Dawn Wilson doesn't remember exactly how long it took — six days maybe, no more than eight. But it was fast. Wilson, a printed-circuit board (PCB) designer at Tandem Computer, was surfing the Net and landed at Cisco Systems (http://www.cisco.com). She saw a fun-looking button in the screen corner inviting visitors to "make friends @ Cisco." She clicked on the button and whoosh — she was swept into the company's recruiting pipeline. Wilson was contacted by Cisco, evaluated by engineers and managers, and offered a job — in less time than most companies take to scan a résumé into their HR databases.
Cisco, the Silicon Valley high-flier, literally can't hire fast enough. Last year it hired an average of 1,000 people every three months, and still had hundreds of jobs it couldn't fill. Its response was the Friends program. Launched in April 1996, the message was simple: If you have a friend at Cisco, give them a call — there might be a job waiting for you! If you don't have a friend at Cisco, visit our Web site and we'll find one for you. Your new friend will teach you about the company, introduce you to the right people, and lead you through the hiring process.
Michael McNeal, Cisco's director of corporate employment, says Friends is designed to "put some grace into the hiring process." All too often, he complains, recruiting is slow and impersonal — for companies as well as candidates. And too many recruiting programs ignore the fact that most people evaluate new jobs through personal networking.
The day after Wilson clicked on the Friends button, for example, Jaime Gonzalez, a lanky, soft-spoken PCB designer, phoned her at home and talked about life at Cisco. He described its blazingly fast design-to-production cycles, its wide-open atmosphere, and what it was like to work for his boss. He also prescreened (informally) Wilson's credentials. After the call Gonzalez emailed human resources to report that he had "befriended" Wilson and told his boss about a potential new hire.
A few days later Wilson visited Cisco and met her new friend, along with a bunch of his colleagues. Wilson says she was unusually relaxed during the visit because she felt like she knew some of the people already. That's the point. In some respects Friends is simply a next generation version of an employee-referral program.
Indeed old-style referrals remain a critical part of Cisco's hiring strategy. The company offers employees $1,000 every time it hires someone they referred. The day they make the referral they also get a Cisco Lotto card. Lotto winners receive mugs, athletic bags, and wildly popular stainless steel commuter mugs.
Little wonder that referral rates at Cisco are twice the industry norm. That creates a performance edge because referrals tend to yield qualified employees with long tenures; people are putting their reputations on the line. CEO John Chambers tracks referral rates as a key performance indicator and needles his staff if the numbers slip. (Referrals and the Friends program now account for an astounding 50% to 60% of all new hires.)
Meanwhile Cisco markets its Friends program — so relentlessly that people who couldn't care less about high technology take note. Jimmy Buffett's Coral Reefer Band recently requested 10 Friends T-shirts because they thought they looked cool. Cisco sent the shirts free, on the condition that the band wear them on stage at their next gig and on the streets during their next trip to San Francisco.
A version of this article appeared in the August/September 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.