Using Referrals

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Updated October 11, 2023
Land Your Dream Design Job

You’re reading an excerpt of Land Your Dream Design Job, a book by Dan Shilov. Filled with hard-won, personal insights, it is a comprehensive guide to landing a product design role in a startup, agency, or tech company, and covers the entire design interview process from beginning to end, for experienced and aspriring designers. Purchase the book to support the author and the ad-free Holloway reading experience. You get instant digital access, commentary and future updates, and a high-quality PDF download.

One effective way to apply to jobs is through an employee referral. With a contact inside the company, you shortcut the tedious part of the process and your portfolio lands squarely right in front of the eyes of a recruiter or a hiring manager. How you ask for a referral makes all the difference.

Getting Referred by People You Worked with Before

The best referrals come from people you’ve developed a strong relationship with by working together. Think of these folks as people in your tight-knit inner circle. These are the folks that not only can get you in the door but write a glowing review so that the interview completely flips. Instead of selling yourself, they work hard to get you in and sell the opportunity to you.

However, these are not the only referrals to act on. As a designer you’re uniquely positioned to interact with people cross-functionally. This means right out of the gate you have a broad and diverse network of folks that you’ve worked with before, such as:

  • product managers

  • design managers

  • engineers

  • designers

  • customer support specialists.

The list goes on. Eventually some of those folks join other companies, or they might know someone who works at a company you’re interested in. You might not have a strong relationship here, and these folks are usually weaker ties, but that’s OK. The important thing is that you still had a shared experience, which makes it easier to reconnect regarding future opportunities.

Getting Referred by People You Just Met

These are folks you might have just met, perhaps at an event or maybe you reached out to them directly on LinkedIn. For the most part, you’re still strangers. Getting referred by them is harder, but like the first type of referrals, it’s important to build the relationship first and make a genuine ask.

Let’s imagine you were in their shoes. You’re probably busy, stressed about a deadline, and somebody you just met reaches out about a job opportunity at your company—what do you do? Would you immediately submit the referral? Or would you not bother altogether, given everything else that’s happening? To make sure your request doesn’t fall by the wayside, make it easy for the person referring you to submit your application.

Highlight the experience and projects relevant to the job you’re applying for. Show them that you’ve done your homework about the company, the team, and the project. Follow up by saying that you think you’d be a good fit and that you’re interested in learning more. Ask yourself—how can you make the person who’s going to refer you look good?

Referrals Are Not a Panacea

At the end of the day, referrals are just one way to get in, and while they do increase your chance of being seen, they’re not a panacea when it comes to getting the job. Any company with a strong recruiting or a hiring manager will do their due diligence and may reject your candidacy if it doesn’t meet the job requirements. It’s in your best interest to show why you’re a good candidate and how you meet or exceed the criteria in the job post. This isn’t to discourage you in applying—just think of this as one tactic out of many that you could use in your job search process.

Reaching Out Directly

The best way to connect with a company is by reaching out directly. Whether it’s identifying the hiring manager or the recruiter, you want to initiate the conversation and start there as opposed to submitting your portfolio online and hoping for the best.

Yes, this approach does take work and it won’t be easy. You may need to ask around and reach out to a couple of folks before finally reaching the hiring manager, for instance. However, because it’s not easy, most people won’t take this route. So this is yet another way for you to differentiate yourself and reinforce the trait of taking action and being proactive.

Talking with the Hiring Manager or Recruiter

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