How to Build a Successful Employee Referral Program

When you see a movie that blows your mind or eat at a restaurant that leaves you craving more, what’s one of the first things you do afterward? If you’re like most of us, you tell your friends all about it.

Employee referral programs, when used effectively, tap into this human desire to share things we like with people we care about. That’s why such programs are consistently the best source for hiring; according to SilkRoad’s 2017 Sources of Hire Report, over 30 percent of hires and more than 20 percent of interviews came from employee referrals.

So how do you build this channel for your own organization? Or, if you already have a referral program, how do you get the most out of it? We’ll dive into the details of what an employee referral program is, how you can build one, and the incredible benefits that can come as a result. You’ll even get an idea of how we run our referral program here at BambooHR so you can see a real-life example. Ready? Let’s get to it.

What is an Employee Referral Program?

An employee referral program is a program through which employees can refer the people in their networks, such as friends or family, for open positions in their organization. Because referrals are so valuable, many programs include some kind of incentive to motivate employees to refer more and more people. The best referral programs can help employees feel excited about referring their friends, allow recruiters to provide a better candidate experience for referrals, and make it easier for the organization to hire excellent new team members.

FAQs About Employee Referral Programs

We’ll go into how to implement an employee referral program later on, but first, here are a few FAQs about why employee referral programs are effective in the first place.

What Is the Purpose of an Employee Referral Program?

The four main purposes of an employee referral program are to:

  1. Deepen the job applicant pool with other qualified candidates. Since referrals come prescreened, they tend to be higher quality applicants. And, because the candidate has already been informed on the job and company, they can apply with confidence and genuine interest.
  2. Shorten the length of time it takes to find qualified applicants. If you don’t already have many (or the right) candidates for a position, it can take weeks or months to find and hire them through job sites.
  3. Decrease the cost it takes to recruit applicants. Online job posting sites cost from 95–399 dollars per month for a single job posting, with possible additional costs. Recruiting firms can be partnered with either on a contingent, retained, or contract basis. Costs range from 25–150 dollars per hour, or up to 15 percent of the new hire’s first year’s compensation. Referrals don’t cost nearly as much to find and hire.
  4. Lower turnover rates due to:
    1. Employees referring people they already know and trust
    2. Candidates who already know what to expect with the position and company, and have an idea that you’re probably a good fit for them
    3. Employees working alongside friends and/or family, making a comfortable and fun work environment for them

When all of these elements work in harmony, both the organization and the referred hire gain great worth from the employee referral program.

How Effective Are Referrals?

Referrals are very effective at getting good candidates not only on the interview list, but in the door of their new job.

Generally speaking:

The consensus among organizations is that referrals are a practical and profitable way to find new employees to fill open positions.

Why Do Referrals Work?

Since an employee referral is basically an endorsement of a person’s talents and character, referrals tend to work well for employers looking to hire. Sometimes hundreds of people apply for a single position, but an employee referral program helps thin the crowd and zero in on top candidates.

Other reasons employee referral programs work are because the referred candidates:

These reasons go to show how important training employees on how to give a good referral is to the program’s success.

What Makes a Good Referral?

Spotting a good referral when it’s presented brings value to an employee referral program. Here are a few signs a candidate is relevant for the position, from their own perspective as well as the company’s.

How to Build Your Company’s Employee Referral Program

That being said, how do you build a referral program that does all of those things? Here at BambooHR, we have been through a few iterations of our own employee referral program—and we’ve learned a lot along the way. In fact, we’re still learning. Below, we’ll share what steps and principles have given us the best results with our referral program.

Don’t Overemphasize Incentives

You’d be hard pressed to find an employee referral program today that doesn’t include at least a small reward for submitting referrals, whether it’s a cash bonus, additional paid time off, or a special t-shirt. We aren’t here to tell you that this is the wrong move; after all, many organizations see a vast improvement in the number of referrals coming in when they set up a referral bonus for employees.

However, if you focus too much on the reward, you may create a perverse incentive within your program. In other words, your employees may begin submitting referrals just to earn the prize instead of actually considering who might be a good fit for the position—you may see the quantity increase at the expense of quality.

We do incentivize our referral program, but we see it as a thank you rather than a motivator. Employees receive a small bonus, but only after their referral has been hired and worked at BambooHR for a few months. Because the reward is minimal, and because we focus on making BambooHR a great place to work, our people are primarily motivated to refer others by two reasons: a desire to help their friends, and a desire to help the organization. When employees are focused on helping their friends or helping their organization, they still produce plenty of referrals, but the referrals tend to be higher quality.

What benefits actually motivate employees to stay? Download our ebook to find out!

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Choose the Right Software

As your organization grows, and more referrals come in, it becomes almost impossible to keep track of referrals manually. And allowing referrals to fall through the cracks of the hiring process can kill employees’ motivation to continue referring. Automating the process of submitting referral information, tracking referrals throughout the hiring process, and communicating their status back to their respective referrers is vital to a successful employee referral program.

In fact, this is one area in which we are still perfecting our process. While we have a place for employees to submit their referrals, one of our biggest challenges is following up afterward to let them know what happened with their referral. As we have been working to improve this part of our program, here are a few takeaways that might help you select your own software:

Educate Employees

An informed workforce is the foundation of a successful referral program. According to Mike Cox of Cox Innovations, one of the top reasons programs fail is that “[e]mployees fail to realize they exist or are unclear about how to utilize them because employers market them poorly.” The best software and most strategic incentive in the world will be useless if your employees don’t know about your program or don’t know how to contribute to it.

Education around your referral program needs to cover two areas: how to do it, and how to do it well. In other words, you first need to get employees in the loop about how to submit referrals so they feel empowered to start, then you need to teach them how to recognize if someone is qualified or not so they can start submitting higher quality referrals.

To educate us Bambooligans, our recruiting team presents from time to time at our monthly company-wide meetings. They present a list of open positions, remind everyone how to submit referrals, and direct employees to an internal “All Things Recruiting” webpage to learn more. On this page, our recruiters provide information to help us determine if a referral is qualified or not, including a list of the top reasons a referral may not be hired.

To bolster our recruiters’ efforts further, we’re planning to start incorporating referral program training as part of our onboarding process for new hires. We want people to be excited about sharing BambooHR with their friends and family from the very beginning, rather than leaving them to learn about it through the grapevine.

First, we will train new hires on the software and teach them the technical part of how to submit a referral. Second, a few months after their start date, and once they’ve been able to get a feel for our culture, we will train them on how to determine if a referral is a good fit—not only for the position but also for the company. This way, we ensure cultural fit remains a top priority within our referral program as we capitalize on the energy and enthusiasm of newly hired employees.

Evaluate and Adjust as Necessary

As mentioned earlier, we’ve been through a few iterations of our own employee referral program. That’s right—we didn’t get it perfect the first time. Besides, situations change and evolving the program keeps things fresh and working well.

What sort of program details may necessitate a refresh? You may want to make adjustments anytime something doesn’t work, but also whenever you experience changes in:

If the engagement level of employees is low, consider implementing novel incentives and gamification elements. Whatever you do, show appreciation for referrals by recognizing the employee’s effort.

Need help managing time off requests? Read our tips from experts here!

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Benefits of Employee Referral Programs

If you have gone through the hiring process with a referred candidate or the onboarding process with a referred employee, you have likely already seen firsthand some of the benefits of a referral program. One of our own recruiters, Megan Jensen, explained:

“A huge advantage to hiring referrals is that they already know and appreciate your culture because they’ve heard about it from a trusted source. It’s one thing for me as a recruiter to tell candidates how incredible it is to work here, but it’s even more meaningful when that message comes from someone who is already close to the candidate. Referrals have also usually been pre-screened by the person who referred them. Typically, your employees aren’t going to refer someone unless they really believe in that person’s ability to do well in the role and in the culture!”

Here are a few additional ways a successful program can help your organization:


Obviously, a referral program that improves retention, engagement, time-to-hire, and more isn’t built overnight. Case in point: we’ve been developing and perfecting our own employee referral program for years (and will continue to do so for years to come). Optimizing your referral program is a continual effort, and you may need to adjust your strategy as your workforce grows and changes. But wherever you are in your journey, we hope these referral program ideas have given you a place to start transforming your organization’s program into a powerful hiring tool.

Want to brush up on even more HR best practices? Check out our guide here.