It's an old adage for a reason, most of the time it's true: "it’s not what you know, it’s who you know." Referrals are usually the best way to get a job.
But over and over again, studies and surveys show us that "weak connections" are key to getting the job of your dreams—not the strong ties that everyone places so much weight on.
That’s what LinkedIn’s data team found when they dug into member behaviors in the six months before they switched jobs and uncovered that first-degree connections—the people you’re directly connected with on LinkedIn, like a former boss or coworker—only accounted for a small percentage of referrals. Here’s what else the recent research found on strong vs. weak connections:
- People are more likely to be referred for jobs by their second and third degree connections.
- Men typically have larger professional networks than women, but women’s connections appear to be higher quality when it comes to job-hopping.
- Connections matter most in technology-related industries.
Data from LinkedIn’s research comes from two sources, one of which was LinkedIn’s 2016 U.S. and Canada Talent Trends Report, which surveyed 563 people in the U.S. and Canada who switched jobs between February and March. Forty percent of (or two of every five) people in the survey said that they were referred to their new employer by one of the company’s employees. To determine how strong ties needed to be for job referrals, LinkedIn dug in deeper and pulled data directly from 3 million U.S. member profiles who job-hopped one to three times since 2014.
"When we started with the survey data, we inferred that these referrals were first connections, people that you know directly," says Guy Berger, LinkedIn’s in-house economist. "But when we looked at our data and looked at who people knew six months before they switched jobs, only about 11% to 12% (roughly one out of eight or nine people) had a first-degree connection to their new company."
Unsurprisingly, the data concluded that as job-hoppers got closer to their start date, they added more first-degree connections, which is likely from interviews and active networking, says Berger. Still, only 18% had first-degree connections one month before starting their new job, which means that people are getting jobs through their second and third degree connections—people who might know you through someone else, but probably don’t have an intimate knowledge of working directly with you.
So, how do we make sense of the strength in our weak ties, especially when it comes to landing a job? Blame social media on the value of weak ties as it’s now easier to be connected to "powerful" people than ever before. These are people you may not have what’s deemed a quality relationship with, but you’re aware of components and changes in their lives.
In short, the more weak ties you have, the greater your social power is, because we don’t have time to only have strong ties and according to research, can’t just rely on our quality relationships.
Case in point is a paper published earlier this year in the Journal of Labor Economics, which used anonymized, aggregated data from U.S. Facebook users and found that over 90% of job-helping friends on Facebook are considered weak ties.
It’s about casting a wider net and realizing that community is just as important as the strong ties you have that require a lot of time and energy to develop. This realization may point to why men have larger professional networks than women do, as women typically prefer to "connect" rather than network, says Judy Robinett, author of How to Be a Power Connector. She told Fast Company that most people go to networking events thinking only a handful of people can help them, when the truth is they may meet someone who has a useful connection.
When LinkedIn’s team looked at members’ profiles six months before they switched jobs and compared the data to the one month prior to their start date, it found both men and women increased their first-degree connections. But, women added first-degree connections at a slower rate compared to men (7.5% growth compared to 8.1% growth) and when they did add connections, it tended to be people at the company they’re jumping to, which means that their "network is more conservative but also higher quality than men's," says Berger. In conclusion, "during the pre-job hopping phase, women are more targeted with who they’re networking with."
LinkedIn points to weak connections’ larger networks and knowing valuable information (i.e. rare job opportunities) that you and your closest networks may not be aware of as to why they play a more instrumental role in job-helping. But could there be other reasons that closer connections aren’t more helpful?
In a 2012 working paper published in the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, Sandra Susan Smith from the University of California, Berkeley, concluded from in-depth interviews with 146 blue-and white-collar workers that strong ties don’t matter as much when it comes to landing a job for two reasons.
The first, "the costs of making failed matches" mattered more to them than "the benefits of initiating successful matches," meaning they’re too invested on what would happen to them if things didn’t work out. Second, they know too much about their close connections’ flaws, whereas weak ties can more easily rave about their referral’s positive attributes without being aware of their foibles. Hence, they can make the referral with a sound mind.
Nonetheless, whatever the reasons for the strength of the weak ties, don’t assume that people who aren’t your first connections won’t help you out. And never assume that you know who can help you land your next dream job.