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Less is more: Why you might want to have fewer people in your professional network

Dive In
  • Writer's picturePeter Harris

It may sound counter-intuitive to suggest that you might benefit from having fewer professional contacts and a smaller network, but it is true.

The prevailing wisdom has been to network your way to new and often unadvertised opportunities for years. The more connections you have, the more of these potential employment options will come your way.

There is some truth to this, of course. Many of the opportunities I have had for career advancement have come through my network.

But there are pitfalls as well, and this is why you might want to take a critical eye on your professional connections. Often, we accept – or extend – online connections (particularly LinkedIn) to as many of our previous coworkers as we can. Again: the bigger your network, the more connected you look, the more impressive you can be to future potential employers.

But take a moment to think about your relationship with each of those coworkers, managers, and contacts. Did you have a completely positive professional experience working with them? Or were there any – even minor – conflicts, communication lapses, or personality clashes?

You might think minor incidents don’t matter very much between people in your network, since you won’t be using them as an actual reference anyway. However, you might be using them as a reference without even knowing it.

Here’s what brought this to mind. Employers are being extra cautious with their screening process during the current COVID crisis. With less opportunity to meet with candidates and assess their character face-to-face, they are conducting more in-depth background research during the vetting phase of recruitment.

On two occasions since the pandemic struck, I have been contacted by recruiters that I know personally asking for my opinion of candidates they are considering. The thing is, these candidates hadn’t used me as a reference. The recruiters just saw that I was a mutual connection on LinkedIn, and since they knew me – and I had worked with their potential hire – they reached out.

One of them, I was happy to speak highly of, but I struggled with what to say about the other. I had witnessed her numerous projects fail, served as a shoulder for her distraught – and bullied – staff to lean on many times, and while our working relationship was always professional, it became increasingly less friendly over the time worked together.

I would never use her as a professional reference, and of course, she would never use me. But here I was on the phone with a recruiter being asked to assess her abilities and interpersonal skills. I tried to be as positive as possible, but the recruiter could tell that I had reservations.

Recruiters don’t only call the references you hand over to them. They check your social media, Google you, and speak with any of their connections who may have worked with you in the past.

So, don’t make it easy for them to hook up with the weaker links in your connections. If you have any previous managers, colleagues, or connections that wouldn’t have – at the very least – a neutral impression of you, you might want to consider removing them from your profile.

It would be better to have slightly fewer connections and a smaller network than to leave a trail of breadcrumbs for recruiters to follow to a former coworker who might – for whatever reason – have a negative impression of your work.

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