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Why Referrals Mean Nothing If You’re a Nothing

Ed. note: There's another new face around here and though his name might make you think he should have been a lawyer or, possibly, a comic book villain instead of an auditor, we hope you'll welcome him with open arms. Andrew Argue is a CPA and the founder of Ten Key Heroes, a freelancing platform for accountants. He is also the host of The Bean Counter podcast. Prior to starting Ten Key Heroes, he ticked and tied for PwC in Florida. You can find him on twitter at @andrewargue.

While I may be a bit tongue-in-cheek saying referrals mean nothing… I don't mean absolutely nothing, I mean in the big picture sometimes referrals mean squat. Referrals certainly don't mean you’ll be hired, and at times, they can work against you. Before we get into that, let's take a look at the reader question:

Hey GC,
Just wanted to say I really enjoy your blog!! I'm a senior accounting student and when things get, you know, boring studying at 2am I find your posts really entertaining.
At any rate I thought this would be a great question for your blog (and to satisfy my curiousity): could you please let me know how referrals are supposed to work? I have friends who knew a partner at [name your favorite Big 4], and within 3 weeks had an interview + offer before the end of the summer. Some didn't even have a first interview, just an office visit.
Meanwhile, I hit up all my contacts. I got a referral from someone on the board of directors at a Big 4, and didn't even get a second interview there. I didn't totally bomb it, but I didn't ace it either, so do my connections matter for anything? I also knew a partner at a national firm and was referred in July, yet I was put through campus recruiting interviews and had my interview there today.
From my impressions from classmates if you have an in with a partner, you're supposed to be set, unless something seriously went wrong. But my interviews weren't terrible… I mean to be fair I am slightly nervous during my interviews, but on the socially awkwardness scale I'm definitely not the type. I have a normal GPA, president of 2 clubs, on the track team & interned at 2 Fortune 500 companies.
So I guess my question is, how much of an "in" is a partner referral? Do you have to totally screw up not to get an offer? Not sure whats up since I don't want to be serving caramel macchiatos at Starbucks after graduation!

GC Reader

When someone refers you to a company, you’re putting the first impression in their hands, and giving up control of the first thing someone hears about you. You got your referral, were all excited for your interview and thought it was smooth sailing from there, only to have your hopes dashed after the interview despite that fancy pants referral of yours. What happened?

Keep in mind, there is a hierarchy to people you want to refer you inside of the Big 4, and it is as follows in order from most-coveted to no-one-gives-a-crap:

  1. Partner
  2. HR Manager/Recruiter
  3. Any Manager Level or Above Employee
  4. Any other Big 4 Commoner

As you mention above, your referral came from a Big 4 “Board of Directors” member. Are we talking CEO here? If this person really was a Big 4 BOD member, this is a head honcho and you couldn't have done much better. So now we're really wondering why this didn't work out.

There are a number of reasons why referrals don’t work in your favor, namely if the person doesn’t actually like you and may make a slight reference to that fact. Kind of like this: “Here is a resume for Jane Doe, she’s my neighbors daughter so follow up, but, if you ask me, she’s got the personality of a fairly sophisticated potted plant.”

Another thing, just because someone is influential in the firm doesn’t mean they have anything to do with the local HR hiring in your area. For example, if you live in L.A., and this BOD partner lives in New York, he’ll pass the referral, but they’re not going to hire you just because some guy who also works for the firm referred you.

From your email, it appears you didn’t have a close relationship with this person — meaning your dentist, veterinarian and the guy who bags your groceries could likely give you a more personal referral —  therefore he probably didn’t push hard, and may not have even followed up once you interviewed. In the Big 4, there’s a process to make sure that partners aren’t just hiring their daughters (which in some firms isn’t even allowed and they have to work somewhere else), or their friends' daughters, or their veterinarian's friend's daughter. There are also thousands of BOD hot shots and a meh referral from any one of them, as you discovered, isn't worth much.

To be frank, what happened was you. You got in the door, and something led the person interviewing you to be uneasy about hiring you. What I'm about to say may sting but it's the truth: You messed up the interview, and you’re not working there because you didn’t win them over. The sooner you realize that, the sooner you can make the changes needed to actually convert to the offer. Your focus is on the wrong part of the process. Instead of asking us if referrals help or hurt, ask why you couldn’t convert the interview to an offer.

TL;DR: Referrals are only as good as the person being referred.