Referral recruiting and diversity – can they sit hand in hand?

Article by Sally Clare, head of diversity services at Ambition

Referral recruiting is when you utilise current and former employees, business associates and friends to refer individuals that might be suitable for jobs within your company.

Employees will usually refer people that are from a similar background, mind-set and/or personality to themselves and these people may also come from a similar industry. Individuals are unlikely to refer someone who they do not think is suitable or good for the position as they do not want their referral to reflect poorly on them. 

Employers like referrals because they are often similar to the referee, who is likely to be a well performing staff member. Referrals cost the company less than using a recruiter and the risk is reduced as they have been vouched for by a trusted employee.

Can referral recruiting aid diversity and inclusion within businesses?

Let’s imagine I am looking to hire a new employee for my team and I have shortlisted two candidates:

Candidate 1: A referral from an existing employee

  • I have been told by the current employee that they have a friend that thinks she would like to work in recruitment
  • The employee tells me she is a really nice girl
  • They went to university together and she has a similar background to him
  • The employee tells me his friend also plays tennis (he knows I like tennis)
  • The employee has known her for years and he thinks she will fit in well 

NB. The candidate has no previous experience other than some tennis coaching.

Candidate 2: Applied via the company website

  • I only have their CV to review
  • I pre-screen them during a 40 minute telephone conversation

NB. This candidate has a great deal of sales experience. They didn’t go to university and undertook an apprenticeship. 

The Interview

Candidate 1

Candidate 1 comes in and has a chat with her friend, the current employee, before meeting me so she is feeling relaxed. 

The candidate knows a great deal about our agency as her friend has filled her in on what we do and she says all the right things. She reminds me of our current employee when he first started working for us, who is now very successful at our company. 

With the right training I think this candidate could be good. I don’t ask her any technical questions as we have been chatting about tennis for a while.

Candidate 2

Candidate 2 comes in looking quite nervous but friendly. He has some great experience but messed up on a couple of the technical questions.

He has done his research on the company but only on the surface level so he lacks the detailed knowledge of the first candidate. He is polite and is clearly motivated to do a good job, but I am not sure where I see him fitting in.

I hire candidate 1, the referral, for all the reasons I stated in the introduction. 


  1. Was it a fair interview process? 
  2. Did unconscious bias play a part? 
  3. Will this help broaden the diverse make-up within our organisation? 

In response to these questions: 

1. Was it a fair interview process?

No, it wasn’t a fair interview as I asked different questions of each individual. 

I spent more time getting to know candidate 1 on a personal level and didn’t ask her any technical questions. I went into the interview with candidate 1 expecting to like her because she came with such a strong referral. This would have been visible in my body language and general demeanour. 

As for candidate 2, I did like him but he had to convince me to like him and he fell down on the technical questions which put some doubt in my mind (the questions I didn’t even ask candidate 1). We didn’t talk about any of his hobbies and I penalised him for not knowing as much about the company as candidate 1– but how could he, given that he doesn’t know anyone who works here? 

2. Did unconscious bias play a part?

Yes, unconscious bias played a big part in it. 

We instinctively like people who are similar to ourselves, otherwise known as affinity bias. I liked candidate 1 because she played tennis and I like tennis so I felt an affinity towards her. I was also susceptible to confirmatory bias (not being objective) as she was referred to me, so I was looking out for confirmation of all the positive things that were said about her. 

Candidate 1 had to convince me not to hire her whereas candidate 2 had to convince me to hire him – two very different mind-sets! 

So, with the above in mind, can hiring referral someone via a referral help to diversify the make up of an organisation?

Even if your business is already quite diverse, it is highly likely that if you solely rely on referrals and if you only hire individuals that are similar to your current employees, your company will become less diverse as everyone will have similar backgrounds and mindsets. 

If your business is not currently diverse, then it certainly will not become any more diverse if you solely rely on referral recruitment. 

Why is diversity important?

Diversity and Inclusivity makes business sense. Here are some reasons why: 

1. Diversity improves creativity within the organisation.

People from different backgrounds offer different opinions, ideas and challenges. This will help your business to become more innovative and stay ahead of your competitors as you will be potentially doing things differently and setting yourself apart. 

2. Diversity broadens customer reach and improves customer service.

The more diverse the pool of talent within your business, the broader their customer reach. Having a diverse workforce can also improve customer and client relations as employees communicate more skilfully with people from a wide range of backgrounds.

3. Diversity improves retention. 

By valuing diversity, the potential of all staff is equally recognised, which promotes greater loyalty and progression internally. This in turn can improve and increase employee productivity.

By embedding diversity and inclusion in your organisation, your business is likely to become more competitive in the market, your talent retention improves, your customer reach broadens and your business will ultimately become more profitable. 

So by hiring candidate 1, the referral, am I improving the diversity within the business or am I just hiring another like-minded, similarly educated individual who will think, behave and recruit in a similar way to my current employees? 

What would you do? 

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