Updated: Dec 20, 2019
I had a meeting at the New York headquarters of a well-known online professional networking tool. My contact was asking me about the kind of work I’m looking to do and he mentioned using their site as a way to apply for jobs.
“Do you know what happens when I do that?” I burst out, “There are 500 other people who have also applied for that job. We need to make hiring harder, not easier.”
“That’s where you need to use your network... Do you have a premium account? You can use that to find contacts in those companies and ask for warm introductions. That’s how people get jobs.”
“That’s a problem,” I said, “It shouldn’t come down to knowing someone.”
“I don’t know how you get around human nature,” he said.
How did we become hiring zombies, brainless creatures searching for a way to trust that this person isn’t going to be a waste of our precious organizational resources? When did jobs become driven by a scarcity mentality and a desire to mitigate risk rather than invest in capability? When did jobs themselves become a commodity rather than the talent of the people who do those jobs? And, most importantly of all, how do we kill this virus that seems to have taken over the entire economy?
There is increasing interest in social capital as the silver bullet that will level the opportunity playing field. On the one hand, I’m pleased to hear that more people are acknowledging that education and training aren’t the be all and end all. On the other hand, this is a dead end because even though social capital is absolutely the way to opportunity, it doesn’t scale.
First of all, social capital is clearly an asset because this company has monetized access to it through its “premium” feature. (In fact, my contact told me that employees used to be able to give away premium accounts but they can’t anymore- that’s how valuable social capital really is.) The biggest thing they could do to unlock social capital would be to eliminate the subscription fee to access networks.
But more than that, social capital is a reflective asset. When we use our social capital to extend an opportunity to someone outside the validated circle of trust, we are making ourselves the validator and therefore that person’s performance becomes part of our reputation. This is why institutional validation is so useful- it diffuses responsibility. We are much more likely to give allowances for “one bad apple” who graduated from an otherwise respected university than we are when we hired someone who didn’t work out based on a colleague’s word. That colleague’s own trustworthiness comes into question, which then has the effect of reducing their social capital. And while most people are fundamentally not especially self-aware, they are conscious enough to know that there is no cause to open oneself up to reputational damage unnecessarily. After all, job security is not guaranteed and you never know what will factor into decisions when it comes time for advancement- or lay-offs.
Studies have repeatedly found that racial and income heterogeneity diminish social trust. We are fundamentally unwilling to take major risks when it comes to extending our social capital, which means that when we use warm bodies as a work-around for Byzantine hiring processes, that means that we only further consolidate privilege. While we are intellectually in favor of fair systems, our lived experiences simply don’t reflect that.
‘Being careful is not as much fun as being friends,’ said Frances. ‘Do you want to be careful, or do you want to be friends?’— “A Bargain for Frances,” by Russell Hoban
While Frances the Badger is correct, the truth is that most of us would rather be careful than be friends.
And that is why social capital may be the solution but it’s not the answer.
We need to do better than just warm bodies.