Status and the Social Network
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Careers Mar 3, 2014

Sta­tus and the Social Network

Social sta­tus deter­mines how indi­vid­u­als approach oppor­tu­ni­ty under job threat

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research of

Edward (Ned) Smith

Tanya Menon

Leigh Thompson

If an employee’s first reac­tion to los­ing a job is one of dis­tress, the sec­ond is rec­og­niz­ing the need for an action plan to get back to work. Typ­i­cal­ly that plan involves con­tact­ing friends, acquain­tances, and asso­ciates who might assist in the hunt for a new job.

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A new research project by Kel­logg School fac­ul­ty mem­bers reveals a crit­i­cal nuance of this process: We claim that job threat is lead­ing peo­ple to use net­works in dif­fer­ent ways,” says Edward (Ned) Smith, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions. Specif­i­cal­ly, the project shows that indi­vid­u­als approach their sup­port net­works dif­fer­ent­ly depend­ing on their per­ceived socioe­co­nom­ic sta­tus. Those who see them­selves as belong­ing to a high socioe­co­nom­ic lev­el acti­vate sig­nif­i­cant­ly broad­er net­works when exposed to the threat of job loss, while those who regard them­selves as low-sta­tus indi­vid­u­als remem­ber their net­works as being small­er and more dense than they are in real­i­ty. Accord­ing­ly, If I’m a high-sta­tus per­son under a threat, I’ll be in a bet­ter posi­tion poten­tial­ly to find the next job than a low-sta­tus per­son under threat,” says Leigh Thomp­son, a pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and organizations.

The dif­fer­ence does not reflect dif­fer­ent­ly sized sup­port net­works. Rather, the project reveals, high­er-sta­tus job seek­ers typ­i­cal­ly reach out to a wide range of con­tacts, includ­ing indi­vid­u­als they have met only occa­sion­al­ly in their work­ing lives. Low-sta­tus peo­ple, by con­trast, tend to share their sit­u­a­tion with only their clos­est asso­ciates, such as fam­i­ly mem­bers and old friends.

When peo­ple who per­ceive them­selves as hav­ing high sta­tus face job loss, they remem­ber the weak ties more than they oth­er­wise would have,” Smith says. This is impor­tant because, as pri­or research has shown, weak net­work ties are impor­tant sources of job-relat­ed infor­ma­tion. Low-sta­tus peo­ple under the same threat have exact­ly the oppo­site response; they go to dense, strong ties,” Smith con­tin­ues. He and Thomp­son car­ried out the study with for­mer Kel­logg School fac­ul­ty mem­ber Tanya Menon, now at Ohio State University.

A Basic Conun­drum

The project stemmed from a conun­drum that had emerged in stud­ies of job seek­ers. The lit­er­a­ture indi­cates that peo­ple search­ing for jobs find occa­sion­al ties most use­ful. Most peo­ple get jobs through weak ties,” Smith explains. &ldquoldquo;Contrast that with an intu­itive feel­ing that when we’re under threat we tend to close in and con­fide only in peo­ple clos­est to us.” That raised two ques­tions: If we face the threat that we might lose our jobs, do we turn away from our weak ties?” Smith asks. And does the deci­sion have anoth­er com­po­nent — for instance, is there a sys­tem­at­ic dif­fer­ence in the way that dif­fer­ent peo­ple respond to the threat of job loss?”

In their arti­cle, the researchers illus­trate these points with two exam­ples. A Detroit autowork­er who lost his job immersed him­self in his web of close rela­tion­ships,” strength­en­ing links with his friends, par­ents, and pas­tor. By con­trast, a Har­vard Busi­ness School grad­u­ate laid off from his job as vice pres­i­dent of a high-tech­nol­o­gy firm made three new con­tacts per day, start­ing with a col­league he had not spo­ken to in eight years.” In oth­er words, the GM line work­er nar­rowed down the list of peo­ple who might help him find work, while the HP vice pres­i­dent expand­ed his cir­cle of contacts.

But why did the two take such dif­fer­ent approach­es? The team set out to deter­mine how indi­vid­u­als at dif­fer­ent social lev­els go about acti­vat­ing their social net­works. They first dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed among types of social net­works: A poten­tial net­work is the full set of con­tacts indi­vid­u­als have at their dis­pos­al. An acti­vat­ed net­work is a sub­set of the poten­tial net­work that comes to mind in a giv­en sit­u­a­tion, such as job loss. And the mobi­lized net­work is a fur­ther sub­set from which indi­vid­u­als actu­al­ly seek help. Break­ing these out was impor­tant to dis­cov­er what lights up for peo­ple when they are under threat,” Thomp­son notes.

Two Sources of Data

First the researchers ana­lyzed data about 806 indi­vid­u­als who were sur­veyed in 1985 by the Gen­er­al Social Sur­vey (GSS), a nation­al sur­vey of Amer­i­can adults that con­tains infor­ma­tion on such fac­tors as social and pro­fes­sion­al sta­tus. The analy­sis indi­cat­ed that indi­vid­u­als who regard­ed them­selves as high-sta­tus report­ed hav­ing larg­er, more-var­ie­gat­ed net­works of indi­vid­u­als with whom they dis­cussed impor­tant mat­ters when they also felt that their job might be in jeop­ardy dur­ing the next year. Self-per­ceived low­er-sta­tus peo­ple report­ed small­er, denser net­works when under this threat, com­pared with unthreat­ened indi­vid­u­als of the same status.

Indi­vid­u­als who regard­ed them­selves as high-sta­tus report­ed hav­ing larg­er, more-var­ie­gat­ed net­works of indi­vid­u­als with whom they dis­cussed impor­tant mat­ters when they also felt that their job might be in jeopardy.

How­ev­er, this result can be inter­pret­ed in sev­er­al ways. While job threat may indeed cause these dif­fer­ent respons­es by high- and low-sta­tus job seek­ers, there is also the pos­si­bil­i­ty of reverse causal­i­ty: the chance that small­er social net­works might lead peo­ple to believe that they face greater threat to their job secu­ri­ty. The team also won­dered whether indi­vid­u­als of dif­fer­ent sta­tus had dif­fer­ent emo­tion­al reac­tions to job threats.

To address those fac­tors, the researchers set up an exper­i­men­tal study using 108 vol­un­teer col­lege stu­dents. First, they asked the stu­dents to assess their social sta­tus. Next, they ran­dom­ly assigned the vol­un­teers to imag­ine feel­ing either secure or high­ly inse­cure about keep­ing a dream job. Final­ly, they posed a series of ques­tions about the vol­un­teers’ respons­es to their assigned sit­u­a­tions. The results ruled out both reverse causal­i­ty and the role of dif­fer­ent emo­tions as caus­es of the dif­fer­ence between high-sta­tus and low-sta­tus people’s use of their social net­works. Indi­vid­u­als who iden­ti­fied them­selves as low­er sta­tus reduced the size of their net­works when they faced the threat of job loss, nam­ing few­er con­tacts than usu­al. In con­trast, self-per­ceived high-sta­tus par­tic­i­pants under threat expand­ed their net­works; they increased the num­ber of their con­tacts and reduced inher­ent redun­dan­cies in the networks.

Per­son­al Impact

The team’s find­ing seems like­ly to have more impact at the per­son­al lev­el than on employ­ment pol­i­cy. We don’t think these data can change unem­ploy­ment on a large scale,” Thomp­son says. How­ev­er, for low­er-sta­tus indi­vid­u­als, sim­ply per­ceiv­ing them­selves to be of a high­er sta­tus could put them in the mind­set to acti­vate a larg­er network.

Boss­es who have to lay off their employ­ees should also bear these find­ings in mind. They should under­stand that low­er-sta­tus peo­ple may behave in a less opti­mal way and ask them­selves: How can man­agers work to coun­ter­act that?’” Smith advis­es. When faced with the unfor­tu­nate task of hav­ing to lay some­one off,“ he adds, respon­si­ble man­agers may work to remind employ­ees to uti­lize all the resources in their social net­works to find sub­se­quent employment.”

Featured Faculty

Edward (Ned) Smith

Associate Professor of Management & Organizations, Associate Professor of Sociology (Weinberg College, courtesy)

Leigh Thompson

J. Jay Gerber Professor of Dispute Resolution & Organizations, Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Writer

Peter Gwynne is a freelance writer based in Sandwich, Mass.

About the Research

Smith, Edward Bishop, Tanya Menon, and Leigh Thompson. 2012. “Status Differences in the Cognitive Activation of Social Networks.” Organization Science. 23(1), pp. 67-82.

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