The Dark Side Of Networking And How We Can Work Together To Change It

Jeff Weiner is stepping down as LinkedIn’s CEO in June, and stepping up to lead the charge to close the “network gap.”

Linkedin CEO Jeff Weiner speaks

Linkedin CEO Jeff Weiner speaks as he introduces US President Barack Obama during a Linkedin town … [+] hall meeting at the Computer History Museum September 26, 2011 in Mountain View, California. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

2011 AFP

Amid all of the praise for networking as a strategy to open the door to new opportunities, there lies a dark side. Networking may foster homogeneity within organizations since people tend to refer candidates similar to themselves, and by its nature, a network creates an in-group and an out-group.

During his keynote at Talent Connect in September, LinkedIn’s CEO Jeff Weiner acknowledged the existence of a “network gap” – the tendency for those who come from affluent neighborhoods, attend elite schools and work at top employers to enjoy more opportunities than those who have not.

Jeff further admitted that LinkedIn’s algorithms may have unintentionally supported this trend. Research showed that individuals who graduated from top-ranked colleges and were employed at leading companies early in their careers were twice as likely to have strong networks than those who did not.

In January, Jeff announced that he’ll be stepping away from the CEO role at LinkedIn and taking a position on the Executive Board where he will be addressing the network gap and supporting his belief that “Two people who are equally talented should have equal access to opportunity.”

And changes are already being applied at LinkedIn. Since discovering the potential for systematic bias, engineers have implemented testing to ensure that new features do not disproportionately benefit certain groups. Additionally, LinkedIn is asking its members to engage in the “Plus One Pledge” to help someone outside of their network.

As an avid promoter of both networking and LinkedIn, I’m excited to see this challenge being addressed at this level, and believe there’s a lot we can do as individuals to support this effort to close the network gap. If you’ve benefited from your connections and want to help others who may not have the same access, here are some ideas to get started:

–         Accept an out-of-network connection – and help them. Depending on your view of LinkedIn’s purpose, you may use the platform as a Rolodex of your personal contacts or you may take a LION (LinkedIn Open Networker) approach and accept every invite. No matter your strategy, each of us can likely take a step further to close the network gap. For example, if you’re the former, there’s no need to accept every invite, but perhaps you can open your network to those contacts who have invested the time to send a thoughtful, personal invite? If you’re a LION, consider how you can take the next step to help connect your contacts to others in your network who may have mutual interests.

–         Volunteer with a non-profit organization. In his keynote, Jeff tells the story of an enterprising young high school senior he met through volunteering at the Boys & Girls Club who he helped to advance her dream. This person wouldn’t have had access to Jeff or his network otherwise. When we volunteer, we inevitably expand our circle of connections, which creates an opportunity to share our access with others. And even if volunteering isn’t your gig, there may be other chances within your church community, among the service providers you regularly interact with or even some random exchanges (e.g., I was once able to connect my restaurant server to an Executive in the industry he was targeting!).

–         Set up a 1-1 with someone outside of your inner circle. If you’re well-connected, chances are you get constant requests for informational meetings, coffee chats or phone conversations. While it’s impossible to take all of them, make it a point to offer some time each month to an unknown individual who reaches out, especially those who have done their homework, but may not have had a shared connection to make the introduction. These individuals took the initiative to extend outside of their circle and take a risk, and you may be surprised what a 20-minute conversation and possible introduction to one person in your network can lead to.

–         Gift someone premium LinkedIn membership. A 90-day subscription to LinkedIn Premium could really help a job seeker to boost their search. Features like In-mail allow members to reach out to contacts beyond their second-level contacts, which can be a great way to begin building a more robust network. Other advantages include analytic insights that help users understand how their activities increase their views, boosts in algorithms that can put them in front of employers, and access to LinkedIn Learning, which is a powerful database of online courses in everything from career management tools to programming languages to business skills. While LinkedIn currently doesn’t offer a simple way to do this on their system, Premium gift cards were distributed at Talent Connect 2019, and hopefully will become a feature in the near future.

–         Share the Plus One Pledge. According to Jeff, inspiring 10% of employees to help just one individual could impact over 1.4 million lives. So, share this post or the link to the Plus One Pledge video. You have the ability to have a greater impact than you realize.

LinkedIn believes the solution to the network gap comes from three areas: 1) programs, 2) products, and 3) people, and the good news is that we can play a significant role.

  1. There’s a lot of positive research for employee referral programs, indicating that they lead to more engaged hires who tend to stay with the company longer and are less expensive to recruit. However, they can also lead to less diversity if we only look at people who are in our circle. Some companies are making attempts to combat this. For example, Amazon is broadening the list of schools where they recruit for management roles. Many large tech employers like Google and Apple don’t require a degree as a cost of entry. The Body Shop is trying open hiring to reduce bias, a concept pioneered by Greyston Bakery that requires no interview, background check or drug tests.
  2. In terms of products, while technology can never be a standalone solution, it’s an extremely valuable tool that is widely accessible with features that encourage and teach people to broaden their connections. And with the dedication to reduce bias, these tools will have even more impact on the network gap. Platforms like LinkedIn are working to solve this problem and that’s where we come in.
  3. People are the core of the solution and the heart of successful networking. At it’s foundation, networking is about relationships, and while products and programs can help to facilitate matches, it’s only through conversations that we can build trust and open the door to dreams.

Each action we take makes a difference. The overall theme of LinkedIn’s Talent Connect 2019 was “better together” and while this concept is supported by decades of networking research, it’s also just a more enjoyable way to progress through work and life.

Happy hunting!

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