For a More Successful Employee Referral Program, Think Experience

Imagine the following scenario: You go to an all-inclusive resort where you’re treated to mediocre service, meals, and accommodations. When you check out, the desk clerks pushes a package across the counter in your direction. On the way to the airport, you open it to find two items and a note from the property manager saying: “Thank you for staying at our wonderful resort. To show you, our valued customer, how much we appreciate your patronage, we would like you to have these gifts.” In the package, you find a T-Shirt with the resort’s logo and a certificate for $100 off your next visit, redeemable when you get a friend to stay at the resort. Clearly, the nice note and gifts make you feel special ó far overshadowing the treatment and accommodations you received. Now you’re going to tell your friends they should visit the resort, so you can get redeem your $100 coupon. Right? Our hypothetical scenario is not all that different from how many companies execute their employee referral programs. They encourage employees to recruit friends and colleagues and invite them to share in a work experience that is less-than-stellar. They ask them to spend their social and networking capital recommending something that doesn’t deliver. They then reward this endeavor with a meager referral bonus, offering a fraction of what they would pay a staffing agency or recruiter. Although some people are mercenary enough to recruit others to work for an employer they themselves aren’t pleased with, is this the talent pool you want to dip your bucket into? It’s All About the Experience If you want a more successful employee referral program, you first need to make sure you are giving your employees something to brag about. As in our hypothetical resort scenario, job #1 is to upgrade the experience. Give your customers ó in this case, your employees ó- an experience that would make anyone want to tell others about what a great place this is. To turn your workforce into a band of headhunters, you need to analyze the work experience you deliver. You need to do this with the unrelenting honesty and discernment that companies known for industry-dominating service apply to the customer experience they deliver. They scrutinize each interaction the customer has with their company, step by step. Each of these step is called a “moment of truth,” because these companies know that at each step, the customer can earn or destroy customer loyalty. As they examine each step of the customer interaction, top companies ask questions such as:

  • “What do our customers want from this interaction?”
  • “What emotions and perceptions does the way we handle this step leave with our customers?”
  • “If we do it this new way, what emotions and perceptions would that leave with our customers?”
  • “What emotions and perceptions do we want this moment of truth to create, and what do we need to do to create them?”

Asking similar questions about the work experience you deliver to your employees will help you design the kind of experience that employees would want to tell others about. They want to tell their friends and colleagues because they feel so lucky, and they know how unusual their employer is. They WANT to give the people they care about and respect an opportunity to be as lucky as they are. Not only does creating such a satisfying, motivating, and inspiring work experience turn your workforce into a band of headhunters, it also improves morale, productivity, engagement, and customer service quality. Doing this isn’t a “nice to do if we had the time” project. Doing it well has far-reaching implications for the very sources of your financial viability. 10 Moments of Truth You Must Get Right So, how do you create the kind of experience that encourages quality referrals? First, to make it more manageable, break down the “Employee Experience” into sub-experiences. Think about what moments of truth comprise the total employee experience. Think about the interactions employees have with their boss and with their employer that most powerfully affect morale, engagement, and productivity. Some of the most important ó and often botched ó moments of truth that shape the overall employee experience are below. Think about the questions that follow these moments of truth, and how you can improve your own employees’ experiences in each. 1. The interviewing and hiring experience.

  • Does your process leave applicants feeling respected?
  • Does your process lead people to view your company as a well run outfit?
  • Does your process lead people to view your company as an employer who cares about and respects its employees?

2. The “preparing an employee for their new job” experience.

  • Is your orientation program inspiring or does it leave new employees with “buyer’s remorse”?
  • Does your orientation program leave new hires with the impression that you’re a well-run, professional outfit that does things right ó or does it leave them think you’re a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, clumsily run organization?
  • Does the process you have (or don’t have) for integrating new hires into the workforce in the first 90 days lead new hires to feel they are valued, that their employer cares about their well-being and success? Or is it more of a “sink or swim” experience?

3. The “giving directions and delegating” experience.

  • Do supervisors and managers clearly communicate expectations, the “how to” when appropriate, and other factors related to employees understanding what is expected of them, or do employees often feel like they’re flying blind?
  • Do supervisors and managers make it clear how they prioritize the various tasks and give reasonable workloads and time frames?

4. The “giving corrective feedback” experience.

  • Do managers make this a regular part of their conversations with employees, or wait to surprise them in the annual performance review?
  • Do managers know how to give feedback in clear, concrete terms, or only in vague terms that leave employees feeling frustrated and without direction (e.g. “You need to be more of a team player”)?
  • Do managers know how to give corrective feedback respectfully, or only in a scolding way?
  • Do managers know how to invite employees to share their point of view so they feel understood, or do they just “talk at” and “preach to” employees?
  • Do managers integrate these conversations into a productive professional development plan?

5. The performance review experience.

  • Are performance reviews seen as a necessary evil by all involved, or as a useful performance enhancement and professional development tool?
  • Is the information contained in the performance review truly a review of previous conversations, or is it late-breaking news?
  • Are employees active participants in the review process, assessing their own performance, or is it primarily something that the manager “does to” the employee?
  • Is it safe for employees to disagree and not be perceived as disagreeable?

6. The “employee has a concern” experience.

  • Do managers listen to what employees have to say, or do they dismiss, talk at, or lecture to their employees?
  • Do employee concerns get addressed, including employees being apprised of the status and outcome of the issues they raised? If the concern doesn’t result in change, are the reasons why explained?
  • Do employees have to badger their boss to get them to act on a concern, or do managers respond with the same interest and alacrity they would if their boss asked them?
  • Do employees feel listened to?

7. The “employee has an idea” Experience.

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  • What message do employees get about their ideas and input: “highly valued” or “don’t bother”?
  • If an employee comes up with an unworkable idea, how does the manager handle it: in a way that leaves the employee feeling respected and appreciated, or feeling stupid, irrelevant, and patronized?
  • Do employees receive the information and the big picture context that makes useful ideas possible?
  • Are employees apprised of the status of their ideas, and if the idea isn’t used, why?

8. The “we’re going through a big change” experience.

  • Are employees kept in the loop ó or kept in the dark ó during change processes?
  • Do employees get the truth or do they get spin?
  • Are employees asked for input and feedback about possible changes?
  • Does management make the rules of the game clear when asking for input or feedback ó i.e. how feedback will be used, whether it will influence the outcome or whether it is more about finding ways to help employees deal with an outcome that is out of their control?
  • Are employees allowed to dissent without being seen as “not a team player”?

9. The “conflict with your boss” experience.

  • Is it safe for employees to voice their disagreements with their boss, or is it considered a CDM ó a Career Damaging Move?
  • Is it safe for employees to be honest with their boss if they feel their boss’s managerial behavior is counterproductive?
  • Is honesty and openness valued, supported, and encouraged?
  • Are managers coached about how to make it safe for employees to be open with them?
  • Are manager held accountable for their behavior toward employees, or is one of the perks of power the freedom to mistreat one’s staff?

10. The “employee goes the extra mile or does something great” experience.

  • Do employees feel taken for granted or do they feel appreciated?
  • Do employees feel that going the extra mile is recognized and appreciated?
  • Do employees feel that hard work and high performance is recognized by their boss and by the company?

Now What? This list will get you started on analyzing the work experience you deliver. Here’s how to use it for maximum benefit:

  1. Use the experiences I’ve listed as a starting point for you, your management team, and employee advisory council to generate a more complete list of experiences that comprise the total employee experience.
  2. Use the questions under each experience to analyze how you can improve the way you deliver that experience. As always, involve both your management team and your Employee Advisory Council in this process.
  3. For each moment of truth, ask:
    • “What would employees want from this interaction?”
    • “What do our employees say they want from this interaction?”
    • “The way we handle this step? what emotions and perceptions does it leave with our employees?”
    • “If we do it this new way, what emotions and perceptions would that leave with our employees?”
    • “What emotions and perceptions do we want this moment of truth to create? and what do we need to do to create them?”
  4. You can get the ball rolling by asking your employees, “Do you have the kind of work experience at our company that makes you want to tell others that we’re a great place to work? Does it make you want to recommend us to your friends and colleagues?”

Make sure you involve employees not only in data gathering, but also in implementing changes. As in any change or organizational development initiative, the more you involve your employees in the process, the more invested they’ll be, the better your data, and the better the results.

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 60 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at, or follow him on Twitter at