Skip to navigationSkip to content

If you weren’t head-hunted or referred, it’s hardly worth applying for that new job

AP/Jae Hong
If you’re at a job fair, you may already be in trouble.
By Max Nisen
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

If you’re looking for a new job, skip the job boards and online applications. Start by reaching out to everyone you know.

Most new hires don’t come through the traditional application process, according to a new San Francisco Fed paper highlighted at The Wall Street Journal (paywall). The researchers found that about three quarters of people that get new jobs haven’t actively looked or applied for a job in the previous three months, meaning they were probably poached or referred.

The research is not terrifically recent—it comes from a supplement to the Current Population Survey, a monthly survey of tens of thousands of US households, conducted in 1995, 1997, 1999, 2001, and most recently 2005. But the results are pretty staggering, and the gap may be even wider now:

Even among unemployed people, 63.1% of those who got hired hadn’t been actively searching. Nearly half of jobs get filled before a company even publicly posts them. Poaching and referrals are the most obvious explanation for this data.

“First, workers may be poached and switch employers even if they were not looking for new employment,” the researchers write. “Second, people are more likely to be recruited if they have a current job and an established network and track record.”

Those going straight from one job to another were also more likely to stay within their fields. Of non-searchers who switched jobs (people who were likely recruited or poached) 60% stayed within their own industry, compared with just 40% of active searchers.

There’s reason to believe that this trend has accelerated since the time of the surveys. For employers, it’s increasingly easy to cherry-pick potential candidates working for competitors, assess examples of their work product online (somewhere like Github, for engineers), and then track them down via social media or through services such as LinkedIn.

And new companies have sprung up to facilitate recruiting people who aren’t actively searching. Entelo, founded in 2011, not only makes possible hires easier to identify, but also uses data analysis to sort out which employees at other companies are most likely to leave, says CEO Jon Bischke. ”If you see someone at a company that’s been acquired, they’re changing information on their social media profiles, and they’ve they’ve been somewhere for a couple of years, this person is probably on the move,” Bischke says.

As it becomes easier to pinpoint and target potential hires across the labor market, job boards and online application portals have ramped up the volume of unsolicited applications, which can overwhelm hiring managers with piles of wholly unknown candidates’s resumes.

This data supports what past research and company behavior suggests, that companies seem to greatly prefer referred candidates:

Referrals have the benefit of coming pre-vetted in some sense, and research suggests that people hired this way tend to stick around longer and outperform other types of hires. To encourage the practice, some companies offer large cash incentives to employees who refer good people.

And poaching is appealing because the best performers, the ones that can actually make a real difference, aren’t likely the ones applying with the masses. They’re probably employed at a good organization and paid pretty well, and have to be pried away. That’s expensive, but so are training, screening thousands of resumes, and bad hires.

It all adds up to a pretty grim outlook for people new to their fields, or those applying to jobs without much of a network.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.