Job Applicant Turned Down Your Offer? How To Ask Them To Refer a New Candidate for the Role.

The Art of Asking “If Not You, Who Should I Talk To?”

I failed. You see, there was a really talented Consumer Product Manager at Google that I was trying to get over to YouTube. He’d decided to leave Mountain View and work on a new startup, but I thought there was an opening. Maybe he was running away from the increasingly process-driven and bureaucratic nature of the PM role? Maybe if I could convince him that here, in San Bruno, the speed was different and the team more nimble, he’d stay? Give me a good year or two before taking on the challenges of entrepreneurship….

He turned me down. For the right reasons at least. In a moment of proverbial desperation I blocked the door as he exited the office we’d grabbed. “Give me a name,” I said. “If not you, who should I hire for this role?” He thought for a second and answered. That person joined our product team just a few weeks later.

Sometimes the best candidate referrals can come from the people who just turned down your job offer. Why?

  1. They know your company and the role SUPER-WELL
  2. They know you’re serious about filling the role and have a good sense of what compensation could look like
  3. They’re sometimes a little guilty for saying ‘no’

Of course this doesn’t work all the time and should be constructive and polite, not exploitive and demanding. Often the reason they declined the opportunity was a personal decision about their circumstances, preferred working style, and so on, not an absolute critique of you as a company (those folks drop out earlier in the process). But I am surprised at how often I encounter really smart hiring managers who don’t take advantage of this channel.

What are some ‘best practices’ in asking for a lead in this fashion?

  •             Don’t Be Pushy: They’ll either take you up on it or not. You don’t need to drip campaign them reminders.
  •             Treat Their Referrals Well: Regardless of whether the referral is a perfect fit or not, give them the VIP treatment. Don’t just throw them into the ATS.
  •             Be Strategic About Who Makes The Ask: Sometimes it can be the CEO, if the candidate was senior enough (or the startup is small enough) where there was some direct interaction. Otherwise the most senior person they met with isn’t always the best person to make the ask. It should be the individual who they had the most sincere connection with and where the ask is authentic, not just a hiring hack. For example, let’s say there was an IC engineer on their interview slate and the two really hit it off. Let her reach back out and say, “hey, I’m sorry to hear you won’t be joining us. I was really excited by the idea of working together. Now that you know us well, if there’s anyone you would recommend let us know and we’ll talk to them ASAP.”
  •             Tell Them They Can Make The Referral Anonymously: So you need to also say, hey, if it’s someone we should connect with but you don’t feel 100% comfortable making the intro, just provide us whatever information you do feel comfortable sharing and we’ll take it from there. This isn’t fishing for phone numbers, etc but rather addresses the “there’s some great people at my previous/current company looking for new jobs and I don’t want to get in trouble for telling you about them but I want to tell you about them.” To me, helping the person avoid the potential conflict is totally ethical — you’re not paying them to give up a company directory or anything.

Have you done this successfully too? Anything I’m missing in terms of playbook? Or questions you have?