There’s the old adage of it’s not what you know, but who you know, when it comes to getting a job. From nepotism to favoritism, a strong network can typically make or break you when it comes to your job search. Last week’s unemployment figures showed a bleak outlook for African-Americans, but is something simple as networking holding a lot of people back?
The most obvious explanation for this entrenched disparity is racial discrimination. But in my research I have found a somewhat different culprit: favoritism. Getting an inside edge by using help from family and friends is a powerful, hidden force driving inequality in the United States.
Such favoritism has a strong racial component. Through such seemingly innocuous networking, white Americans tend to help other whites, because social resources are concentrated among whites. If African-Americans are not part of the same networks, they will have a harder time finding decent jobs.The mechanism that reproduces inequality, in other words, may be inclusion more than exclusion. And while exclusion or discrimination is illegal, inclusion or favoritism is not — meaning it can be more insidious and largely immune to legal challenges.
Favoritism is almost universal in today’s job market. In interviews with hundreds of people on this topic, I found that all but a handful used the help of family and friends to find 70 percent of the jobs they held over their lifetimes; they all used personal networks and insider information if it was available to them.
In this context of widespread networking, the idea that there is a job “market” based solely on skills, qualifications and merit is false. Whenever possible, Americans seeking jobs try to avoid market competition: they look for unequal rather than equal opportunity. In fact, the last thing job seekers want to face is equal opportunity; they want an advantage. They want to find ways to cut in line and get ahead.
You don’t usually need a strong social network to land a low-wage job at a fast-food restaurant or retail store. But trying to land a coveted position that offers a good salary and benefits is a different story. To gain an edge, job seekers actively work connections with friends and family members in pursuit of these opportunities.
Personally speaking, I’ve been on both sides of the job hunting fence. I can say that my network and connections have been a driving force in some of the positions I have worked in. I’ve been lucky enough to have people recommend me to positions, and I’ve done the same for others. My small circle of friends are predominantly black, and we look out for each other. All the time.
On the hiring side, I have noticed the trend of white hiring managers eagerly suggesting that I contact their friend, or former colleague for positions that they were responsible for. In one instance in particular, a new hiring manager already knew the people she wanted to hire for certain positions, and didn’t want to see any resumes from other people. Is this ethical? Yes, but is it fair? Possibly not. The playing field is never leveled, especially if people are homogeneous when it comes to their networking circles. A person’s social network can easily amplify inequality, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it can also reinforce inequalities as well.