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5 steps to creating an employee referral program that supports your company’s DEI goals

5 steps to creating an employee referral program that supports your company’s DEI goals
Profile photo of Aaron Schwartzbord
Written by Aaron Schwartzbord

Abigail Chambley, Director of Talent Acquisition at Mission, launched an employee referral program that increased diversity at her company. Explore the steps she used, as well as her insights and advice for making this program a success.

5 steps to creating an employee referral program that supports your company’s DEI goals
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Over the past 2 years, as talent acquisition and retention have become increasingly competitive, practitioners from companies of all sizes are thinking out-of-the-box for strategies to identify, attract and recruit candidates for available roles. 

At our last RallyFwd Virtual Conference, we featured 11 expert speakers who have implemented new innovative strategies for attracting talent at their companies. One of our speakers, Abigail Chambley from Mission, presented the employee referral program she launched that has measurable increased diversity within her organization. 

Abigail explained why she created this program, how it has served the goals and core values of the organization and what steps she’s taken to make the program a success. 

In the following post, using Abigail’s insights and advice, we’re sharing with you the steps to create and launch a successful employee referral program that can improve diversity. But, before we jump into the actual steps for launching this type of program, let’s meet Abigail and Mission. 

Meet the expert: Abigail Chambley

Abigail Chambley, Director of Talent Acquisition, Mission

Abigail Chambley, Director of Talent Acquisition, Mission

Abigail Chambley is the Director of Talent Acquisition at Mission. She “fell” into recruitment after college when she went to a staffing agency trying to find a temp role in the corporate world. The staffing agency ended up hiring her and, through this, she realized that recruiting was where she was meant to be. She explained, “It’s really gratifying to be able to play a part in helping someone put food on the table or achieve a lifelong dream through their career.”

In 2021, she joined Mission, an Amazon Web Services (AWS) Premier Partner, and cloud managed services provider. They help customers leverage the power of AWS to accelerate their business. Mission is 100% distributed with around 300 employees working remotely in 37 U.S. states as well as Canada, Mexico, Brazil, and the Philippines. 

Abigail explained that one of Mission’s core values is inclusivity (which, as you’ll learn below, has been a major driver of their employee referral program). To live out this value, Mission emphasizes diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) throughout their recruiting process, compensation philosophy and their employee resource groups. 

Now knowing a little about the company, let’s jump right into Abigail’s steps for creating a successful employee referral program. 

Step 1. Develop the employee referral program strategy

The first step to creating a successful employee referral program is the overall concept. It’s important to ask yourself (and your stakeholders), why is this the right strategy for our company? How will this help us meet our talent attraction goals? 

When Abigail joined Mission she dug into the recruitment strategies that were already in place and was surprised to find that a referral program had been intentionally avoided. 

She explained, “Because diversity is such a primary focus for the company, leadership thought that it would have a negative impact on those goals. Mission is in the technology field, which has long been dominated by cisgender, Caucasian men. Leadership questioned whether a referral program would just bring more cisgendered, Caucasian men to the pipeline.” 

strategy and goals of Mission’s employee referral program

The strategy and goals of Mission’s employee referral program.

Abigail knew that employee referrals had the potential to positively impact hiring at the company. They can reduce time and cost of hiring, improve the quality and diversity(!) of candidates in the pipeline and increase the employee retention rate. So knowing this and the position of leadership, Abigail approached a new referral program strategically, to make sure she could get buy-in of her strategy. 

Step 2. Plan the employee referral program policies

Conceptualizing an Employee Referral 

Knowing that diversity had to be a main pillar for her employee referral program, Abigail considered (and questioned) a number of scenarios: could she increase incentives for diverse candidates? If so, what qualifies as a diverse candidate? How could she consistently track data from the program to show its wins as well as the areas that need improvement? Does she simply ask employees for diverse referrals or is there another way to encourage it? 

Because diversity was such an integral part of this strategy, she worked with Mission’s employee resource groups, involving them in the process and incorporating their feedback on the policies of the program. 

A key point to consider when formulating an employee referral program is to define a referral. Abigail wanted to do more than just say “send us people that you know.” She wanted a variety of leads including people in an employee’s network that maybe they didn’t really know, or an association or group that employees are part of outside work. Abigail explains, “When employees can give us a variety of leads, you’re better able to combat the unconscious bias that might come about from referrals. You also can get a broader, more diverse set of candidates at the top of the funnel.”

Planning out an Employee Referral program

Before launching your program, you need to figure out the nuts and bolts of how this strategy is actually going to be implemented and work. 

An important thing to consider is how you’re going to incentivize employees to make referrals. Abigail reminds us, just “because we have statistics about how employee referrals impact retention and culture, that probably doesn’t pack as much of a punch to members of our team.” Employees want to know “what’s in it for me?”

So an employee bonus program was introduced to incentivize team members for referring talent to the company. Given that employees were going to be getting payment for their referrals, she needed to get very specific about how this would work and what the rules were. 

She laid out the following structure: 

  • Following a new hire’s 90th day of full-time employment, a $500 bonus is paid to the referring employee via payroll. 
  • To incentivize longevity for both the referring and the referred employee, Mission pays a $1,000 bonus via payroll following the referred hire’s first anniversary. The referrer and the referral must be employed at the company in order to receive this bonus payout.
  • She also introduced the Friends of Mission Referral bonus for hiring a referral from people that weren’t specifically Mission employees. This can be a family friend, a vendor recommendation or a customer recommendation. They also get a $500 bonus, via an Amex or Visa gift card, following the new hire’s 90th day of full-time employment.

Abigail reminds us to make sure to talk to your payroll team before making any commitment of a bonus payout. You need to know how this will work and what the payroll implications are.  

Now that you’ve created the basic structure of the incentive, it’s time to think about all the little details. Consider what types of employees the payouts cover and what to do with referrals that were made before your program officially begins. When putting together a program like this, “the devil’s in the details.” 

Therefore, Mission has the following employee referral program policies: 

  • Only referrals hired on or after the program launch date were eligible for this program. 
  • “Hired” is defined as the time when an individual signs their offer letter, not their start date at Mission.
  • Referral bonuses are paid out on the first payroll of the month following the eligibility date. 
  • While referrals for interns, part-time team members and contract roles are encouraged, they are not eligible for the referral bonus. Full-time positions only. 
  • Members of the Talent Acquisition team aren’t eligible for any referral bonus (as it’s their job to fill these open roles). 
  • Management team members and the chain of command for a specific position are not eligible for a bonus (since it’s in their benefit to fill the vacancy). Mission’s executive team is also not eligible for a bonus through this program.
  • Bonuses are not paid for any referral that the company already has a relationship with, including talent that TA already have been in conversation with and former employees. 
  • Only full-time employees are able to receive the bonus payout. 

As you can see, there are a lot of stipulations to be made to make sure everyone understands the policies and that the program can be applied fairly across the organization. 

Abigail said, “We wanted to be super-explicit on these details so appropriate expectations were set.” All the processes and procedures are outlined in the Employee Referral page on the company intranet, making it easy for employees to find and reference.

eligibility rules put into place for employee referral program

A list of the eligibility rules that Abigail put into place for her employee referral program.

Step 3. Launch the employee referral program and let it run

launch of the new employee referral program at the company’s All Hands Meeting

A quote from Abigail’s launch of the new employee referral program at the company’s All Hands Meeting.

Now that the program has been structured, policies thought through and documented, it’s time to launch this strategy and start generating referrals. When announcing it to the company, consider what would be the best medium to use that will be received by the largest amount of people. 

Abigail announced her program at one of the company’s All Hands meetings. This is an ideal setting as it’s a dedicated time and space to share something that could affect everyone at the company and will be available to everyone. 

Abigail also mentioned the new program repeatedly in monthly email newsletters that go to the team at-large. In both the All Hands meetings and the newsletters, she always stated that diversity was a focus for the company and for employees to keep that in mind as they were considering making a referral.  

In addition to these promotions of her program, Abigail focused on creating champions by going to the employee resource groups. She had already incorporated their feedback during the planning stages for the program, but she wanted to make a concerted effort to stop by each of ERGs early in the program’s tenure and specifically ask for their partnership. 

Abigail shared, “They were generous enough to just let us drop into their meetings and speak to the group about the new program and why their collaboration would be so valuable to us.” Keep in mind that, as important as announcements and emails are in promoting a program like this, face-to-face contact can make a big difference in getting employees on board and excited about a new initiative. 

To help the program run smoothly during the initial launch, and beyond, communication is key. As the program runs, make an effort to communicate news and information to employees across the company. 

Abigail explains, “If someone on our team submitted a referral, the Talent Acquisition team would reach out directly to them and let them know how we intended to move forward with that particular candidate. If we decided to move the candidate through our interview loop, we recommended that the employee go to the My Referrals tab in our Applicant Tracking System to make sure that they could keep up with the status of this person. This way they wouldn’t have to ask our team every other day what was going on.”

By doing this, there’s clarity for those involved. Employees have access to the status of their referral and the process stays transparent. And with transparency comes the need for honesty.  

Abigail said, “If the hiring team decided not to move forward with a referred candidate, we promised that we would share those details with the employee, specifically why we’re not moving forward with this particular candidate. We want to make sure that we’re helping them learn along the way.”

From the launch and throughout the program, communication with employees is key. You’ll engage them in the effort, build their support and keep their trust, which will sustain the initiative and allow it to succeed.  

Step 4. Measure the employee referral program’s progress

With any new initiative or strategy, you must be able to define what success is and align with your stakeholders around that definition. In Abigail’s case, success wasn’t just that they received a lot of referrals. Leadership had been concerned that employee referrals wouldn’t support their goals in diversity, so Abigail had to ensure this was a metric of the program’s success.

She started with a measurement plan, outlining the metrics that are important to track in order to monitor, measure and analyze the effectiveness of a Recruitment Marketing strategy over time.

Rally Note: Download our free Recruitment Marketing Measurement Worksheet to help you get started in creating your Recruitment Marketing measurement plan.

Abigail and the team at Mission look at more than just the number of applicants and hires. Using metrics from their Gem CRM, the Mission TA Team keeps track of candidates throughout the entire process. This allows them to identify any area of the program that may not be working as planned. 

An example would be if candidates dropped off after a specific step. Abigail explains this “could indicate bias in our process, or maybe a poor candidate experience with a particular interviewer. We want to be able to spot these trends.” And she’s using data to do this.  

To measure the success of the program overall, Mission does look at the number of employees hired from this employee referral program and compare it to their other recruiting strategies. She also looks at how this program is contributing to their diversity goals. 

“On a monthly basis, we track the percentage of applicants that were referrals, and the number of hires that were referrals. On a quarterly basis, we’re tracking the percentage of referrals that were either women or racially and ethnically diverse. We would also look at overall percentages of offers made to women, racially, ethnically diverse individuals, veterans and self-identified members of the LGBTQ+ community,” said Abigail. 

data points and metrics to monitor success of employee referral program

An outline of the data points and metrics Mission looks at to monitor the success of its employee referral program.

In making tracking and measurement a priority from the beginning, Abigail has a clear understanding of the program’s performance. She told us, as of December 2022, that 22% of accepted offers for the year were from referred candidates, an increase of 47% from 2021. And, of all the referred hires in 2022, there was a 91% retention rate as of the date of this report. 

Digging a bit deeper, 35% of referred hires were women, and 42% of referred hires were racially and ethnically diverse. 

After just 1 year of the program, Abigail’s pretty happy with the results, but there’s always room for improvement. Which leads us to our final step…

Step 5. Keep improving your employee referral program

No initiative is perfect! As with everything we do, there’s always room for improvement. As you’re moving through the initial months of your new employee referral program, always consider tweaks and adjustments that can make an impact right away. At major milestones (maybe after 6 months or at the 1 year anniversary), take the time to review and analyze all the data from your program. Celebrate what worked and really think about what didn’t. How can you strengthen the program’s shortfalls? 

At Mission, one example was that Abigail saw some really good engagement from some of the ERGs, but not all. She explained that, to fix this, “we conducted a listening tour with every single employee resource group to see where we could improve. We also met with Ideal, a newly established diversity subcommittee that partners with our Values Advisory Committee on DEI matters.” Again, communicating with stakeholders helped. Abigail now understands what she can do to increase engagement from more of Mission’s ERGs with this program. 

Abigail has faced other challenges that she’s continuing to improve, including: 

  • Changing expectations that the TA team speaks with every referral or that every referral gets through the entire interview process. 
  • Communicating a realistic timeline for when the TA team would follow up about a referral. 
  • Improving the number of referrals that get to the Interview stage of the pipeline (right now it’s 49%, which isn’t bad, but Abigail thinks they can do better). 

With the help of her team and stakeholders, she’s looking at all of these “challenges” as opportunities to improve the program and continue to build a pipeline of high quality, diverse talent.  

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Summing things up, Abigail reminded us to have a solid plan in place (from the proposal to the rollout), consistently communicate with your employees  and create a measurement plan that ensures consistent monitoring of what matters every step of the way. 

And regarding measuring what matters, she says, “use data to identify areas of concern, show how much progress you’re making, or challenge yourself to level-up in some specific way. Data is your friend, and it’s your North Star. Use it. And if data tells us that what we’re doing isn’t working, be prepared to ditch your plan and have a backup ready to go. Be humble enough to recognize when you need to go back to the drawing board and maybe start over.”

Thank you to Abigail for sharing her recruiting strategies with all of us!

To watch Abigail Chambley’s presentation, and get even more next-level talent attraction strategies for 2023, watch December’s RallyFwd Virtual Conference On Demand. 

5 steps to creating an employee referral program that supports your company’s DEI goals
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About the Author

Profile photo of Aaron Schwartzbord

Aaron Schwartzbord

Aaron Schwartzbord is the Director of Marketing for Rally Recruitment Marketing. A data-driven marketer with 15+ years of experience, he is passionate about helping companies of all sizes and industries grow with creative strategies and efficient, streamlined processes.

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