Be aware: Not all referrals are created equal

There has been an influx of random connections followed by a request to be referred into my network. Not sure if it’s because it’s the new year and the start of the January February hiring season. Or if there’s something else in the air. It’s good to keep in mind that referrals are great but not all referrals are created equal.


Note that the title is be aware, not beware. Referrals are amazing andProbably the best way to secure your next opportunity. At the same time if you go about your referrals in the wrong way they might not have the impact that you hope.


As I think about referrals I simplify them on to dimensions: hedge and meeting.


Hedge or all-in


One dimension of referrals is the all-in-hedge. 


What most people want is for a referral to give the “all-in” referral. That goes something like:


“hi Sarah, I wanted to take a minute to introduce you to <fill in your name here>. In my interactions with him I feel that they would be an amazing asset to your team. You may not even be hiring and the value that they have provided me so far has been so amazing that if they worked with someone in their industry they would be an amazing source of value. Hopefully you take the time to connect.


Let’s catch up over coffee when you have some free time.”. 


The “all-in”referral has the referrer being your cheerleader and advocate wanting to connect someone a value to their colleague. These referrals tend to be built up over time. By showcasing your skills and abilities to the person making the referral. And by specifically delivering value to the referral. These are the ideal referrals and are often called recommendations. 



Contrast that with the “hedge” referral. The “hedge” goes something like this:

“Hi Sarah, 

Someone reached out to me and wanted to connect with you. I haven’t met this person before and know nothing about their qualifications. They seem to have some skills you might be interested in. Feel free to take a look as I didn’t want to say no on your behalf. Make sure to do your due diligence as I’m just making a connection.


Hope everything is going well with your big project. Let’s grab a coffee when you have a chance and would love to hear about your trip as well.”


The hedge referral looks to remove any obligation away from the referral. And is really more likea polite gesture for the person that they are referring. The person receiving the referral often treats this referral candidate as a random connection.


There could be a spectrum of hedge in a referral. Someone could mention that they’ve only seen them in a casual and personal environment person this person seems like a nice person. Or they might have only seen them in a volunteer or non-professional capacity. I have only worked with him for a limited time. Or in a different context. Different industry. Different role. Or some other caveat.


Hedge referrals run the spectrum of mildly-helpful to not-particularly-useful to even negative. Negative to the point where no referral is made. Or where the hedge commentary puts the person in a less than positive light. 




The other referral dimension is meaning. Meaning is not under your control and based on the refers relationship to the other person. You may be able to determine how meaningful that referral is based on your interactions with the referral


Being a meaningful connection is more related to the reaction of the person on the other end vs the referral. 

A meaningful referral might go something like this:

“Hi Josh, great to hear from you! The project is challenging but am gaining great experience. And sure let’s grab coffee next month!


Thanks for the referral. I always respect your opinion and will definitely bring them in for an interview!”


Meaningful referrals are where the referrer has a strong and meaningful connection where their opinion has a positive effect. There is often some preamble and banter about some other unrelated topic so that they can continue to build rapport.


I find that most meaningful connectors wouldn’t even provide referrals as their reputations are on the line. So you might not even get a referral at all. 




On the opposite spectrum is a non-meaningful referral. How that might sound like something like this: “thanks Josh, I’ll take a look.” But what the person receiving the referral is actually thinking “oh Josh, the guy that only reaches out when he needs something. But he didn’t really demonstrate himself as adding too much value to me. I probably won’t even bother spending too much time on this referral candidate.”

Not all referrals are created equal

If you combine these referral factors on two dimensions you get :

  • All-in x meaningful – what you want to target. Build meaningful connections and add value so that someone can go all-in on your referral and recommend you. This make take time and take effort and that effort will give back multiple times over
  • All-in x non-meaningful – not ideal but also not under your control. Hopefully, you’re connecting with folks that have good character 
  • Hedge x meaningful – you’d be lucky if you get this. Most people I know who are meaningful connectors wouldn’t haphazardly refer someone. And often time the hedge has enough caveats that actually put the referee in a negative light
  • Hedge x non-meaningful – not helpful whatsoever 

So for those of you using people for referrals without first building meaningful connections then be aware that not all referrals are created equal.