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Careers | Peer-Reviewed Research

Foot In The Door

The Power of Close Friends In Your Job Search

Based on research by Minjae Kim

The Power of Close Friends In Your Job Search

  • Professionals are more likely to refer a friend, rather than an acquaintance, for a job.
  • A money bonus can prompt individuals to give job tips to an acquaintance.
  • Even with the promise of a significant bonus, however, people are still more likely to refer friends rather than acquaintances for a job.

Job hunting can feel like prying open a succession of elaborately padlocked doors, and making it through all of them might seem to require a miracle. In reality, though, you could know someone who has the right keys – and is willing to use them for you.

As layoffs and furloughs continue to transform the workplace, commentators often discuss whether job hunters are better served by a team of close friends or a wider, less intimate army of acquaintances. This discussion is especially relevant when about 20 percent of high-income workers appear to get jobs via firm-driven referral practices.

For years, research pointed toward the less intimate army. Casual acquaintances or friends-of-friends, the types of relationships known as “weak ties,” seemed preferable because they offered a greater number of and more diverse job tips. Social media platforms, such as LinkedIn, Facebook and other networking sites, thrived on the notion that loosely connected groups were more effective networks than the concentrated energies of a few friends. 

But Rice Business professor Minjae Kim and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Roberto M. Fernandez have taken a fresh look at the matter, questioning whether weak ties are really that useful. In a recent paper, they analyzed when and why socially connected people share job opportunities they know about. 

To gather their data, the team surveyed 196 first-year MBA students, asking half of them (randomly assigned) their willingness to help close friends and the other half about acquaintances. Both close friends and acquaintances were described as qualified for the opportunities.

Past research assumed that regardless of the strength of the ties, people would be equally likely to relay job information, thus focusing on the reach of weaker, more numerous ties. But in Kim and Fernandez’s study, the participants, most of whom were former professionals, said they were more likely to help friends than people with distant, weaker connections. 

This was true even when the students being surveyed were offered a hypothetical financial bonus. Offering money for referrals is a time-honored practice in many industries, and indeed, when a bonus was offered, participants in the study were more willing to give a job tip to an acquaintance. 

But the study also revealed that money isn’t always enough to make people pass along job information, which other recent research confirms. For some people, Kim and Fernandez found, helping a good friend is more important than gaining professional or social benefit by helping a mere acquaintance. 

In fact, even when an acquaintance was known to be qualified for a job, and even with referral bonuses as an incentive, when it came to passing on job tips, most participants surveyed favored close friends over people with whom they only had weak ties. 

Praising the weak tie is still de rigueur in many employment think pieces. But, the team concluded, landing a job requires more than simply knowing people who know about possible job opportunities. In many cases, someone needs to make an effort for you. We all have a range of motivations, only some of them financial, for sharing information. Friendship, Kim and Fernandez discovered, is a surpassingly strong motivator for relaying job information. 

Having an intricate network can be a highly effective way to learn what’s out there. But because individuals have such a strong bias toward friends, big networks should not be a job hunters’ lone strategy. Keeping your friends close, it turns out, offers professional benefits. The  person with the key to your next job may be standing nearer than you think. 

Minjae Kim is an assistant professor of management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University. 

To learn more, please see: Kim, M. & Fernandez, R. M. (2017). Strength matters: Tie strength as a causal driver of networks’ information benefits. Social Science Research, 65, 268– 81.

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