Nell Heisner, Partner at Foundation Talent

November 2, 2018 Alessandra Williams

Nell Heisner's contagious positive energy and world-class perspective and a look into her experience as  the former Director of Talent Acquisition at Fuze

The Expert’s Outlook on Employee Referrals

Nell HeisnerWith two decades of experience in the Talent Acquisition space, it’s no wonder that Nell Heisner lives and breathes recruitment and is the go-to person who knows it all. Her colleagues describe her as a true force to be reckoned with and as a remarkable leader who knows how to identify exceptional talent, build trust and goodwill, and bring people in who stay for the long haul. This is someone you definitely want to watch as her success continues to unfold as well as learn all that you can from. Follow her on Twitter at @nellthayer and peruse her impressive work and exceptional clientele at

1. What are the most important components of a good referral program?

There are several actually! First, communication that there is a program is super important. The recognition of a program, whether that’s a desk job, or posters around the office, or having it be a part of employee onboarding and orientation. Second, transparency to the employees as they refer people is really important. When a referral comes in, that it’s actually acknowledged. Whether that’s through an e-mail, phone call, slack message, or whatever and then also when the candidate has been reached out to. Encourage the employee to also go into RolePoint and look to see if the person has been contacted or not. Having the immediate gratification of knowing is really important. Third, it’s important to recognize participation regularly, not just one big drawing at the end, whether that’s through an employee leaderboard or giving out micro-reward of $5 iTunes card. Finally, having happy employees, to begin with. Nobody wants to refer candidates if he or she's not happy in his or her job.

2. Do you think there is an ideal % of hires a company should aim to generate through referrals?

Once a program is up and running, targeting 50% is good.

3. What are the main challenges you’ve seen companies face when looking to increase their % of hires through referrals?

If employees aren’t happy and engaged, then they’re not going to refer. Another challenge, the lack of knowledge of the program overall. The ease of use of the referral program for the employees is key because if something is an onerous task, they’re not going to do it. The referral program needs to be short, sweet, and to the point.

4. How are referred candidates perceived by hiring managers at companies you’ve worked at?

We have always tried to present referred candidates first to hiring managers. Typically if it’s a really strong employee, it holds its own weight with the hiring manager, but everyone loves referred candidates, the longer shelf life and shorter time to onboard, etc.

5. How have you marketed referral programs to create internal visibility?

We made sure it was a part of employee onboarding from day one. There are posters we try to update regularly around the office that list what the program is. RolePoint was good about sharing poster ideas about how much referral money can buy, like 5,000 M&M’s or 5,000 goldfish. We’ve also done desk drops for people.

6. Have you seen a positive impact on retention from referred candidates and the 
employees doing the referring?

Yes! The employee feels happy that they have referred somebody great and the referred person is able to feel like they can onboard more quickly because they already have some internal cache from the internal person who referred them so they last longer.

7. Outside of the direct value of filling requisitions, have you experienced any other benefits of a strong referrals program?

Typically the time to hire can be shorter, the cost per hire is obviously a lot better, and having engaged employees is always a positive thing.

8. What level of employee referral cash bonuses have you rewarded in the past?

Oh, anywhere from $1,000 -$10,000. It’s varied depending on the level of the role, the uniqueness of the role, and sometimes the desperation. It seems there is definitely a point of zero return. People will refer whether it’s a $2,000 reward, or $5,000 or even $500. People will refer people regardless. I tend to think between $2,500 and $5,000, especially for a tech company, is a good bonus.

9. Have you asked for referrals as part of the new onboarding process?

Yes, yes, yes! Typically, especially in times where we had a lot of folks on-boarding in any particular time, one of the team members from Talent Acquisition would go in and speak to the new hires about what the process is and introduce the department and just being visible to the new hire and seeing if they have any questions and then also following up with them in 6 to 8 weeks and sitting down and going through jobs to see who else they know.

10. How have referred candidates compared on a cost-per-hire basis to other candidate sources?

Oh my gosh, significantly less, the return on investment for a referred candidate is significantly greater than hiring through a lot of other sources. Referrals are always the best hire!

11. What’s the #1 employee referral program tip you would like to pass on?

There’s like fifty #1 tips, but it comes down to transparency and communication. Letting employees know that their referrals aren’t going into a “black hole.” No one likes to refer anyone if they think the referral is going nowhere. If a company can recognize and give acknowledgment and information to their employees, people are more likely to feel like the company cares and that the company knows what they are doing. Also, if you’re fortunate to have an internal marketing team to help create simple collateral that’s good, the more that you can engage internally with internal departments is super helpful.

Thank you, Nell, for sharing such great insight and perspective! There is much to glean from this conversation and to keep it short and sweet, here are my three takeaways.

Takeaway #1: Employee referrals are the best barometer of employee happiness.“Nobody wants to refer candidates if they’re not happy in their job.”

Takeaway #2: Referrals are the best source of hire. They stay longer and are faster to onboard making it the obvious cost-effective and efficient solution.

Takeaway #3: Referrals will happen if employees have transparency and communication around the process. “If a company can recognize and give acknowledgment and information to their employees, people are more likely to feel like the company cares and that the company knows what they are doing.”

How would you describe your company’s referral program? Do you agree with Nell?

Let us know your thoughts and re-share with others!

About the Author

Alessandra Williams

Alessandra Williams, our Marketing Development Lead, spearheads the efforts of organizing company-sponsored events. She loves connecting with passionate and innovative recruitment leaders who believe the people at their companies are genuinely their best asset. For the past several years, she has traveled all over the country to interview prominent thought leaders and provide encouragement to those who want to learn about the best industry practices, such as the benefits of implementing a strong employee referrals and internal mobility program. When she's not working, she is back home in sunny Southern California and loves walking her dog, exploring historical sites and museums, going on hikes, practicing yoga, and eating to her heart's content at the best restaurants (yes, feel free to reach out to her for recommendations and help with SF & LA reservations).

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