If I had a nickel for every time I heard this . . . THE BEST CANDIDATES USUALLY ARE NOT LOOKING. We are paid to find people who aren't looking. We find them and catch their attention with a vertical move, and suddenly, they are looking.
If our clients could place an ad that attracts responses from highly qualified candidates, we would be without a job. The candidates that we seek either don't have time to look for other opportunities or have little interest in doing so, because they are fairly happy where they're at. That's why newspaper and Web ads usually fail to reach them.
Hiring managers sometimes don't even advertise for their best positions because the advertisements don't bring in the responses they want. Instead, they become flooded with unqualified candidates, and sorting through this pool is a labor and time-intensive process. That's where we come in.
By far, my most successful placements tell me that they weren't looking when they took my first call. Something I said caught their attention, and again, changed their mind about considering other opportunities. So, even though they weren't actively "looking," they were more than happy to have the opportunity come to them.
People often believe that they are protecting their colleague's or friend's privacy by not giving me their name or by asking them if they are interested before giving me a name. However well-intentioned this may be, people with this view are doing their friend a disservice by keeping an opportunity from them or misrepresenting it because they don't know all of the facts.
If you are blessed with friends and colleagues who don't complain, you probably have no idea how they feel about their current job. They might smile on the outside, but on the inside, it's possible that they feel trapped or unfulfilled in their current job. They just haven't shared that with you.
Maybe they are truly happy or the opportunity I bring just doesn't fit them. That's OK.
I fully expect most prospective candidates to decline the opportunities that I present. Hearing the word "no" is large part of a recruiter's day. You are not going to hurt his feelings by politely declining the offer. If it were that easy, everyone would be a recruiter.
If you are truly worried about offending the referral by sharing their information with a recruiter, ask that the recruiter not use your name. Recruiters are more than happy to agree to this, and they will abide.
A good recruiter will not "hard sell" a referral. Talking someone into looking at a position is usually an exercise in futility, because you don't have enough commitment from the prospect to last through the entire hiring process. That's not to say that we won't enthusiastically try to sell an opportunity; we will. However, if a referral shows little or no interest, we'll simply ask for a referral.
Not only do I want to pose the opportunity to my referrals, I also want to get referrals from them, if they are not personally interested. Many times, a placement comes from a referral from a referral of a referral. That's why we ask for referrals.
Give them to a recruiter you trust, and someday, that good deed might come back around to you and pay huge dividends in the form of a new job for you or your referral.