Question

You preach that most jobs are found through personal contacts. There is no way to pursue as many job opportunities via contacts as by applying for jobs online. Maybe it takes a thousand applications on Indeed and LinkedIn, but that’s automation at work. Meanwhile, there’s no way to get 1,000 job opportunities through 1,000 contacts when you’re looking for a job. It’s an odds game any way you look at it. So deny that and tell me why I’m wrong, please.

Nick’s Reply

who you knowIn an economy where employers are struggling to find workers among millions in all the online databases, there’s a premium on automation. There are so many resumes, profiles and applications to sort through! When a task is as repetitive as reviewing job applications, especially when human time and effort are so expensive, it’s always better to let automation do the job. Isn’t it?

While “Automate it!” has become a business mantra in HR, not every business objective is served by automation. Just because databases can deliver more job listings and more job applicants doesn’t mean “more is better.” Some things require a personal approach.

We have long discussed the failure of automated tools for job hunting and hiring. It’s worth considering why personal contacts – which are the source of 40%-70% of new jobs and new hires – work so much better. It’s partly because less is better.

Personal contacts are active.

The job boards are passive and impersonal. One job hunter will wait until a database matches their “keywords” to a job description. Another – an active job hunter – won’t wait. They will use personal contacts to get introduced to a manager directly.

Guess who gets the manager’s attention first?

“Who you know” is a good filtering mechanism.

Job boards and Applicant Tracking Systems (ATSes) are lousy “people filters” because they’re bit buckets. That is, they sort ASCII characters, not character. Managers put a premium on the personal endorsement of a candidate by a professional friend or associate. Why?

It’s a matter of trust. The word of a professional contact is much more reliable than a resume that came from an impersonal database. Managers don’t like to take chances.

Personal contacts yield more highly motivated people.

It takes no motivation to apply for the nth job on a job board, and job boards don’t measure anyone’s interest in a particular job. (Wow — when will HR realize this while it advertises for truly motivated applicants?) Instead, these databases deliver all “matches.”

A candidate who makes the effort to develop a personal contact with the right manager is almost always more interested and motivated than most online applicants. Guess who is more likely to get an interview? (When will HR realize that a referral from a trusted contact saves time and cost — because it comes with a credible, built-in reference?)

Personal contacts anticipate job openings and good candidates.

By the time a job (or resume) is posted, the game is over. The only way to find out about a job before the teeming hordes apply for it is to have a good inside contact that tips you off before the job is advertised.

Likewise, the best way to hire a great candidate is to know about them before they start looking for a new job. Only personal contacts yield hidden opportunities. Well, headhunters do, too — for big, fat search fees.

Personal contacts can’t be automated. They require time and effort, personal attention, good judgment, motivation, and the ability to anticipate events before they happen. Who you know — and who knows you — matters. That’s why most jobs are filled through personal contacts.

How much time and effort do you invest in personal contacts? Do you agree that it’s all about “who you know?”

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13 Comments
  1. Has this question asker even read this blog before?! ;-)

    A job contact on the inside is worth 1,000 chances on line.

  2. Abso-friggen-lutely!!!

    You have to wonder where that questioner has been all his/her life because the question demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of how the world works and how people think.

    In person beats online for fundraising and sales, too, when the stakes are as high as landing a job.

  3. The “who you know” works best in both directions. The person recommending the new hire has already done the first pass interview to determine suitability. They know the job and they know the candidate. If they don’t want to trash their own reputation they will get the ducks lined up before the recommendation. Also, this can be done, initially, in an informal manner so the manager can meet the potential new hire before HR get involved. It isn’t just the knowledge it is the team dynamic.

    About 20 years ago I took a health break and resigned from my job. Two years later I decided to go back to work and knew my old work was hiring. When I contacted them they told me I could start on Monday. I asked for an interview, because it had been two years since I’d worked in the Industry, and they said “fine, but you have to start on Monday”. Apparently some of my old colleagues were pushing hard for me to come back. Most of the interview was the manager trying to convince me to say yes. It was a nice position to be in, given how apprehensive I was in getting back into the industry.

    Within an organisation I try to talk to, and assist where possible, as many people as I can. This opens up the possibility to move fluidly, through an organisation, if you start having issues where you currently are. You might not be a perfect fit but you are a known quantity with a reputation for being useful.

  4. I think “Know” is the keyword here rather than just asking a complete stranger on Linkedin to refer you to the hiring manager as I hear some now say.

    As you say a personal recommendation by someone who knows you is far better.

    • @Nigel: Good point. You don’t “know” someone you’re distantly connected to on LinkedIn, yet I know people that spend all day long sending messages to such “contacts.” All they’re doing is “putting the monkey on someone else’s back.” And guess what? People don’t want your monkey — so they’ll send you off to HR.

      But it’s also worth pointing out that if you’ve identified someone the hiring manager is close to and trusts, think of that person this way: You don’t know them yet. Find a good way to make contact and to establish a meaningful connection. Don’t view this as awkward and “Oh, I can’t do that!” Here are some suggestions for those that need help:

      https://www.asktheheadhunter.com/15882/hang-out-make-new-contacts

      • I guess this is where I go wrong. I really struggle getting to ‘know’ anyone. Both personally and professionally.

  5. The “Who I knew” was a key factor in getting my first job (and I stayed at the company (NL) over 21 years before leaving). Just out of college, I was applying and not getting anywhere, so I started working for a temp agency. They placed me at NL, which had a bout 150 employees. It turned out that I knew the president’s son from participating in the same club in college.

    I’m sure that is a big part of how I was offered a choice from two positions.

  6. Finding or better yet, knowing respected super connectors in your area is the key to most anything you need professionally, including getting a job you desire, versus one the opens up. To get a super-connector and their network to bat for you, helping and giving them something they value is your passport to leverage a favor when you need it. These people never ask or expect anything from people outside their network, so you have to be creative, genuine, and real as you give something without expecting anything in return. Think in terms of “investment”. So when the day arrives you need help with a job, you can pull the lever to get them to help.

  7. I would say that “who you know” is only half right.
    There needs to also be an opening in the company for which your “skill” is suited. There are jobs everywhere that ANYONE can get, fast food, Walmart, Target, Hobby Lobby……and a lot of them are paying close to 20 per hr. The biggest problem, is how they treat the worker, which is why many of these jobs are unfilled. It is not the unemployment that everyone claims is keeping workers from jobs, it is fear of an infection that has been inflated to world ending proportions, the forced masks and vaccinations, and the companies that treat the employees like cattle.

    I just recently landed a job for which I am overqualified, but also uniquely qualified. I didn’t get it by who I knew, I went to a veterans job fair and the recruiting team looked at my resume and told me they had an opening as a mechanic. Interviews and all happened and I got the job at my minimum rate of 25 per hr, no questions.

    While who you know CAN help, especially in a saturated industry like insurance, being at the right place at the right time and talking to reps from the company that know the ins and outs is the other half.

    I personally hate job fairs as there are usually to many people and not a large variety of employers to chose from and limited time to interact, but, you can, for the most part, get a feeling for how the company is run just by asking specific questions and looking at the body language of the rep.

    I know I’m not the only one that hates the “virtual” interview garbage. Respect is the biggest killer of employees.

  8. Nick,
    Great points posted.
    Also who you know can possibly keep you from getting a position in a “bad” company.
    If your “who you know” contact is always complaining about the company and is looking to get out, do you really want to work there?

    • @Tony: “Who you know” might be a headhunter. I’ve fired client companies that were not good clients. Guess what I tell people about them? I figure I’ve saved a few good people from bad experiences! And I’m guessing many others have, too!

  9. For entry-to-midlevel jobs where you have the right education and experience, an online application might work perfectly well. “I need 10 people with X degree and 2 years of experience in Y” – if that’s a common degree and a decent number of people in that geography have that experience, online applications may be sufficient for the job seeker and the employer. Probably not going to have 10 people start and stay in that job, but you likely can apply and get hired.

    I interviewed a man this morning for a sales position. On paper he looks like a job hopper and most applicant tracking systems would boot him out. He has a great explanation for his moves and I’m likely going to have an offer in his hands by tomorrow. We found him by telling dozens of people who our organization is looking to hire.

  10. A contact may know a person, but not necessarily their qualifications.

    A partner at my previous employer received a candidate’s résumé from a friend who was a partner at another law firm. The candidate, “John”, was a recent law school graduate, and his wife was an attorney at the friend’s firm.

    I always wondered who the friend was really referring to us: John on his own merits, or John his colleague’s husband. He could’ve just figured, I’ve sent you John’s résumé, and whatever happens after that is between him and you.

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