Personal connections land jobs; everybody knows that. Hence, “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” Indeed, in surveys, it’s typical for roughly half of employees to say that they found their job through a friend, family member, or other type of social network contact. But not all connections are likely to be equal. In a job search, talking to people and networking is clearly important, but who are the best people to talk to?
How social networks matter for getting jobs—and all other sorts of life outcomes—has long pre-occupied sociologists and networks researchers. The classic answer to the question of which contacts matter for finding a job starts with the work of Mark Granovetter, who in the late 1960s and early 1970s interviewed a few hundred Boston-area job seekers. To his surprise, Granovetter found that people were much more likely to land jobs from information passed on by people they weren’t particularly close to. In interviews, Granovetter asked people whether a friend had told them about their current job, and time and again people said things along the lines of, “Not a friend, an acquaintance.”
Granovetter began systematically tracking the “strength” of the social tie between job seekers and the people giving them employment leads, and found that of those who found jobs through contacts, only 17% saw their contact “often,” while 56% saw the contact “occasionally,” and 28% saw him “rarely.” The punch line: the people in your life who you don’t know too well are the ones who often matter the most when it comes time to find a job.
Plenty of other studies since have backed up the importance of what Granovetter dubbed “weak ties.” The general interpretation is that people you don’t know too well tend to belong to social groups that aren’t your own. They therefore have access to information—including about jobs—that you wouldn’t otherwise come across. The people who you’re closest to, your “strong ties,” typically move in the same social circles as you do. Most jobs they can tell you about, you could have found out about from someone else anyway. As painful as it can be to talk to people you don’t know too well about the fact that you’re looking for work, those could very easily prove to be the most fruitful conversations.