What’s the Best Way to Tap the Hidden Job Market? Your Job Referral Network!


Let’s talk about two fundamental and critical elements of your career development plan: the hidden job market and your job referral network. As the saying goes: “Your network is your net worth.” Considering that the best jobs are filled through job referrals, you need to tear your eyes away from those job boards and take your career growth to the next level.

What’s the Hidden Job Market?

The “Hidden Job Market” refers to the practice of filling positions through internal hiring or by recommendations from current employees or trusted external contacts. Traditional job boards like Indeed or Monster may appear to be a huge marketplace of open positions. However, although statistics vary, most reports suggest that up to 85% of job openings are a part of the hidden job market and 70% of jobs aren’t even posted.

Recruiters and hiring managers often prioritize candidates who come recommended by someone they know or trust. They perceive employee referral as a more reliable source of quality candidates who can fit the company culture better. As a result, resumes submitted through online job postings end up at the bottom of the pile from the start.

What’s a Job Referral Network?

Based on Mutual Trust:

In the heart of a good referral lies trust. Those recommending you stake their reputation on your excellence. They genuinely believe that you won’t just be competent but will also excel at the position, bring a unique set of skills and personal qualities, and resonate with the company’s culture and values.

If they’re referring you, it has to be because they think you’re a solid candidate.

Shared Interests, and Goals:

Your referral network should not be an accumulation of random contacts. It’s an evolving tapestry of professionals aligned with your aspirations, challenges, and visions.

Cultivating a referral network takes time, but like a savings account that accrues compound interest, your referral network gets measurably stronger and becomes a greater and greater resource the more you build it.

You would be surprised how a few small gestures over the course of a few years can create a significant impact on your relationship with someone. What will stand out to them is both your consistency over time – which means that you really do keep them in mind – as well as the quality of your interaction.

Common References, Culture, Attitude, and Vision:

You already have the seeds of an effective referral network in your contact database right now. Start with the people you already know with whom you share values, similar work ethic, and mutual goals. 

Your referral network is not, however, homogeneous. In fact, one of the great features of a great referral network is the diversity of backgrounds, cultures, and interests it contains. What then binds you to your referral network are the commonalities. These include the companies you’ve worked in, the projects you’ve worked on together, the unique interpersonal and group experiences you’ve enjoyed (or endured!), and the important milestones you’ve shared together.


More than mere contacts, a job referral network acts as a springboard, facilitating introductions, offering insights, and channeling opportunities that align with your career goals. When you look at the commonalities that you share, it becomes apparent that building your referral network is not a chore. Rather, it is a natural, organic, and ongoing expression of your professional growth.

Imagine getting to the point in your career when most of your important career development activities (advancing in your current job, as well as being open to new opportunities) takes place within your referral network.

A desk with a computer and a vase of flowers.

Best Practices to Build Your Job Referrals Network

Strong LinkedIn Profile & Resume: 

This is your digital handshake. Beyond listing jobs, your profile and resume should encapsulate your journey, triumphs, challenges, and aspirations. What legacy do you want to leave behind?

Reconnect with Key Contacts: 

Relationships, like plants, need nurturing. Rekindling old connections isn’t just about reminiscing about the past but also about sharing future aspirations. This includes former colleagues, classmates, or managers. Update them on your current situation. They may know of job opportunities or be able to provide potential referrals that might lead to your dream job.

Connect with New Contacts: 

Organic growth is pivotal. Attend industry events, webinars, and workshops. Let your passion resonate, find shared goals, and sow the seeds for future collaborations.

Leverage “2nd Level Connections”: 

Often, the most significant opportunities don’t come from direct contacts but from their networks. Expanding your second-tier connections can exponentially increase your outreach. These are the “friends of friends” on your LinkedIn profile. Make sure to carve out time to research this important segment of your extended network.

Define Your Goals: 

A directionless ship seldom reaches its destination. Whether you’re aiming for an internal promotion or eyeing a paradigm shift in your career, clarity is key. Be clear about what you want to achieve through your job referral network. Are you looking to grow in your current company or move to a new role? When do you want to make this move?

The 80/20 Rule: 

Authentic networking isn’t transactional. Instead, focus on giving. When it’s time to ask for a favor, it’ll be organic and well-received. 80% of your networking time should be providing information, introductions, and mentorship to others in your network. Ask for favors only 20% of the time. This strategy can help build trust and strengthen relationships. 

Connect With A Variety of Roles: 

A diverse network is a resilient one. Every professional interaction can be a window to fresh perspectives and uncharted opportunities. Don’t limit yourself to people who are similar to you. Consider reaching out to suppliers, partners, clients, and even competitors. You never know where you might get an idea or a lead.

Leverage Your Curiosity: The Informational Interview

One of the best entrees into the hidden job market is the informational interview. This is a multi-pronged tool to grow your referral network, glean new insights to help you do your job better, and build traction with leaders and companies who might be interested in hiring you at some point.

I talk more about the informational interview in this article. But listen up: You should never use this process as a stealth tactic to get a job.

Say you know of a job in a specific company and you ask a key exec whom you don’t yet know for an informational interview. If your goal is to navigate your way to the recruiter or hiring manager, don’t pretend that your agenda with this new connection is not about that job. The informational interview is, by definition, only informational. Your goal is to learn more about the person, how they got their job, and how they do their job. What you’re trying to find out is whether or not who you are and what you do could be compatible with this sort of work or a similar position.

If the person you’re meeting with feels a connection, a sense of rapport, and an appreciation for your background, comportment, and goals, they may offer to connect you with another colleague or a recruiter. But that’s for them to offer, not for you to request.

Informational interviews are all about adding relationships to your networking bank account. Rather than focus on a job opportunity, the interview should focus on how you can become a more integral part of the larger professional community. It is through that community that you’ll become more attuned to the hidden job market and likely learn about job openings before they are posted.

Schedule an informational interview when you feel confident that you have relevant questions to ask. These are questions that a respected and well-positioned leader would be happy to answer. High-achievers generally welcome the opportunity to support dynamic professionals who are intentional and clear about their goals and growth strategies. 

Don’t waste their time by asking them to lay out a pathway for you. Come to them with a lot of your growth strategy work already done, and experiences to show for it. Ask them to weigh in on choices you are facing now, and to share from their wisdom and experience ways that you can approach these decision points.

If you present as someone who is already committed to learning and growing, you may receive that offer of an introduction or a referral when the meeting concludes.

Pro Tip: Send written thank you notes by mail to your informational interview people. Yes, this is in addition to your email thank you message. No, it’s not overkill and they won’t think you’re weird. Nothing fancy, but the gesture makes an impression. It shows you value the person for taking the time to meet with you.

A dog is holding a tin can and talking on the phone.

Invest in Better Communications

Without consistent and rigorous communication skills and practices, you may as well not even engage with building a referral network. Overall workplace communication skills are important, but they’re especially important when building a referral network.

If trust is key to your success in the hidden job market, poor or inconsistent follow-up will prevent you from building any lasting traction toward your career goals.

If you don’t already have one, set up a system for managing your contacts. If you do have one, hopefully, it’s a dedicated CRM vs. a simple spreadsheet. Spreadsheets are great, but your referral network deserves more than a series of fields and records on a grid. You want to be able to create an entire relationship strategy with them that you can set and forget and let the software do the heavy lifting.

Build follow-up dates into your entry for each contact. Whether this is something as basic as a birthday, or perhaps a work anniversary, you need to have this information handy. What about their favorite sports team? Their spouse/partner’s name? This will help ensure that you stay top-of-mind and nurture stronger relationships with each person. 

Just because you have all this information handy doesn’t mean you’re going to follow up on every single possible opportunity. But it’s nice to know that it’s there. And you now have the power to decide exactly how and when you’re going to swoop back into their inbox (or LinkedIn profile) with something actionable or thoughtful.

And because it’s in your system, you don’t have to think about it or remember it. It just pops up when you scheduled it and you took two minutes to act on it.

This is a responsibility! Make no mistake. Once you have set up a pattern with your referral network, you have to keep at it. And you have to do more than go through the motions.

Personal story: a colleague of long standing would email me every year on my birthday. But the outreach was hollow and inauthentic: he would never email me back when I offered to reconnect and chat or have a meal. Not even an acknowledgment of my thank-you emails.

Don’t be that person. If you’re going to go to the trouble of cultivating your referral network, honor your commitment and be available and responsive.

Pro Tip: A critical aspect to remember in your communication strategy: keep your referrers updated on your progress, and thank them for their help. Don’t ghost the people who opened up their network to you!

Job Referral Success: You’re On Your Way

A thriving job referral network transcends transactional interactions. It’s a symbiotic ecosystem where each interaction adds value, every conversation sparks ideas, and every introduction opens up a realm of possibilities.

  • Your network matures, and conversations shift from mere pleasantries to deep dives into industry challenges and future trends.
  • Your professional narrative becomes so compelling that opportunities find their way to you, instead of the other way around.
  • The once daunting task of job hunting transforms into a fulfilling journey of building relationships, sharing stories, and collective growth.

Your Next Move:

Go through your LinkedIn connections. 

  1. How many of them would you consider to be already part of your active referral network?
  2. Who should be added to your active referral network?
  3. Who are you going to reach out to this week who is long overdue for a check-in?

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John Tarnoff is an executive and career transition coach, speaker, and author who supports mid and late-career professionals in defining, planning, and achieving more meaningful and sustainable careers.

Fired 39% during his 35 years as a film producer, studio executive and tech entrepreneur, he learned how to turn setbacks into successes in a volatile business. He reinvented his own career at 50, earning a master’s degree in counseling psychology to share his career lessons with others going through similar challenges.

Since leaving entertainment in 2010, John has coached individuals, groups, and led career workshops for university alumni, including for UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. Corporate coaching clients have included Bank of America, Bridgewater Assoc., Levi-Strauss, Softbank, TD Ameritrade, and Thrive Global.

He is the author of the best-selling Boomer Reinvention: How to Create your Dream Career Over 50 and has been named a Top Influencer in Aging by PBS/NextAvenue.


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