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“A Friend of a Friend” Is No Longer the Best Way to Find a Job

Jun. 2, 2017 Harvard Business Review

How do you get a job these days? The answer often involves networking — it isn’t what you know, it’s whom, we’re told. But what does that mean? After all, we’re connected to many people, in countless ways. So who can actually help? What kinds of relationships should we try to use when we are looking for a job?

If you go to job-searching workshops — and I went to more than 50 in the course of studying the contemporary hiring landscape in 2013 and 2014 — you will be told weak ties are the key. Weak ties are the people you know, but not terribly well: your child’s teacher, or the friend of a friend you happened to meet at a party. This advice originated in a groundbreaking study by sociologist Mark Granovetter in the early 1970s. He interviewed 100 white-collar workers who had switched jobs in the previous five years and discovered that weak ties helped many of them find out about their next job.

Weak ties were important for one simple reason: Your strong ties (colleagues, family, and friends) probably knew about all the same jobs that you did. Granovetter discovered that you were more likely to hear about unknown job possibilities from the second cousin you ran into at a wedding, or from the former neighbor you saw in the supermarket parking lot. Of the people in Granovetter’s study who found out about a job opening through word of mouth, 83.4% said they found out through a weak tie. In the early 1970s it became clear that the most effective way to find a job through networking was to be in touch with as many weak ties as possible.

I set out to learn whether that was still the case. After all, Granovetter’s study was done decades ago, long before we all started using the internet. If the technologies that help us look for a job have changed in significant ways, I reasoned, it’s likely that the ways we get information about jobs have also changed. I had to find a way to replicate Granovetter’s study in some form to see which networking ties matter in today’s media ecology.

I located a great source: A weekly meeting held by an organization for white-collar job seekers in the Bay Area, a portion of which was dedicated to successful job seekers telling their stories — on film. While it’s not a duplication of Granovetter’s study, watching 380 success stories collected from 2012 to 2014 allowed me to conduct a fairly comparable study.

So, are weak ties still the key? No. Of the 141 people who said they thought networking had helped them, only 17% reported that a weak tie did the trick. Workplace ties, however, proved to be more useful. More than 60% of the storytellers reported that someone they had worked with in the past helped them find their next job. These weren’t always coworkers — former bosses and former clients helped, too. But what job seekers found most useful were people who could talk knowledgeably and convincingly about what the applicant was like as a worker and colleague.

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