Frontline Seed

How to hire fast when you’re small

Posted 21 March 2017
By Stephen McIntyre

Making employee referrals work in practice

Twitter’s (very ugly) EMEA headquarters in 2012. There was a smell of rotting animals under the floorboards.

…but most were a blur. Adam Ant on the left is Don O’Leary and the creepy priest is Michael Carney.

  • Sourced. Outbound sourcing worked better, but was limited by the bandwidth of our recruiter, who was already buried under an avalanche of abysmal inbounds.
  • Agencies. I screwed up on this one. We used two agencies, thinking it would foster healthy competition. But they competed so aggressively that they bombarded the market, hitting up the same candidates again and again. Within months, seemingly every qualified person in The Netherlands had been contacted more than once. It damaged Twitter’s employer brand and it was a major regret for me.
  • Referrals. The saviour.
  1. Communication. We talked incessantly about open roles and what made a good candidate. We used every channel at our disposal: emails, All Hands, team meetings, 1:1s. Posters in the toilet were controversial but effective.
  2. Objectives. We gave everyone a personal OKR to submit at least one qualified (i.e. worthy of interview) referral. I took the unusual step of asking each person to meet me 1:1 to discuss their referrals. That got people’s attention. Nobody wanted to come to the meeting empty-handed. While I found this level of micro-management unnatural, in retrospect it proved crucial.
  3. Incentives. We gave a financial incentive of €2,500 for a successfully hired referral upon completion of a probation period. We also threw in an iPad for the person who submitted the highest number of qualified referrals. Twitter’s greatest cost was opportunity cost and it could be argued that we should have offered more money. But in my experience the financial incentive was an enabler rather than a driver of referrals.
  4. Keep score. Publicly. For one quarter, I brought hiring into our most important meeting, the weekly revenue review. Each Monday morning we reviewed sales as a team — and then we talked about hiring. We named and shamed people in the team, in a light-hearted but unambiguous way. I rarely used public pressure to drive individual performance. But we were in crisis mode and I was convinced that every person was capable of submitting a few referrals.
  5. Treat referrals differently. Although our processes were shabby, we tried to ensure that referrals were contacted quickly and treated with exceptional respect. (Google in the mid-noughties was so bad at handling referrals that many of us stopped referring altogether.) If you have a referrals program, you must have a flagging system to give them white-glove treatment without lowering the hiring bar.
  • When you hire from the networks of people who already work at your company, you run the risk of limiting diversity. Be aware of this. If you have a team of 10 male software engineers, it’s likely you’ll get a lot of male software engineer referrals. Creative sourcing is the only channel that has a hope of combating unconscious bias in your hiring.


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