Networking has long been associated with painful small talk and exchanging business cards. But, for many Americans, that’s largely been replaced with connecting with industry vets on LinkedIn or Tweeting out that you’re looking for a new job—and it’s just as effective.
Roughly one in four workers found out about jobs or searched for new roles through their professional connections last year. Almost 40% used social media sites like LinkedIn and Facebook, according to the 2022 Job Seeker Nation Report. In fact, workers are four times more likely to get a job at a company where they already had a connection, according to recent LinkedIn data shared with Fortune.
“Networks are massively powerful for securing opportunities for jobs, but also they’re massively powerful tools for professional advancement,” LinkedIn career expert Andrew McCaskill tells Fortune. Even so-called “weak ties”—people who you’re connected with but perhaps don’t have a robust relationship with in real life, such as those third connections on LinkedIn—can still be incredibly helpful in getting your foot in the door, he adds.
While networking has typically been the purview of white office workers, women and people of color have been making massive investments in expanding their networks over the last three years, McCaskill says. But a big gap still remains.
Black workers on LinkedIn boosted the number of monthly connections they make, on average, by 50% between May and August 2022 compared to one year prior. Latino members increased their monthly connection rate by about 40% during that same time period.
Overall, Black members, on average, added 11% more connections in 2022, according to McCaskill. But that still trails white members, who had had 17% more total connections than Black workers on LinkedIn last year. They also had 26% more connections than Latino members.
“We’re closing the gap, but not fast enough,” McCaskill says. While 80% of Black and Latino professionals believe a professional network is critical when looking for a job, fewer than one in four workers report relying on their network to find new roles, according to LinkedIn’s data. So there’s still a disconnect.
When it comes to gender, men add an average of 26% more connections than women each month, LinkedIn finds. And that adds up. Men have, overall, 46% more total connections than women—a nearly 2 to 1 ratio.
“Men are creating much bigger networks, faster,” McCaskill says, adding that matters in terms of long-term career trajectory and employment stability. “The larger your network is, the more access you have to economic opportunity,” he says.
Size matters, but so does diversity
Workers of color and women are actually moving the needle on expanding their professional networks, but the number of connections isn’t the only important factor, McCaskill says. Workers need to ensure they’re diversifying their network as well.
“We have a tendency to connect with people that are familiar to us,” McCaskill says. There’s typically some trepidation among many women, for example, to add strangers to their networks.
And while that’s just human nature, homogeneous networks are less effective.
“Part of building that diverse network is finding people who can help you, not just unlock job opportunities, but decode culture,” McCaskill says. “Building relationships with people from different backgrounds can help you combat the isolation and the sort of tokenism that sometimes happens to professionals of color in predominantly white spaces,” McCaskill says.
There’s a lot about work that really hinges on culture, he adds. Many times workers are asked to participate in conferences or even happy hour events with colleagues and clients. How workers navigate these situations can have consequences for their career. But if you have a diverse network, you can call on your connections for advice and guidance. That can give you the confidence and competence that you may not have previously, McCaskill says.
You don’t have to be best lunch buddies or long-time coworkers to connect with people, especially on LinkedIn, McCaskill says. But he adds that it is worthwhile to reach out and, if possible, keep your connections warm—especially those who work at organizations you’re interested in or that you want to use as references and referrals. That may mean checking in from time to time. But this maintenance does pay off.
Diverse networks can also help expand your reach. It’s still, sadly, true that a Black referral inside of an organization might not get you into the same rooms that having a white referral may, McCaskill says. “That is the sad reality of living in a society where there’s systemic racism,” he says. “It might not be a fun insight. But once you’re aware, it gives you the power to shift your network and to be more strategic about it. Awareness begets agency.”
On the flip side, it’s important for leaders—particularly white men and white women in professional spaces—to consider expanding their networks to people who do not necessarily look like them, McCaskill says. “Putting a little bit of effort into diversifying their networks could be a huge boon to careers of people three, four, five connections beyond.”