Weak ties matter

I’m going to drop some science on you — social science — about how to recruit a diverse team of high performers. In 1973, Stanford sociology professor Mark Granovetter published an empirical paper called The Strength of Weak Ties.

If you’re wondering about the validity of a 40-year-old study on hiring for today, consider that Professor Granovetter is one of the pioneers of social network theory, and is “unofficially” short-listed for the Nobel Prize in Economics. I took his class when I was a graduate student in organizational behavior, and his work influenced my approach to everything from analyzing links between virtual communities in Second Life to building strong product teams.

Here’s the argument: In social networks, you have different links — or ties — to other people. Strong ties are characterized as deep affinity; for example family, friends or colleagues. Weak ties, in contrast, might be acquaintances, or a stranger with a common cultural background. The point is that the strength of these ties can substantially affect interactions, outcomes and well-being.

Granovetter wondered if strength of tie had an impact on finding a job. His insight was that within a network of strong ties, people with weak ties outside the core network are bridges to other networks. Those bridges have access to new and unique information — like job openings — relative to other members of the network with only strong ties.

In particular, Granovetter showed that people with weak ties not only find jobs that the rest of the tight network cannot see, but those jobs come with higher compensation and satisfaction. This is especially true for higher-educated workers, like your typical engineer. Because more than 40 percent of jobs are found through referrals, understanding weak ties is an important factor for both job seekers and recruiters.

Now, let’s flip the script to the point of view from a Silicon Valley tech company trying to diversify their team. As we’ve seen from the abysmal diversity numbers, many of these companies are currently prototypical tight networks. No, having a team of Stanford “and” MIT white male engineers is not a diverse network. The problem is that these employees will have few strong ties to underrepresented engineers, so recruiting strategies like referral networks and recruiting bounties simply reinforce the tight network. Cue the refrain, “We tried, but we don’t know any women or LGBTQ engineers. Oh well…”

The record of retention and ascension to executive ranks for non-white employees is even worse than hiring.

Contrast this with a team whose founding team is diverse. They have strong and weak ties that bridge to many different networks of underrepresented engineers, designers and managers. This diversity will continue to amplify because these new employees also bridge to many different networks of talented people. These teams have a compounding positional advantage in credibility and reach that makes it hard for non-diverse teams to catch up in the competitive recruiting marketplace.

So, if you’re a tightly networked company who sincerely wants to build a diverse team, I have good news and bad news. The good news: Empirical research by Professor Roberto Hernandez shows that companies with tight, homogeneous networks can successfully recruit and retain diverse candidates if they actively engage weak-tie referral networks. Not only that, they can increase retention, a critical step toward building a sustainable and diverse team. The bad news: You have to commit to do the work. There isn’t a playbook or plug-and-play approach, but there are some core approaches to focus your work:

1) Start with an authentic effort based on a core business rationale. Not a PR/Marketing front, not an isolated and under-resourced HR program and not (just) moral imperative. Recruits see through fake programs like bad pickup lines. Bad news travels fast through those same networks and they’ll tell the truth. You will be much more successful by being rigorous about how a diverse team will advance the core of your business.

2) Go lean-startup on your weak ties. Find employees with weak ties outside your company’s immediate network and determine which of those weak ties are bridges to new networks with diverse candidates. Figure out those channels, then do your customer development in order to learn where you can add value. Most underrepresented people have direct experience with what works and what doesn’t. They’ll share with you if they believe you are authentic (see No. 1) and you incorporate their feedback.

Then, as Steve Blank says, “Get out of the office.” Go visit an East Coast university with more engineers of color than in the Valley. Take a weekend to mentor at a community hackathon and get inspired while meeting other mentors who are your peers. Engage experts like Women 2.0, CODE2040, Yes We Code, Black Girls CODE, Qeyno and Women Who Code (just to name a few). You’ll develop hypotheses about how to attract these great candidates and have a value proposition that attracts them.

Now, let’s say you’ve started to attract candidates from your weak tie network. You’re not done yet. To capture the full economic benefit — for everyone — you have to think beyond the hiring decision and into retention.

3) Design your referral practices to reward making candidates for being “successful” at their job, not just for hiring them. If you’re hiring diverse candidates, you’re wasting your time if you aren’t also thinking about how to help them become wildly successful. Unfortunately, the record of retention and ascension to executive ranks for non-white employees is even worse than hiring. The good news is that a company’s policies can have substantial impact on retaining diverse employees.

Summarizing all these tactics is beyond the scope of this article. But here’s an idea based on a common practice: referral bounties. If you have a bounty system, vest it like shares. Let’s say 25 percent upon hire, 50 percent upon first successful performance review, 25 percent upon promotion. This aligns everyone’s economic objectives with long-term success, rather than number-padding for a short-term PR bump.

But wait?! The referral source can’t have an impact on their job performance, right?! So…share the bounty with an internal mentor or colleague with direct access to the new candidate. Yes, there’s a risk of gaming the system, but less so if you have an effective and transparent system of evaluation. More importantly, organizing to support candidates so they meet or exceed expectations is in everyone’s interest. Bonus: Retaining candidates demonstrates to the weak tie network that you are serious about building a diverse company. Don’t be surprised if you start to get inbound inquiries.

In short, building a program that truly supports diversity will only help your business. Everyone knows this, but the execution can be difficult. Here are a few things to remember when trying to incorporate diversity into your organization:

  • Authenticity + core business value. If you believe that diverse teams have better business outcomes, then learn how that works for your company.

  • Weak ties matter. Find the weak ties that bridge to new networks, do customer development to learn where to add value, then ask for referrals.

  • Align recruiting, hiring and retention for long-term success. Hiring is only the first step. Retention and superior performance is what everyone wants, so align your systems to support diverse candidates and the referral networks that found them.