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Ask the Headhunter: How companies lose great hires with wasted referrals

Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979 and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community.

In this special Making Sen$e edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.

Question: How far down the employment ladder do the Ask the Headhunter principles of the job market go? Do personal referrals and recommendations help at all levels?

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My daughter worked an entry-level position for a clothing chain in New York and left the store to move to California. Her three managers said they would act as references. Since she did what needed to be done instead of just what she was told to do, they wanted to keep her with the company, even if it wasn’t in their store. She followed the chain’s instructions and brought a completed application to a California store that has openings listed on its website. Despite that, they told her they don’t have any openings.

Does the principle of getting a position by being recommended by someone known to the manager apply at this level? Or do stores fill entry-level positions with people they don’t know?

Nick Corcodilos: Personal referrals help at all levels, but only if a personal referral is made. Based on what you report, no personal referral was made.

Your question is about how your daughter can get a job using insider referrals. But the real story here is how employers waste proven talent. First, let’s help your daughter get the job.

I think hiring by insider referrals is actually more likely with lower-level jobs than higher-level jobs, simply because it’s not very risky. Even if the manager makes a mistake, it’s not like they just hired a pricey executive.

It’s faster

If the employer has good information about a candidate, it’s just a quicker hire.

It’s easier

Because lower-level jobs attract more applicants than higher-level jobs, the employer usually loves to avoid culling through thousands of applicants. Hiring by trusted referrals is much less work.

No referral was made

I think your daughter didn’t get an interview because her old managers are lazy. They urged her to apply at the new location because they think so much of her and offered to be references, but it ended there. They basically told her to apply like thousands of other people would.

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Those managers didn’t pick up the phone to call managers at the California location to actively recommend her in advance of her applying. That means they did nothing.

If they want to help her and help their company, they should pick up the phone. Their offer to be references — after she applies, after she’s selected for an interview and after someone in HR asks for references — is useless in helping her get in the door. References aren’t referrals.

How to say it

If I were your daughter, I’d contact her old bosses, tell them what happened, send them copies of the open job postings and say this:

Your faith in me and your recommendation to the California store mean a lot. Would you please call the manager of the store in California, explain your thoughts about me and suggest she or he interview me? Your call will make me stand out among other applicants they don’t know — and it will help them fill the job faster and with less work.

What I really want to suggest she say in the last part is, “It will help them fill the job faster and with less work, you dopes!” But of course, she should not add that.

How employers waste talent

Here we have an employer that could easily benefit by hiring proven talent – a valued worker moving from one store to another. It should be a slam dunk. But it seems to be a loss, partly due to the managers at the old store and partly due to the company’s failure to actively promote internal employee mobility.

If those three managers won’t make the referral and recommendation, then they’re not helping your daughter, and they’re hurting their company. Wasting talent is worse than letting people steal clothes off the rack. (See “References: How employers bungle a competitive edge.”)

I hope your daughter makes that call, and I wish her the best.

Dear Readers? Have you ever gotten a new job in your own company with a solid internal referral? Have you helped someone in your company make an internal move?

Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth “how to” PDF books are available on his website: “How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you,” “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps,” “How Can I Change Careers?” and “Fearless Job Hunting.”

Send your questions to Nick, and join him for discussion every week here on Making Sense. Thanks for participating!

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