Be Careful With That Referral

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When a job opens up in your company, it’s natural to want to refer a friend or former colleague. But when you do, you’re putting your own credibility on the line, and that can have all sorts of ramifications for your own relationships and work. So before you make an introduction, do your own due diligence to make sure the person is qualified for the position, and will fit with your company’s culture.

No matter how well you know the potential candidate—he or she could be a referral from a mutual friend or family member, in which case you may barely know him or her at all—approach the situation in a measured, professional way. Amidst an industry-wide scramble for qualified technology pros, many companies are going to great lengths to encourage employee referrals, sometimes even offering cash rewards. Don’t get carried away by HR’s enthusiasm for new candidates.

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“You want to protect yourself by knowing who the person is, knowing as much about the open role as possible, knowing where they come from and how they’ll fit in culturally,” suggested Mary Cavanaugh, a senior consultant at career management firm Keystone Associates and an independent career coach in Norfolk, Mass.

Due Diligence

Networking is an important part of hiring—but as the person making the connection, you want to make sure you’re managing expectations and maintaining your credibility to both sides. There’s more involved than simply passing along a resume when someone approaches you. “If you’re going to make a referral, you should never just blindly send in their resume,” Cavanaugh said. “There should always be a discussion.”

That discussion should cover the hiring manager’s potential concerns, namely skills, culture and the ability to do the job. In some ways, you have to approach the situation as if you were, in Cavanaugh’s words, “a mini-HR department,” taking the time to learn about the job description and the department in question, and conducting an informal interview of your own.

Always be honest with your contact. For example, if your company’s looking for a full-stack developer and your friend’s work is all on the front end, you’ll have to point out that his lack of back-end experience may put him at a disadvantage. Be sure the person you’re referring has studied the job description and can match his or her skills to its requirements. If you know the hiring manager favors some technologies over others, make your contact aware of that.

Do They Fit?

It’s trickier, but no less important, to tease out the dynamics of cultural fit. To do so, you need to be aware of how your contact works, and how the hiring manager’s team approaches their own efforts. For instance, someone who’s spent his or her career in large corporations may not mesh with a startup where team members juggle multiple responsibilities. “Those things can be more important than technical skills,” Cavanaugh noted.

The point of all this isn’t to discourage someone from applying for the job, but to make sure he or she does so with open eyes. There’s a real possibility the hiring manager may decide your contact’s not right for the position. At the same time, it doesn’t serve your own cause to introduce a candidate who’s not qualified.

The discussion will require a certain amount of diplomacy. Your contact may not expect you to check up on her skills or question her possible fit, so tread carefully. One strategy is to focus on whether the job will satisfy her. “You could approach it as being a question of whether or not they’d be happy there,” Cavanaugh said. “Approaching things from the standpoint of their well-being can soften the blow” of a less-than-ideal fit.

There may be times when there’s no graceful way out, and you feel the need to introduce your contact even though you don’t think the person’s right for the job. In those cases, Cavanaugh says, “be sure to cover your bases.” Bring the resume to HR or the hiring manager and tell them that, while you’re introducing a contact, you can’t speak to the person’s true qualifications. That will set up a bit of distance between you and the candidate.

Of course, much depends on the dynamics of your company. At a large organization, walking in a resume may have zero impact on your own reputation or career. Whatever the case, the key to handling the situation is to be “thoughtful and aware,” Cavanaugh suggested. Be honest with everyone, and think about how making the introduction will impact you, your company and your network.

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