What should you do when you get an invitation to connect with someone on LinkedIn who you’ve never met? I say ignore it. It may seem counterintuitive, but that’s the take-home message from our ongoing research at The University of Texas at Austin and Carnegie Mellon University. If you’re unemployed and turning to a site such as LinkedIn to search for jobs and referrals, the size and strength of your network directly affects your ability to find new leads, get peer recommendations and land a job offer.
Online social networks on platforms such as Facebook and LinkedIn have, on average, about 150 connections, and many users have networks that exceed 500, but we can usually only recall how we connected with about half of them. Even so, many people are tempted to build a large professional network that they can turn to one day for help finding a new job but doing so warrants caution. If your online social network is mostly made up of people you barely know or have never even met, it won’t help you land a new job. In fact, it could backfire.
You might assume that having a larger network is the key to finding a new job; more contacts at more companies means more open doors. However, if your network is composed mostly of “weak ties” people you never met or met once but never contacted again you may have increased access to job leads, but not to the referrals that turn leads into interviews and job offers.
We tracked 109 unemployed LinkedIn users and found that those with the highest number of weak ties had an easier time finding jobs to apply for, but they had a significantly harder time securing interviews and, subsequently, offers. On the other hand, those LinkedIn users who had more “strong ties” close friends they knew well and have maintained relationships with didn’t find as many new job announcements, but when they did apply for an opening, they were more likely to get an interview, and more of those interviews resulted in job offers.
We believe that having a large network made up of predominantly weak ties can backfire when viewed by a recruiter. If you and a recruiter have someone in common, the recruiter will probably contact that person. If your shared connection is strong and can recommend you, you’ll get an interview or an offer. If that person is a weak tie and says, “Sorry, I don’t know her well. We’re just connected on LinkedIn,” then your entire network is suspect, and you’ve probably just lost that interview. In fact, you would have done better without a shared connection.
So job seekers, don’t just “connect” with people. “Know” people. Maintain stronger ties by staying in contact. Build relationships with weak ties by meeting for coffee and catching up when possible. When you meet people at a conference or workshop, don’t just add them to your LinkedIn list. Follow up afterward. Build a network of people who can advocate on your behalf and who would be happy to do so.
Everyone has weak ties, and we understand that those loose connections are valuable because they bring us more leads. But if you don’t have enough strong ties who can apply for a job internally for you or give a recommendation directly to a hiring manager, then those leads are as helpful as finding a “Help Wanted” ad in a newspaper.
Rajiv Garg is an assistant professor of information, risk and operation management in the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin. To learn more about this research, click here.
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— Texas Perspectives (@TexPerspectives) September 23, 2014