Top Performers Produce 4x More Output and Higher Quality Referrals

Top performers have an incredibly high ROI

Articles from academics don’t always provide practical lessons, but there have been two recent ones that everyone in talent management should pay attention to.

The results of the first one focus on the output differential produced by top performers. This study published in February in Personnel Psychology which cut across several industries, revealed that the top 5 percent of the workforce at the researched firms produced 26 percent of the firm’s total output. The top-performing 5 percent produced 400 percent more than you would expect (26 percent rather than 5 percent).

That means that top performers have an incredibly high ROI because they produce more than four times more; however, they are generally paid less than 20 percent over an average worker in the same job.

Just like on the business side of the enterprise where the 80/20 rule prevails (80 percent of your profit comes from 20 percent of your products) there should be a similar 80/20 rule covering employee performance. This disproportional impact means that despite the fact that many in HR are enamored with the practice of “treating everyone equally,” it turns out that that approach may be well-intentioned but misguided because in business, just like sports and entertainment, top performers have a significantly higher business impact than the average. Top performers need to be prioritized.

Prioritization Is Also an Essential Element of Referral Programs

Prioritization is slowly becoming more acceptable in employee referral programs. For example, firms that have won ERE Recruiting Excellene awards for their outstanding employee referral programs have often included a prioritization component (including Accolo and Aricent), and other firms prioritize jobs for all of their hiring in order to increase their business impact (Zynga).

In my list of essential design elements for a world-class employee referral program, I always include the prioritization of referrals. That means that rather than assuming that all employees have the same potential for making great referrals, instead you focus your efforts on obtaining referrals from employees who:

  • Work in that specific job family
  • Have the most connections
  • Have a successful referral track record at your firm
  • Are top performers

Unfortunately, until recently I have only seen internal corporate data that revealed what most of us would have intuitively assumed, which is that top performers would naturally produce higher-quality employee referrals. The converse rule is that “Homer Simpson” knows people also (i.e. weak ones) and that he would likely refer them “just for the money.”

Top Performer Referrals Have a Significantly Higher Business Impact

Fortunately, a recent research study covering several industries demonstrated that top performers do in fact make higher quality referrals. The University of California/Berkeley study, “The Value of Hiring through Referrals” highlighted the output and profit impact differential between referrals that emanated from high, average, and low-performing employees. The study allowed for a ROI calculation because it included both the added costs of the referrals as well as the positive business impacts created by more effective hires. Conclusions that I have drawn from this research include:

  • Referral hires produce more — Hires from referrals produce approximately 25 percent more profit impact than hires from other sources.
  • Top performer referrals produce three times more — A referral from a top performer who is hired will produce nearly three times more profit impact for the firm compared to the referred worker from a below average performer. A top performer referral who is hired will have a 90 percent greater profit impact than the average referral.
  • Higher retention — Referred workers are between 10 percent and 30 percent less likely to quit than workers hired from other sources.

Other Research Has Demonstrated the Power of Referrals

If you’re still skeptical about the power of employee referrals, be aware that many different organizations have revealed their impact. For example CareerXroads has revealed that referrals produce the highest volume of hires from any external source; has revealed that referrals are No. 1 in quality of hire; Jobvite has shown that although only 7 percent of applicants come from referrals, they produce 40 percent of all hires; and SilkRoad demonstrated that referrals have the highest interview ratio, where 17 percent of referral applicants are interviewed and 25 percent of those interviewed from referrals are hired.

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Recommended Action Steps for Improving Employee Referral Programs

Clearly this new research data should convince you that you should find out where within your own firm the highest quality referrals come from, and how much more the referrals from the best employees/sources produce.

Some other recommended actions that are needed to modernize most referral programs include:

  1. Prioritize key jobs — work with the CFO and GMs to identify and then prioritize the jobs, that when filled with a great hire, have the highest business impact.
  2. Identify sources accurately — use the onboarding process to determine which sources had the most impact on a new hire’s job acceptance decision.
  3. Measure quality of hire — begin measuring the on-the-job performance and the retention rates of new hires in key jobs so that you can determine which sources produce the highest-quality hire.
  4. Identify high-quality referrers — use this quality-of-hire information to identify which individuals and groups of employees produce the highest quality referrals.
  5. Proactively approach the best — proactively seek out the employees who produce top referrals to learn from their approaches and to get fresh referrals. Also make sure that you recognize them for their contribution.
  6. Offer a performance bonus — consider paying a delayed follow-up bonus to employees who refer new hires who turn out to be top performers after 6–12 months on the job.
  7. Expand the program’s scope — if you really want to increase the impact of your referral program, start by realizing that the same basic concept of “great people know other great people” can be expanded into other areas. That means expanding eligibility for who can make a referral by accepting referrals from former employees, vendors, those who provide job references, and sometimes even customers. It also means that you should expand the use of referrals in other talent areas including college recruiting, executive recruiting, and internal movement.

Final Thoughts

Now that we have more hard evidence that top performers produce more output as well as higher quality referrals, referral program managers learn to prioritize and focus on what works. They must find the time to proactively seek out and then to process more quickly the referrals from those who are most likely to produce recommendations that result in high-performing hires.

About the Author

Dr. John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions. He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on www.ERE.Net. He lives in Pacifica, California.

  • Ethan Butterworth

    John, thanks for the great article. Thanks!

  • Carol Schultz

    Actually, your comment that, “80 percent of your profit comes from 20 percent of your products” is incorrect. When first defined in 1906 by Italian economist Pareto, he used the example for many different areas of business. It can mean 20% of your sales people produce 80% of your sales revenue, just to give one example. The issue with this is that companies seem to think this is acceptable, or they just don’t want to make the effort to put processes in place that change this ratio. Certainly, a great referral program is one piece that can help.

  • Nancy Robin Gillman, MBA, SPHR

    Interesting article, I would have liked more detail on the third paragraph regarding compensation for top producers and facts supporting this statement. Perhaps a Part II is coming regarding how to tie in productivity to compensation?

  • Richard Araujo

    The compensation part does not surprise me, if true. One issue I’ve run into a few times though is that it’s problematic to get managers to objectively define who performs better. At review time managers are questioned based on giving employees significantly different reviews when in fact by all objective criteria we have, they’re comparable performers.

    In the end wages are like any other price though, and water finds its own level in the market. If employers can’t adequately capture an employee’s performance and its impact on their bottom line, they’re more likely to take the position of not paying $X for a given position when the market price is 60% of $X.

  • Carlos Rohrer

    Thanks John for another great article!

    All of your articles are part of our “bible” in our company.

    Thank you so much.

  • Keith Halperin

    Thanks, Dr. Sullivan
    “…revealed that the top 5 percent of the workforce at the researched firms produced 26 percent of the firm’s total output. The top-performing 5 percent produced 400 percent more than you would expect (26 percent rather than 5 percent).”
    1) “Top-performing” 5% at the given company, across the sample companies, or against a defined baseline?
    2)”Top performing” at what? Sales revenue, lines of SW code produced, amount of trash containers emptied, financial analyses performed, HR benefits compared, customer service reps managed?

    I have long been a proponent of ER Programs, and am looking to help set up Employee Referral Con, where best practices (from those who have nothing to sell) are discussed. I think the main difficulties in ER programs come from:
    1) Companies’ reluctance to adequately compensate ER participants and heavily, frequently, and effectively promote the ERP. Many employers are quite willing to pay a 3PR 20-25% of salary fees but are unwilling to pay an employee a 5% of salary ER bonus, rationalizing that “it’s their duty”. I say to those employers: “Why don’t you try that with your sales force for leads that turn into customers or your CXOs for increasing the stock price and not/minimally compensate them, and tell us how that works? Why shouldn’t the “Homers” of the company do it for the money, too? Furthermore, a number of ER tools have gamification components which automatically track all referrals and more-highly reward the better ones, so it seems largely a non-issue.

    2) Companies’ unwillingness to credit ER hires to inhouse recruiters. Quite often ER hires are treated like 3PR hires; we don’t get credit for them, so in effect we are competing against our fellow employees.

    @ Carol: Love the Pareto Rule reference!

    @ Nancy: A recent ERE comment:
    The Engineer Apr 30, 2013 at 3:38 am.
    “Let’s get this straight: high achiever is a politically correct term for underpaid.”

    @ Richard: Well-said.


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  • Jay Fritzke

    Dr. Sullivan,
    Thank you for writing this article and providing the references to back up these commonly held beliefs. We talk to many companies that recognize they have some outstanding performers and are looking for ways to “clone” those people. Given that all of the above is true, then how do you choose those high performers for your company? In our experience it is simply trial and error for almost everyone we meet. Even if an organization has a process, they usually don’t track the results to determine if it works. We have been very successful in benchmarking jobs so that companies can match the employee to the job. this works for internal movement/promotion and for new hires.

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