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Houston research: Strong connections go a long way in job hunting

Professionals are more likely to refer a friend, rather than an acquaintance, for a job. Photo via Getty Images

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' 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.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Minjae Kim, an assistant professor of management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Building Houston

 
 

As of this week, Lara Cottingham is the chief of staff at Greentown Labs. Photo via LinkedIn

The country's largest climatetech startup incubator has made a strategic new hire.

Lara Cottingham is the new chief of staff for Greentown Labs, a Boston-area company that opened in Houston earlier this year. Cottingham previously served as the city of Houston's chief sustainability officer and the chief of staff for the city's Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department for the past seven years. In her new role, Cottingham will oversee the day-to-day operations and communications for Greentown's CEO Emily Reichert, along with key stakeholder engagements and strategic initiatives for the incubator.

"Lara brings a tremendous wealth of knowledge and experience to our team from her dynamic leadership role at the City of Houston," says Reichert in a news release. "Her breadth of knowledge in sustainability, climate, and the energy transition, and her expertise in regulatory and stakeholder aspects of the energy industry, will be incredibly valuable to our team and community."

Under her leadership at the city of Houston, Cottingham was the chief author of Houston's Climate Action Plan, an initiative aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Houston, and getting the city to a point where it meets the Paris Agreement goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Cottingham helped the city move to 100 percent renewable electricity, according to the release, and helped turn a 240-acre landfill into the nation's largest urban solar farm.

"In leading the Climate Action Plan, Lara helped spark Houston's leadership in what has become a global energy transition and was a passionate advocate for climate action in Houston," says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in the release. "While she will be missed, this new role will only strengthen our partnership with Greentown. I look forward to working with Emily, Lara, and the Greentown team to meet our climate goals and make Houston the energy capital of the future."

Before her work at the city, Cottingham worked at Hill+Knowlton Strategies' Houston office range of clients across the energy sector. Earlier in her career, she served as communications director for two congressmen in the U.S. House of Representatives. She began her work with the city in 2014.

"In working with Mayor Turner and Climate Mayors across the U.S., I saw how important partnerships are to helping cities decarbonize," says Cottingham in the release. "There is no better partner or place for climate action at work than Greentown Labs. Greentown is 100 percent committed to attracting and nurturing the energy companies of the future and making Houston the energy transition capital of the world. I'm excited to join the team and see how climatetech can help cities reach their climate goals."

Greentown Labs first announced its entrance into the Houston market last summer. The new 40,000-square-foot facility in Midtown across the street from The Ion opened its prototyping and wet lab space, offices, and community gathering areas for about 50 startup companies opened in April. Greentown was founded in 2011 in Somerville, Massachusetts, and has supported more than 400 startups, which have raised more than $1.5 billion in funding.

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