Using “weak ties” to aid your job hunt: what a giant study can teach us

When you’re job hunting, who’s most likely to help? Top U.S. scholars have tackled this question via a massive study — published today in Science magazine — that analyzes more than two billion LinkedIn connections.

To see their key findings in action, let’s spend a moment with Kate Darling. Her story starts in 2019, when she was running a thriving music-marketing consultancy in Carpentersville, Ill., just outside Chicago. On the side, she co-owned a popular local music store.

Then the pandemic hit, slamming both her businesses. Her closest contacts in the music business couldn’t offer a way out; all they could see were hard times, too. She needed a helping hand from someone with a totally different take on the opportunities that might exist.

The winning ticket: an outreach email from a casual acquaintance, software executive Mike Grzegorek. Years earlier he had taken a slew of guitar lessons at her store, and now his fast-growing company, UKG, needed more marketing talent.

Grzegorek had a hunch that Darling’s expertise — even if it was in a different field — might be a match. “I could see your entrepreneurship,” he told her. “We can use that.” Darling sailed through the hiring process, joining UKG last December. She’s thriving today.

Crazy fluke? Or part of a pattern?

Karthik Rajkumar, one of the LinkedIn data scientists who co-authored the new Science paper, knows the answer. Research shows that it’s often our casual acquaintances, rather than our closest friends, who turn out to be our most useful connections in job hunts, he explains.

The reason: when we connect with so-called weak ties — people we know only slightly — we gain access to job networks that stretch into unexpected areas. That lets us find people and opportunities we otherwise wouldn’t know about.

“This is the magic of weak ties,” Rajkumar says. “They bridge information flows. They help us navigate large spans of the labor market efficiently.” By contrast, our best friends’ contacts are so similar to ours that they don’t help much; they’re redundant.

This pleasant paradox has been of academic interest since at least the early 1970s, when sociologist Mark Granovetter published a landmark paper called “The Strength of Weak Ties.” But his work was grounded in the pre-digital world of postage stamps and rotary phones. His research-sample sizes were a lot smaller, too. (One such study involved just 54 people in a Boston suburb.)

Digging deep this time, Rajkumar and colleagues tracked the modern-day connection-making patterns — and job-hunt outcomes — of 20 million LinkedIn members. The research was conducted on data from 2015 and 2019. Other authors included former LinkedIn data scientist Guillaume Saint-Jacques and scholars from Harvard, Stanford and MIT.

Here are some other insights that grow out of their work:

Weak ties are — or can bring — strong referrals.

Often, your casual acquaintances won’t be hiring themselves, but they will know of someone who is. That’s the pathway that helped former middle-school teacher Chelsey Eisenhauer switch into a new role as a customer advocate for  Drift, which makes buyer-relationship software.

The bridge-builder here was a college acquaintance, Meredith Metsker, who had been in the University of Idaho’s marching band with Eisenhauer nearly a decade ago. They hadn’t chatted in a while, but Metsker pointed Eisenhauer to a podcast she’d just released, interviewing Drift’s head of support. Eisenhauer ran with that suggestion, reaching out to Drift, selling her teaching skills as relevant to this new role — and  winning a job.

Weak ties work best in fast-paced industries.

Tech and other digital fields lead the way, as areas where opportunities keep changing rapidly. Having diverse contacts is a fine way of keeping up with what’s new. That can be especially valuable in industries where working from home is prevalent.

A little familiarity is essential.

The weak ties concept isn’t the same as reaching out to total strangers. Detailed analysis found that job-networking benefits generally happened better when the two people involved already shared at least two connections, and perhaps as many as 10.

There are exceptions. Less than a year ago, Alexis Hay was having a fried-tilapia dinner in south Florida with her partner. She started chatting with the people at the next table, and happily discovered that one of them was a human-resources executive at UKG, the software company. That chat led to a job application — and a successful hire. But in such cases, your wit and charm will need to be at their very best to overcome other people’s hesitance.

Diversity is your friend.

The weak-ties concept is based on the idea that you’ll see a wider range of possibilities if you  tap into people who attended different schools, who might be noticeably older or younger than you, and whose exact career journeys don’t mirror yours.

While you still need some commonality, areas of non-overlap are valuable, too. That’s especially helpful for people confronting what’s known as the network gap: the  relative advantage or disadvantage that some people have over others because of their social and professional connections.

An example of barrier-busting involves Isabella Draskovic’s job hunt in 2020, during her senior year at Santa Clara University. Her obvious connections from school and prior jobs weren’t surfacing good prospects. (One former employer was in the midst of a hiring freeze.) But a series of connections led her to an older manager at Google, in a field she hadn’t originally considered for her search. Draskovic applied to be an administrative business partner – and got the job.

Try widening your own contacts, but do so with warmth.

LinkedIn’s Rajkumar advises: “Don’t just connect with your classmates. Try to connect with people who share professional interests with you through trade or occupation but not friends.”

Solid advice, and I’d offer just one addition. Light-touch connections work best when they’re nurtured in a generous way. Kind words count; so does good-natured banter. A relentless transactional approach probably won’t go far; there’s a lot more to be said for empathy and sincere interest in each other’s journeys. If fundamental respect is in place, weak ties can stretch quite powerfully.


To test the weak-tie theory, researchers studied random variations in the prevalence of strong and weak ties in the professional networks of more than 20 million LinkedIn users, driven by adjustments to the platform’s People You May Know algorithm. Subsequent job applications, hirings and the connections between candidates and hiring companies were analyzed for the groups with greater exposure to strong-tie recommendations, versus the groups with more exposure to weak-tie recommendations.

George Anders, Senior Editor at large, LinkedIn

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By Sheila Lillis
Sheila Lillis Associate Director