Is there a dark side to networking?

Following a recent research project, Nikos Bozionelos explains how professional social networks can give some staff an unfair advantage in their career progression

Social networks are natural to human nature. They are tools to improve our wellbeing and seek social support, but also achieve important professional and career outcomes, such as finding a job. Networking essentially means ties with others that provide us with information, influence and solidarity (those three resources together are known as social capital). 

The benefits of networking and social capital have been long documented. For example, we know they can help us find a job, gain a promotion or just feel better. For that reason, academics and specialists advise people to form and use networks to advance their interests.  

That celebratory spirit, however, led us to overlook the negative aspects of networks and social capital. Only recently have there been voices of concern about their ‘dark side’, specifically the possibility that they may help their members to achievements they do not deserve. This can often be at the expense of more able people who do not have access to these social resources. The dark side view, therefore, implies that social networks may be detrimental to the community (albeit beneficial to only a few people). 

The dark side of social networks was the focus of a research project conducted by a group of postgraduate students – Grégoire Bon, Yannis Kitouni, Lorine Lozachmeur, Etienne Monceau, Armand Senneville and Marwane Tahayassine – at emlyon business school, under the guidance of myself. The students used two methods, detailed questionnaires that were completed by more than 100 people in various positions and industries in France, and 11 interviews with similar profiles to those who completed the questions. The questions were covert and they did not explicitly mention the aims of the study. 

There were a number of key findings from the research:

  • Two out of three participants mentioned that they had used their networks/social capital to gain career advantages (promotion, favourable treatment by their employers). The social ties they had used would come from acquaintances and colleagues, but also from family members.
  • The majority described networks and social capital as ‘inequitable’: they considered that they do provide unfair advantages to some people – who have access to particular people because of their social position or abilities to form networks – over some others. They also believed that use of networks to achieve career and other advantages goes against meritocracy. 
  • Despite believing that networks introduce unfairness, most viewed the building and use of networks for career gains as a ‘rule of the game’ – as a necessity in a game with ‘winners and losers’. They saw it as a reality that cannot change. The belief of most was that if they do not try to take advantage of social relationships themselves someone else will and they’ll lose out. 
  • Participants would see the use of social networks to gain career benefits more negatively if someone used these exclusively for that reason. For example, someone approaching others to build relationships with the sole purpose of using these people for their own career benefits. 
  • Being part of a ‘closed’ or ‘exclusive’ informal network (such as cliques, coalitions, etc) was seen as very important for career progression and for achieving social status. Achieving and maintaining membership to such a network was also seen as worthy of sacrifices, and something to be proud of. It was seen as a source of pride because – according to participants – entering such a network demonstrates social skills, and acceptance by others shows personal worth. Some found membership into such ‘exclusive’ groups so important that they would sometimes even sacrifice their own personal interests in the short term to enjoy membership and acceptance. 
  • Participants recalled from their own experience that ‘exclusive’ networks sometimes require their members to engage in or witness unethical behaviours that go against their personal values. However, they were willing to engage in or tolerate (from others in the group) such behaviours rather than antagonise them. The reason for tolerating such situations was fear of ostracisation that could lead to them being removed from the group. The view was that if someone does not agree with the ethos or morals of the group then they should leave discreetly without ‘making a fuss’.

In a nutshell, the findings illustrate that the dark side of social networks is a reality in everyday professional life, and reveal many nuances in its dynamics. Maybe the most striking finding is that people consider it acceptable to tolerate unethical acts in exchange of membership to a network they see as important for them (such as a clique), and the ‘code of silence’ that appears to exist in such networks. 

Nikos Bozionelos is professor of international HR management at emlyon business school