When An Employee Abuses An Incentive Program

Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues–everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

Our company has a program to incentivize employees to refer job candidates, and we offer a referral bonus if we end up hiring someone they referred. We’re usually glad to get referred candidates into our pipeline.

However, we have one employee, Joe, who loves to send referrals. Rather than referring friends or former co-workers, he screens people on LinkedIn who are looking for new jobs and sends them to our hiring team. We usually ask how he knows the person he’s referring and the answer is something vague, like “he works with my old roommate” or “I found them through their uncle on LinkedIn.” Sometimes he’s even scoured LinkedIn on his own to find strangers he can encourage to apply.

I recently screened one of the referrals Joe sent over and didn’t think the candidate was well qualified at all. Joe then asked how the screen went and I told him point blank that I wouldn’t be moving them forward. He became defensive and said that the person sounded great when they spoke on the phone and had a lot of the skills we are looking for. I explained they didn’t have the skills we were looking for. I didn’t tell him that he isn’t trained at screening people and shouldn’t be attempting to do so. Joe came back again to talk about it and casually mentioned that he thought the candidate deserved “a fighting chance.”

Our managers have never liked Joe’s referrals. I feel like he’s wasting our time screening candidates he doesn’t even know, just to give himself a shot at earning referral bonuses. Should I address this with him in any way? Can I tell him to back off and refer only people he knows well and can vouch for?

Green responds:

You can absolutely tell him to stop referring people he doesn’t know, and you absolutely must tell him to stop screening candidates on behalf of the company. The latter could cause real issues for you, including legal liability if he asks questions that are perceived as discriminatory or otherwise represents your company in ways you don’t want.

It’s possible that issuing this rule for Joe will be at odds with how your company handles referrals generally; you might not require others to refer only people they can vouch for. (Referrals are different from recommendations in that way.) But if he points that out, you can explain that he’s sending an unusually high number of referrals and it’s taking a disproportionate amount of time to screen them all. It’s not OK for him to try to refer as many people as he can to get the referral bonus, which seems to be what’s happening.

In general, it is good practice to give employees feedback on how their referrals did so that they’re better able to target their referrals in the future and so that they don’t feel like their referrals are being ignored. That might help with Joe if it helps him see that he’s clearly referring people who aren’t right, but it also might be too much burden on your time. That’s another reason to tell him to refer only people he actually knows and can vouch for. To be clear, that’s not a rule you’d want to place on all employees — the point of a referral program is to get more candidates in the door — but it’s a rule for him, because of his behavior.

Depending on how this conversation goes, you might end up needing to ban him from making referrals at all.

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to alison@askamanager.org.

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