Podcast: Is Networking Immoral?

Guest Post: Ned Dobos, University of New South Wales

This post is a summary of a talk presented by Dr. Dobos at the University of Oxford. Listen to the Podcast

Despite being ubiquitous in both the public and private sectors, “networking” has largely escaped ethical scrutiny. But is it the perfectly innocuous business and career-advancement strategy it is presumed to be? Let us concentrate on a specific kind of career networking: networking aimed at increasing one’s prospects of prevailing in a formal competitive selection process for a job or university placement. That is the end, so what is the means? How exactly is networking supposed to deliver this advantage? Experts tend to answer with at least one of the following responses: 1) networking is about building relationships with people that are (or might be) in a position to benefit your career; 2) networking is about demonstrating your worth to these people.

On either account, networking arguably involves seeking unfair advantage.

Let us begin with a relatively uncontroversial assumption: Jobs that are the objects of competition ought to be awarded on the basis of merit. That is, the job should go to whichever candidate is expected to fulfil its associated tasks most competently and efficiently—to be the most successful in the role and, thereby, to make the most valuable contributions to the organization, all things considered. Typically a number of things will factor into this equation: formal qualifications, experience, demonstrated work ethic, etc. Only such considerations, and only insofar as they are relevant to a candidate’s suitability for the position he or she is competing for, may be taken into account.
Accordingly, an applicant should not be favoured or disfavoured because of considerations that have nothing to do with his or her relative merit. This is why we object to discrimination in employee selection: gender, racial identity, sexual preference etc. have no bearing on a candidate’s ability to do the job. It is also why we object to nepotism—favour based on family or friendship ties.
Since non-merit-based favouritism is unjust, it stands to reason that we object to attempts to induce it. This is the wrong-making feature of bribery. When Andy bribes Barry to give him a job that many are competing for, Andy is attempting to induce Barry to consider things other than merit when making a decision that ought to be based on merit alone. Whether or not the bribe succeeds, it is nevertheless an attempt to distort the meritocratic allocation of positions that justice demands.

On the first understanding of networking mentioned above, it seems liable to a similar charge. The idea is to build a rapport with people that might be in a position benefit your career in the future; to endear yourself to them and win their goodwill. The main purpose of networking, on this view, is the ingratiation of the networker to the networkee. The effective career networker makes himself known to, and liked by, potential employers, selection panellists etc. If all goes according to plan, these people will take their fondness for the networker into account when making decisions that affect his/her career. That is precisely the point. If those decisions include the awarding of jobs that are the objects of competition, the networker will have successfully garnered non-merit-based favour. And even if his efforts fall flat or backfire, he has nevertheless attempted to gain not merit-based favour.

Importantly, the networker is not merely taking advantage of an existing anti-meritocratic distortion, as in the case of a woman who wears makeup to an interview in order to capitalise of implicit biases towards more attractive people. The networker actively cultivates an anti-meritocratic distortion.

But perhaps the first conception is mistaken. Perhaps the networker, rather than attempting to foster and benefit from non-merit-based favouritism, is simply trying to demonstrate that he/she is in fact meritorious.

Merit is a somewhat elusive concept that admits of narrower and broader conceptions, but I am using the term loosely to encompass those capacities and attributes that make someone capable of carrying out a particular job. Formal qualifications count, but (depending on the job), so might social and communication skills, confidence, assertiveness, and so on. The effective networker, one might argue, is putting these skills on display. Should he thereby impress his audience and be selected for jobs ahead of other candidates in future selection processes, he has achieved this by proving his merit, rather than by inducing the audience to consider things other than merit when deciding who to employ.

But even this more charitable understanding of networking raises ethical concerns. In other adversarial contexts where winning involves impressing or persuading judges, and there is a formal process that gives competing parties a structured setting within which to do this, a competitor that attempts to win the judges over outside of the formal process is considered to be seeking unfair advantage.

Take for example an attorney that telephones her presiding judge outside of formal legal proceedings to continue her advocacy for a client or to discuss the substance or merits of a case. This practice, known as “earwigging”, is regarded as a serious breach of legal ethics—contempt of court in fact. The earwig may not be attempting to introduce dubious considerations into the judge’s mind, but we object to her actions nevertheless. We object simply because she refuses to compete with the parameters of the formal process that has been established to regulate the contest fairly. Or take beauty pageants as another example. Each contestant is allocated a certain amount of time on stage to show off her brains, grace, poise, and bleeding heart. A contestant that makes contact with judges off-stage, in an attempt to impress them a supplementary demonstration of these qualities, is seeking an unfair advantage even in the absence of a formal rule prohibiting such conduct.

So what exactly is the problem with earwigging? Fairness demands that both parties in a court case have an equal opportunity to persuade the jury and/or judges. The formal legal process is designed to ensure this equality of opportunity. The earwigging attorney, by advocating in private, before the trial has begun or after the strike of the gavel has indicated the end of session, is effectively attempting to obtain more than an equal opportunity, and thus to consign the competition to less than an equal opportunity, which is unfair. In other words, the earwig impedes the ability of the formal process to deliver on its morally legitimate end of ensuring that both parties have an equal opportunity to make their case. He subverts the process by evading it.

Where a job is the object of competition, prevailing involves impressing a judge or judges. There is a formal process that gives competing parties an equal opportunity to do this. All candidates are invited to submit the same application blanks, to sit the same tests, the same interview procedure of the same duration, and so on. The aim is to ensure that all applicants have an equal opportunity to demonstrate their merit. This is the way it ought to be. The networker refuses to confine his competitive efforts to this formal framework. His strategy is to begin impressing prospective employers and selection panellists in advance of the official contest—to win points with the judges before the opening bell. Isn’t networking to personnel selection what earwigging is to legal proceedings?

However we characterise it, networking to increase one’s prospects of prevailing in a formal competitive process for a job or university placement looks like an attempt to gain unfair advantage. What makes the advantage illegitimate depends on which characterisation we run with. If networking is about building personal relationships to improve one’s prospects of beating out the competition, it is an attempt to cultivate non-merit-based favouritism and to that extent it shares one of the wrong-making features of bribery. On the other hand if networking is more about demonstrating one’s merit to prospective employers in advance of formal selection processes for particular jobs, it shares one of the wrong-making features of earwigging in legal advocacy.

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2 Responses to Podcast: Is Networking Immoral?

  • Chalmer Wren says:

    I did a google search for blogs and podcasts about ethics because I co-produced a podcast series on ethics for my podcast, The Mile high Sanity Project, because I was hoping to network in an effort to promote the content.

    This was the first result I looked at, and I find that extremely amusing.

  • Stuart Armstrong says:

    I agree, but I should probably bring up a positive side of networking, from the employer’s perspective. Quality of applicants is hard to judge, especially in an interview. If they’ve had interactions with the candidates before, they’re better placed to judge who might perform well – a non-networked candidate is more of an unknown, a risk (biases come into play, of course, but no more so than during an interview). And indeed there seems to be far more networking in jobs that require intangible qualities than in those where the needed qualifications are clear.

    What this means is that there is a demand for networking, from the employer’s side. So that aspect needs to be combated is networking is to be reduced.