Who is your best friend when you are looking for work?

By Dr. Panos Sousounis, Lecturer in Economics

Many people claim to have a broad social circle, but we are all more likely to consider only a handful of people as our “close” friends. These are the ones we turn to when we want advice or company. More importantly though, friends like these can give empathy and support at a time of need. Finding yourself out of work involuntarily is clearly just such a moment, and so naturally, you turn to your closest friends for help getting back in the job market. That’s what friends are for, right?

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Well, maybe not. Contrary to received wisdom, most social science research suggests that you are better off scrolling down the contacts’ list on your smartphone (or flicking through the pages of an old phonebook) to contact those outside your inner circle – acquaintances, if you will. Success with a job or career search seems to work better this way. But why?

Close friends (and by “close” I mean the people you are in regular contact with) are more likely to be either colleagues or ex-colleagues of some form. Or they may live in the same place as you. In contrast, your extended network of friends is likely to be made up of people from a mix of locations and include a diverse mixture of occupations and professions. This group will be exposed to more and different kinds of job-related information. Think of it like your own personal hive mind, where the availability and flow of information from them to you is crucial.

The trouble is that your close, employed friends – while their support might be invaluable – are likely to be privy to the same information as you. Your acquaintances, on the other hand, work for different employers, have diverse experiences and they themselves have friends who work elsewhere and so on. It is a numbers game. By getting job-related information from multiple points of origin – think tips about upcoming vacancies, or advice on search strategies, applications and interviews – you maximise the chances of finding work.

Horses for courses

Now, the above might suggest that your immediate social circle is of less value while you’re looking for work. This is not true. Indeed, a number of studies propose that they can be equally effective and bring great value in key areas.

Acquaintances will bring more job opportunities to your attention, but your friends know your skills, flaws, aptitudes, disposition and career aspirations and are thus able to screen both you and various job openings. In theory, that should lead to fewer but higher-quality suggestions. Employers are aware of such within network processes and any personal recommendations tend to be viewed more favourably than speculative approaches or referrals. Such recruitment channels can mean less employee turnover and reduced hiring and firing costs – after all, you are more likely to commit more to a job when sharing a workplace with friends.

Men’s social networks (of similar size) appear to be more effective in helping in a job search, which could be due to either women’s friends having less influence in hiring processes, or that women are seen as more likely to be voluntarily unemployed than men.

But for women, the effect of social networks on their labour market behaviour has an additional dimension. What we know is that the composition of women’s social circle matters. Women’s social networks are better at providing them with social support, such as in childcare. And the availability and affordability of childcare is a core factor in many women’s decision to return to paid work.

In this case, the effect of friends operates through a subsidiary channel in tandem with that of information distribution. A friend may not be able to offer a job recommendation but may be able to mind the kids for a few hours every week, allowing the mother to commit to a full or part time job. Equally, someone could offer financial assistance during a work-related training period while other friends could provide vacancy information.

Virtuous circle

Using your networks to exit unemployment brings obvious material and psychological gains to the individual. But why is your network important for the rest of society?

For a start, it means public employment services such as Jobcentre Plus or Universal Jobmatch in the UK can broaden their reach beyond job seekers in direct contact. Anyone who returns to work becomes a potential source of information to their social network. Additionally, someone may come across a job ad which may not be suitable for themselves but can be passed on through their network. This process can be particularly beneficial for those more “passive” job seekers – people who have perhaps become discouraged after long unsuccessful periods of job search. They are more likely to follow up a friend’s suggestion than actively going through job postings themselves.

The second advantage is that broad social networks – both traditional and of the Facebook age – can allow people to escape the trap of belonging to a kind of economic underclass where people out of work interact mostly, if not exclusively, with other unemployed people. A narrow cohort of close friends can encourage social exclusion as well as economic, social and, possibly, geographical marginalisation. Every unemployed person who can find work by calling on a wider circle of acquaintances in employment helps to grow that crucial wider network for others. It is indeed a virtuous circle.

We currently have little evidence on the exact magnitude of the effect of social networks on the probability of finding work, but we can confidently say that such an effect exists. We can also say that regardless how close a friend is, they can potentially provide invaluable help with finding work. You just have to make sure you’re using the right tool for the right job.

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