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For top employers, the best recruiters are their own staff

Patrick Bliley, left, and Josh Book.

Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

When Patrick Bliley, practice lead for communications, media and technology strategy at Accenture Inc., learned that his firm was looking for a top-quality candidate to fill a position, he immediately thought about his long-time friend and fellow hockey buff Josh Book.

This summer, Mr. Book joined the Toronto branch of the global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company as a senior manager for health and public sector consulting.

While Mr. Bliley's bonus for the referral was $6,000, the real pay-off, he says, was "to have my recommendation validated through that process. And to have a friend here at work is fantastic."

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After making the referral, he says, "the process itself was one that was actually run at arm's length from me. I was asked to give my assessment of cultural fit and his skill set, and then it kind of runs on its own."

According to Accenture's director of human resources, Charlene Goldring, 24 per cent of the company's experienced hires come from referrals made by staff. "What better network than our own people, who understand our business, understand the job and understand the talent that we're looking for?" she says.

Aside from mitigating the expense of a recruiting agency, the program is also a way of showing employees that the company values their opinions and networks, she says.

Many of the top employers in the Greater Toronto Area run referral programs, encouraging employees to suggest candidates for open positions and paying them a bonus if that person gets the job.

"It's definitely more economical than using a search firm that may not completely understand our culture and our needs because they haven't worked here," says Donna Khawaja, director of talent management and operations at Ernst & Young LLP.

The business services firm acquires more than a third of its hires through staff referrals. But, she adds, "we'd like it to be more, and we're working toward increasing that."

Ms. Khawaja believes the program offers companies other, less tangible benefits than the financial incentive. "There's already a first-level screening, because this person knows the [candidate]" she points out. "They know they'll be a fit into the culture and into the job itself in terms of skills and competencies."

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What's more, a referrals program encourages employees to be more engaged with the company and its goals. "They feel they are part of the business," said Ms. Khawaja, "that they're growing the business. It's very key to the growth strategy; it increases the awareness of the needs that we have in the firm."

A similar philosophy motivates the program at Mars Canada Inc., according to communications manager Leslie Brams-Baker.

"The associates treat the business as their own, so they take very personal ownership in recommending someone," she says. "They care about business results and the success of Mars, so they are cautious in recommending those who are really going to be the best fit."

Of course, for any referral program to make these benefits count, it needs to be managed well.

Companies thinking about setting up a bonus-for-referrals program have to consider what happens if a referred candidate doesn't get the job, for example. "There's a lot of back-end management that needs to occur within the program," says Ms. Goldring, "to set expectations clearly with the referrers and help them understand along the way what communication they're going to get, keeping them up to date on what's happening."

At Mars, says Ms. Brams-Baker, "the individual who gets referred to us goes through the same review and interview process as any candidate. And as part of that hiring process, the best candidate wins."

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At Ernst & Young, "if you refer someone to us, we acknowledge it, give them a call and thank the employee for their referral," says Ms. Khawaja. "So they know their friend or colleague is looked after, because it's not a stranger they are referring. We make sure we maintain that trust within their relationship."

Even with a robust referral program, companies need to ensure they get the right balance of skills, background and capabilities among their staff. At Ernst & Young, for example, the talent management and operations department counts on several sources – including university campus contacts and even previous employees – to make its work force as diverse as possible.

That allows the company to "tap into an even bigger network of talented people from other organizations," says Ms. Khawaja. "So it's very holistic, and quite well-rounded."

"A referral is a great way to get people," says Ms. Goldring, "but that doesn't take the onus off the organization to ensure that that person is the right fit."

Setting up a program

What to consider when setting up a referral program:

  • Make sure the process is transparent. Let the referrer know what is going on with their referral. If a referral doesn't have the right skills, let them know.
  • Get feedback and opinions from staff about the program. It may need some tweaking.
  • If you are having difficulties filling a particular job, send a reminder to staff about the opening.
  • Keep a database of résumés on file. If a referral didn't fit the job, some time in the future, that person may be perfect for a different role.
  • Use social media. An employee may have a contact with the right skill set, but has not thought about making a referral.


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