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Don't ask a candidate if you can date their friend

I'm constantly seeing emails sent by recruiters that go something like this.

"Hi <insert name>, I think you would be the perfect fit for a position at client X. Please send me a current version of your resume and please let me know if you know anyone else who would be a good fit for this position"

Seems like a good idea on the surface. If the person you want to hire isn't interested maybe they know someone who is. However, most of the really talented people I know consider this approach to be a major turnoff. I think it's helpful to think about hiring top talent in terms of dating. If you're trying to start a relationship, which opening line do you think is going to produce better results:

"Hi, I know we don't know each other but I think you're really interesting and I loved what you said about X. Would you like to get together for a coffee and talk about X sometime?"


"Hi, I know we don't know each other but I think you're really interesting and I loved what you said about X. Would you like to get together for a coffee and talk about X sometime, and could you also give me the number of 3 of your friends who you think I would find attractive?"

It's obvious that if you go with option 2, first you're an idiot and second you have many lonely nights ahead of you. The hiring dynamic isn't all that different from dating, especially when you're pursuing top talent. In a very real sense these people need to be courted. If you ask for a referral in your first communication with them it might not sabotage the entire relationship but it's certainly not going to help.

Now I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Asking for referrals is a good idea, but I think the right way to do it goes something like this.

First tell the candidate that you want to hire THEM, that you are interested in THEM, that you think THEY are a great fit for your job. If the candidate responds that that they're not available you tell them that you would really like to work with them in the future and to please let you know if their situation changes. Then, and only then, after it's clear that you are primarily interested in THEM but they just aren't available for whatever reason, then you tell them:

"You seem to be really well connected in the community and you know what we need for this position, is there anyone else who you think would be a good fit?"

This approach makes it clear that you are primarily interested in the candidate, that you value their opinion, and when you do finally ask for the referral, you're not some dirtbag trying to date both them and their friend. Instead you're a colleague who is asking for their help as an advisor. Plus, when you make it clear to the candidate that you value their skills and insight, they're going to be much more likely to contact you when their situation does change.

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