differences to consider. In some cultures, for example, asking for help right away is considered rude, whereas in others it’s perfectly fine. Sourcing is all about deciding what you’re comfortable with and adjusting your approach based on what works (or doesn’t work) in your area and with your target audience. That being said, there are some mechanisms you should consider when you’re deciding what that approach should be.


People are more likely to offer help when they feel good

People are more likely to help you out when something is positively influencing their mood. There have even been experiments conducted to learn whether it’s true :)


Let’s be honest, when you receive a message like the one below, or even a slightly more elaborate but impersonal message, that doesn’t exactly make you feel great. In fact, there are groups and websites full of rants from the (un)lucky recipients.

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Let’s forget about everything else that could be improved in that message for a second.

When you message a potential candidate about a great opportunity and then immediately ask if they know someone else who is interested, you’re unlikely to make them feel good. 


How can you put the recipient in a positive mood?

Make sure that you make your recipient feel good before you ask them for help. You might even want to avoid asking them if they’re interested in a role altogether; if they find it interesting, they will let you know after reading through the details. Write a message that  explains why you value your opinion enough to ask them for a referral. Perhaps you want to compliment them on a piece of their work (no generic compliments please, do your research first) or point to something else in their experience that caught your attention. The truth is a well written approach is enough to make the recipient feel good.

Alternatively, wait until your second message to ask for help (although recruiters don’t always point to this mechanism as the reason they’d wait with asking for a referral, it might be why they find it gives them a better success rate). Assuring your potential candidate you’ll be in touch with more relevant roles, taking into consideration what you’ve learned about them in the exchange, or simply thanking them for the time they’ve spent replying to your message may just put them in the right mood – and get you those referrals you’re looking for!


People are more likely to help when they’ve already helped you

This little piece of advice seems a little counter intuitive. If you want to ask someone for a favour, ask them for a smaller favour first and then move on to the bigger one.

People often assume that you have to help someone first to increase your chances of them helping you, but it’s really the other way around. This is called the Ben Franklin effect and is an excellent way to start a relationship. If you’ve ever tried asking your potential candidates for help, you may already know what I’m talking about.

Let me give you an example. The first time ever I had to recruit for a role in Employer Branding, I sourced my very first candidate in that field (it was a challenging location too, so really tough to get more without knowing more about it) and got on the phone. Instead of trying to approach them, I just asked if I could have 2 minutes of their time, explained that I’ve never recruited for a similar role before and that I wanted to confirm a couple of facts around the skills I should be looking for. Not only did the person I was speaking to react positively to me trying to learn more, they went through the briefing with me that I’d received from the recruiter and offered 3 names and phone numbers of people they knew in the industry that could be interested.

In fact, when I think of it, the most lasting relatiopnships I’ve built with potential candidates all started with me asking for help. The only trick here is to help others help you. You have to have a simple question in mind that your recipient can help you answer. It should be something that won’t take a significant investment of time, otherwise your response rate might drop.


Now that you know the two “tricks” I like to use to get more referrals, I’m curious if you’ve ever tried using them in your own process? Or maybe you have some other that work well with your target audience? If you don’t mind others trying them out, feel free to share them in the comment section :)

Social Recruiting geek turned trainer @ Lightness, networking enthusiast & blogger. Love travel, sci-fi & all things employer branding! I travel between London and Poland a lot and so some of my social posts will be in Polish :)

2 thoughts on “Who do you know…? Asking for referrals”

  1. Małgosia - June 29, 2016 3:10 pm

    The refferals are a must complimentary method to traditional sourcing I would not agree that it is pointles to ask if you do not get any. If you try out different “strategies” of asking you eventually get it. I would say GO do it.
    From my experience there is no simple button to press which alwas works.

    Besides people can give you a refferal even if you do not ask :-) well that’s a trick. I was recently given a refferal during an on-site interview. Candidate knew it was not his place so not to waste our time gave us a number to a friend.

    Two advices from me which always work:
    identify people “who know people” – they do not have to be the right candidates for the position
    show commitment (and be commited) to your recruiter job so people know it is good to know you and that they can trust they will be thanked by their friend they gave your number to – a “thank you” from a friend who got a quality job is priceless

    1. Kasia - June 29, 2016 3:49 pm

      Thanks for your comment Małgosia, of course I agree it’s important not to get discouraged. That being said, whenever the current methods don’t work, you should try and change something for a different result :) and obviously a good recruiter brand will help :)


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