I had to help out a former employee after we sold our real estate business. He was looking for sales opportunities. He did the usual thing of sending his resume via job boards and online applications, and had very little to show for it after a month or so. So I made a series of preemptive referrals.

The gift of referralsI told him to give me one day – and I cold-called companies across the metro area for six or seven hours on his behalf.

I found 12 companies (who were hiring) that wanted to see his resume and three of them wanted to get his phone number and call him right away.

How did I do this?

“My name is Kevin – I’m wondering if you can help me. I’d like to speak to a sales manager or the person that hires for sales. [I rarely have issues with them wanting to transfer me to HR – but it does happen.]

“Hi, [Sales Manager] – Kevin Downey here. I’m former owner of LOBC in Leawood, KS, and my former manager is looking for a sales position. Really good kid and as loyal as the day is long. I’d like to get his resume in front of you – if you’re hiring.”

I let them answer or ask questions.

It’s easy stuff. He had a job within a week.

[Reader Kevin Downey posted this story as a comment on another Q&A column. It’s so good, I wanted to highlight it here!]

Nick’s Reply

Your script is how I learned to place job candidates when I started headhunting. It’s perfect — for anyone.

What most people who are job hunting don’t realize is, all they really need is one former employer or boss, or someone they’ve worked with, to make those referral calls. They might ask, Why would anyone spend six hours making calls like that for me?

It’s a very smart investment for anyone to make, to help a good person land a new job.

How referrals pay you back

  • You as the referrer made a great new friend in the manager who hired that “kid.” You did that employer a favor!
  • You have a friend for life in the person you helped land a job.
  • Your reputation as a source of good hires will spread if you keep doing this. Establishing yourself as a credible hub of good business referrals will bring you loads of business for years to come — no matter what business you go into next. It may even lead you to a new job.
  • The universe shines more brightly on people who do favors that change lives.
  • Most important, you did a good deed — and no one has yet figured out how to calculate the total value of that ripple in the big pond of life.

Is it a lot of work to gift someone a job like this? You betcha. But, how much work is it to find yourself a job? Wouldn’t you love to have a favor like this come back around to you someday?

Employers actually pay for referrals

A personal referral is a fair investment for anyone to make, once they realize they will need a call like that themselves one day. I call it The Preemptive Reference.

For those who don’t realize it, this is what an employer pays a headhunter to do: make personal referrals, recommend someone, provide a reference to the employer in advance of a job interview. In other words, you’re doing most of the work for the employer. Employers love that. They’d rather hire someone through a trusted source than to wade through resumes and job applications from people they know nothing else about. They even prefer to pay a headhunter for referrals than to go find good hires themselves.

(Employers also offer referral fees to their own employees when they recommend a new hire. But there are two critical problems with most of these programs: The fee is usually too small, and there’s not enough proximity between the desired behavior (a referral) and the reward (the fee) to stimulate enough referral behavior that it makes a difference. These fees are paid months after the fact, and usually in small chunks.)

Investing in referrals pays — just don’t expect a return immediately or even from the person you invested in. The gift of a referral may get handed across many people before it comes back to you.

Many thanks to Kevin Downey for this lesson in how and why up to 60% of jobs are found and filled through personal contacts!

Have you ever done someone a solid of this magnitude? How do you define a “preemptive reference?” Has anyone ever gifted a job to you in this manner?

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  1. This post illustrates how important the personal touch can be. Writing letters of recommendation also works. If you treat them like opportunities to make a personal connection and it’s obvious from the letter, people get jobs. The letter should mention specific qualities and specific job capabilities of the person. I’ve been amazed at how many would-be employers call me to discuss further. Needless to say, it has to be honest and sincere. It’s your reputation on the line as well as the applicants.

    • Unfortunately, reference letters have become as trivialized as resumes and recruiting. They’re considered a burden. No one wants to write them.

      Which is what makes a good reference letter so valuable: It’s so rare.

  2. I have a new friend looking for a job and I have no experience or way to judge his expertise in his desired field of work. But – I do know people in that field of work and do know that this friend is very personable and professional in a volunteer capacity. I’ll pass all that information on to the people I know and leave it to the new friend to sell his technical expertise – or not.

  3. Classical direct sales. Who would have thought! Today we rely too much on someone/thing else to find us a job. I may be politically incorrect hey I am well over 70; remember “Faint heart never won fair maiden” if you do not ask you will never know. Nicks advice on targeting an employer (s) is the best way. Yes is does mean rejection, yes it does take research/library time, yes there will be false positives BUT does work. It keeps you busy, broadens your network and is much better than waiting for a response by letter or telephone, especially when you get an interview that leads to a job you took control of your search. Like swimming, action keeps you float inaction leads to?

  4. I. Love. This.

    Recently introduced someone I met – and was very struck with – to a local business owner who I suspected had the very problem this person could likely solve. My hunch was correct and she started working there within a month. Have a stronger relationship with both people now.

    But – it was mostly an accident. This makes me think of the ways that I could be deliberate about this activity. Love it.

    • There’s no accident when you act with intention. You made an introduction to benefit two other people and it paid off. Do it more because you’re good at it :-)

      • YES! Just do it. We have become so obsessed w/a quid pro quo interaction. Sometimes it is not apparent up front how productive this gracious behavior returns to us. Yeaaay for classy behavior :)

  5. Maybe I am sentimental but i know this definitely touches something that’s sometimes lost in finding connections and building relationships on the path of our careers. You had me at, “…the Universe shines more brightly on people who do c favors that change lives.”
    To me, enough said.

  6. What a fantastic story of the power of personal touches! We have all this technology, but the most effective way is through personal connections. While this is no big surprise to those of us who grew up without email, FB, Twitter, etc., I’m pleased to read about someone making this kind of effort for another human being.

  7. Nick,
    This type of personal help is wonderful when it works and I do my best to do in kind for others. However, I contacted two colleagues about more information and as references on a position at a college where I was a grad student–one, my former professor and the other, a current director. Both have long-term tenure, excellent reputations, and instantly agreed to being references. Especially the director, who immediately and graciously emailed the hiring manager and department head an introduction of me, also cc’ing me and noting that it was unsolicited by me.

    I submitted my application and the next time I heard from the hiring manager was an email two weeks later relaying that she’d hired someone that week. I wasn’t even considered for an interview, which totally shocked me and especially my professor who emailed me “WHAT?!!!!” I still haven’t heard anything from my director colleague, so not sure what to think. Do you (or anyone else who has a clue)?!!!

    • Of course I don’t know this situation, but It’s possible that they already had someone in mind for the position. This isn’t uncommon, either by policy (you must post this position) or lack of confidence (maybe there’s someone better out there?). Unfortunately, this approach isn’t considerate of other applicants, who generally feel used when they feel they are qualified and not really considered.

      • I’ve worked in HR as a hiring manager, so can definitely appreciate your take, Annette–thank you. I’ve always felt if solid employees referred applicants to respect that and at least offer a pre-screening with them over the phone if possible. It’s a matter of consideration (as you said) for me to both the referral and referred.

        • Treating referrals properly is its own topic, because it’s not just about the candidate, it’s about the relationship with the individual who made the referral. If you want someone to keep bringing great talent to your attention, you absolutely have to treat each referral with respect.

          I worked at an organization many years ago that struggled to hire people into IT. They paid very competitive wages and offered $5K+ for a successful referral – but were so disorganized and treated candidates so poorly that few referrals actually came through. And they were confused as to why we wouldn’t let our friends know about great jobs…

          • Annette: From time to time I like to trot out this ancient article I wrote about Memorex Corporation: Death By Lethal Reputation.

            It’s a great and sad example of a disorganized company that destroyed its reputation in its professional community, just like it sounds your organization did. It’s a good lesson.

          • Annette, Nick if you can relate to a corporation’s operation as an environment, this famous line which I’ve always found corporately applicable…fits Nick’s article and your experience


          • @ Don,

            Concerning a companies self-sabatoge regarding talent: “Only you can prevent forest fires” with “you” being a company. Amazing how one can still learn from “old” public service advertising.

            With blowing winds, one can literally smell CA forest fires in NV. Same goes for crappy treatment of talent by clueless corporations – word spreads across large regions quickly.

  8. I think this makes a good networking story. When you talk to most people about networking they get part of it…the part about reaching out, making contacts and getting something, a lead, a contact, some advice. But good networking is about getting AND giving. This guy did a great job on the giving side, and at the very least walked away with a stronger network.

    I’ve had this done for me, and I’ve done it for others.

    I was an expat having to repatriate after 5 years abroad. This is non-trivial. A VP I used to work with in another company, on his own initiative picked up his phone and called the CEO of another company who he used to work with. Lot of mutual respect. Told him about me, then called me and said “Call Him”. Very much appreciated. I didn’t get a job, but it got me off to a good start.

    That tour abroad was where I set up, ran and then had to close down a software dev lab. A team stayed with me to the end to help wrap it up. I spent days calling around the tech community pitching them for jobs, giving them referrals. They all got interviews, a few got jobs. This was 25 years ago, & I’m still in touch with them.

    An HR person I knew in one TX company we worked for, had to move to NC as her husband needed to transfer there. I’d come to TX from NC, had a live network and connected her to a former colleague from a previous NC company (who I helped hire out of college) and a job resulted.

    This can be done internally as well. One reorg blew away our whole team. Into the Corporate HR severance program. My Director spent days calling around inside the company and started transferring people before they got swept away. One of her colleagues asked why she was doing that, she didn’t have to. She told him she knew that, but wanted to do the right thing. A concept completely lost on most managers who simply lean on the HR downsizing package. I told her she’d make a good Marine, as she was making sure no one got left behind.

    One reason to have a network, to build a network is it positions you to help people caught in an implosion, downsizing, etc no fault of their own. They had your back when you needed them to drive a project, it stands to reason you have there’s when management throws a grenade into the project and slams the door.

  9. Honestly, this is about the only way marginalized individuals (under-represented, pwd, lgbt, AA, etc.) such as myself even get jobs, via an advocate who picks up the phone on their behalf. Sadly, many do not have advocates or the advocates don’t know what to do to help.

  10. Appreciate the acknowledgement and post, Nick! Great comments too!

    What I’d like to add, is that the intent of my story wasn’t just about the referral part – it’s about how you need to pick up the phone when you’re looking for work. This would be especially true for sales and marketing people IMO.

    In working with many job groups / job clubs right now, I am finding far too many people spending all of their time applying to jobs online and “networking” through LinkedIn and other social media. I’m not going to say that they are a waste of time – certainly they deserve some time and commitment – however, at some point you have to pick up the phone and start dialing. Reach out and talk to someone. Tell them how you can (and will) make them money – or save them time.

    This will get you interview opportunities quickly.

  11. Since I began an engineering career in 1976, I have helped a good number of people find jobs either by making a direct referral or by helping with extensive rewrite of their resumes to better reflect their work experience, beginning with my first engineering position. I have also benefitted from referrals on most of the defense jobs I held, but not from the same people I helped. I do it because I can, and I enjoy helping people and companies. A generous spirit is all that is required. It is noticed and appreciated, and I sleep well at night.