Question

I can never get a referral to someone else. Perhaps that’s why I can’t get the ball rolling in my job search. What’s the deal with personal referrals?

Nick’s Reply

personal referralsIt’s awkward and intimidating, isn’t it — getting a personal referral? This is a critical challenge in a job search. Once a person has identified a company where they’d like to work, how do they get a personal referral?

This is one reason I started Ask The Headhunter over 20 years ago. Every “expert” will instruct you to “network” and to make actual contact with people, but rarely does anyone explain exactly how. On this website, we’re all about how. Detailed how. How-to-say-it how.

Getting personal referrals: Get ready to say it

I’d like to ask everyone for your input on this. What has worked for you? To whom do you go, and how do you actually say it?

Here’s one path that can lead you to a hiring manager through the recommendation or referral of someone they know and trust. It’s just one path — let’s discuss more!

  1. Ask yourself, which company do I want to work for and in what area or department? Search online for articles and information about that area. Check the company’s website, newsletters and press releases.
  2. Identify a product the company produces or a technology it uses (or a marketing method it relies on, etc.). Now you have a legit topic to discuss with an insider.

Personal referrals: Talk shop

Let’s say the company makes blue widgets and they use technology X to make them — state of the art, according to a recent press release! Cool! You’ve been in the widget business for years, but X is kinda new to you.

  1. What 3 questions do you have about X that would help you understand and possibly apply X? The more esoteric your questions, the better — you’ll be taken more seriously, and you’ll avoid being re-routed to the HR department. HR can’t talk shop. That’s why this works!

(See where this is going? Nobody’s talking about a job here. You’re talking about your work.)

Find the right people to talk with

Now use Google, LinkedIn or any other tool to find someone that works in the aforementioned department.

  1. Contact them, but not through LinkedIn! Avoid routes that add “noise” — and I mean social media. For example, everyone knows LinkedIn messages are usually spam from people that don’t know you. Find an e-mail address or — wow! — call the company and talk to the person!
  2. Introduce yourself very briefly. Express your professional interest in X. “I see X has made a huge difference to your product line.”
  3. Ask for their professional insights and advice.

Ask for insights

The value in any contact lies in what they know, what they think, and in what they’re willing to share with you. What makes this easy is that most people love to talk about their work. They love to tell you about themselves and what they think — if you ask. And they love to give advice.

Do not ask about jobs. Do not talk a lot about yourself. Start by asking for insights.

How to Say It

“I’ve found some online resources about X, but I’m looking for the inside scoop about X and how to use it most effectively. You guys seem to be leading experts on X. Can I ask you for your insights about X?”

Or:

“What are you reading that’s influenced the way you use X, or how you design and market your products?”

“Is there a training program you respect and recommend?”

“Who’s the shining light in the field about X?”

Congratulations, you’ve just opened a professional discussion about work you and the other person do — without asking for a job lead. You’re talking shop!

What should I ask?

  1. If the person responds helpfully, ask questions like these, then be quiet and listen.

How to Say It

“What do you think about that?”

“Can you give me an example?”

“Is there any downside to using X?”

Ask for advice

If the conversation goes well and you find you’re learning something useful, take the next step.

  1. Let the conversation flow. Do not ask about jobs. Instead, ask for professional advice.

“I’ve been so impressed with X and the products [your company] has created that I’m seriously considering moving to a company in this business. May I ask your professional advice? If you were me, would you pursue this?”

“What companies would you look at if you were me? Which are the shining lights in this business?”

  1. Then pop the question:

“If I were interested in working at your company, what advice would you give me? I don’t want to start a formal application process with HR. I really want to understand X and the company’s business — nothing proprietary! — before I apply. I want to be able to speak knowledgeably about X and the products first.”

You get the idea.

Get the personal referral

Once you’re talking shop, you’ve made a new friend, so act like a friend. Exchange some useful information about the topics you discussed. Offer to return the favor of insight and advice, if your new friend would like that.

  1. Finally, gently achieve the objective in any friendly networking experience: Get the name of the next person you need to talk with. Yes — this is another personal referral! You will likely get a chain of them. Follow it.

“Do you like working in this field? Before I think about making the leap, can you tell me what the management is like?”

“I’d like to learn more. Is there someone specific you’d recommend I talk with?”

Don’t forget to ask if it’s okay to say who suggested you get in touch.

This where personal referrals come from: talking shop with people who do the work you want to do, in the companies where you want to do it. Of course, not every discussion will lead where you’d like to go — to a hiring manager. But all you need is one successful exchange, one chain of personal referrals. Handle this with some poise, and every exchange you have will add to your list of professional friends. (See “A Good Network is A Circle of Friends” in How Can I Change Careers?, pp. 27-32.)

Sure beats filling out job applications and spamming “contacts” on LinkedIn.

These are just my suggestions about how to cultivate personal referrals to get a job. I hope to find loads more in the Comments section below!

Who would you approach to get on the path to a personal referral, and how would you say it? What has worked (and not worked!) for you?

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10 Comments
  1. I applied for a job in my dept and was wondering how you would handle references when you have worked with members of who will likely be on the interview panel? If I was applying for a similar position outside of my employer, these are who I would get a reference from. I have worked in my current position for 5 years and this would be a jump from not a manager to manager for the same basic project.

  2. Before COVID, professional conferences were an ideal venue to meet people who were either making presentations or exhibiting products/services. These might be cutting edge or improvements to current practices. Still, very useful and the social interaction and discussions quite natural. As with any of the methods one uses to change course, they take time. Usually longer than one might expect! This seems particularly true for positions higher in a company (ie corporation) where the vetting can be complex. It can be faster the lower down one begins. One time I met an outside sales rep interested in the product line of my employer. Based on his questions and background I asked him for his resume which I then passed to a sales manager. That led to an interview and a hire. Total time? Less than 30 days. He remained with the company eight years before another company acquired it. As for the manager who hired him, fifteen years later we met at a golf course. We remembered each other and shared memories of our time in the “trenches”. I only share this as a reminder that relationships matter, both during and after ones employment. To treat those we meet merely as a means to an end rarely leads to strong relationships, if any.

  3. This is one of the best posts I’ve seen anywhere in a long, long time regarding how to contact people.

    If you are a career changer or job seeker (or position seeker at higher levels), you would be wise to follow Nick’s advice here.

    And if I may, I’d like to add the following thoughts:

    How you initially approach people, how you first introduce yourself (usually on the phone or via email) is absolutely critical.

    A person who approaches people, approaches anyone (including their sister-in-law or best friend) like this is on the ROAD TO RUIN: “I’m looking for a job as a (title); are you hiring or do you know anyone who is?” … or this … “I understand your organization is hiring a (position title); can you refer me or introduce me to someone who can?”

    The ROAD TO SUCCESS sounds like this: “La’Shan Drake suggested I contact you. I’m looking for a position as a (title). Please understand, I don’t expect you to be hiring or to know anyone who is, but La’Shan thought you would be a good person to speak with to get some advice and guidance. I have three specific questions I’d like to ask you. Would it be possible to schedule no more than 30 minutes to talk sometime in the next week or two?”

  4. Best such conversation I ever had was with a department manager who started out with “I currently have an opening in my department.” 20 minutes of talking shop later, he also mentioned that the company culture was toxic and he was actively job hunting himself.

  5. Years ago when I was developing embedded software, I read an article from a fellow engineer who was an alumni. It contained his e-mail, so I introduced myself as someone from the same university and profession. We worked in different industries, but did similar work. We ended up having a friendship for several years and exchanged lots of insights in our field. It never led to a job, but I’m sure I could have easily nudged him for contacts inside and outside of his company.

    And it was as easy as following up on something I read.

  6. Thanks for such a great article. Although I like to think of myself as being capable of starting a conversation with a professional, sometimes though there are just too many ifs and buts to think about. Your article helps greatly with this – thank you.

  7. I understand the concept of talking shop as the way to build contacts. However if I received such an inquiry I would probably be wondering why someone I don’t know is asking about details that are likely to be proprietary. In large companies, this is the kind of thing that corporate security people keep warning technical employees about.

    • That is an exceptionally good point and well made. In the continuous rush of networking and interview mania, I have to admit that confidentiality has never been mentioned to the best of my knowledge. So your point is very well made.

  8. The overall advice here is great: Call and talk shop. Have a good conversation about things that are interesting for both the company and for you. After all, if you do not find such a discussion interesting in itself, why would you work there in the first place?

    But: Most people would quickly reckognize the underlying topic: Job search. And they may feel that you try to fool them if it is not open:

    “You are really looking for a job, aren’t you?”
    “Er…eh…yes…”.
    (Or you can lie and say no, and de facto close the door).

    Therefore, I find it better to be open up front about the job search, but in a professional way:

    “I am considering changing jobs, and your company is really interesting, because of your good people and the interesting XYZ technology. I have worked with something similar in my current job, but I think your strategy is better. Would you like to have a coffee an talk shop one day?”

    Or something like this. It is of course best if you can call people you know from before, and of course you must have something mutually interesting to talk about. This requires home work, so you have something relevant to give to the company.

    The point is to frame the job search as a professional exploration of mutual benefits, not as an application. This approach has gotten me my current and previous jobs, as well as some previous leads that, in the end, I did not need or – important! – discovered in the due diligence that I did not want to join that company after all.

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