Indonesia | Economics

Friday, December 08, 2006

On giving recommendations

Case One: Just yesterday, my boss asked me to recommend a good survey institution. I have before heard another friend, a survey expert that I trust, mentioning the name of a firm. That was the name that I suggested without qualification.

But she had conflicting information regarding the quality of this firm. Instinctively, I wanted to defend my recommendation, even though I really didn't have too much information about the survey firm. I quickly realized this and told her that, honestly, I didn't really know much of this firm.

Case Two: A few months ago, I was asked to recommend a friend to do a certain job. I know a friend who qualified, but I know him too well that I had to offer some qualifications about his competence. It didn't come out right the first time, so I had to qualify my qualifications.

I must have sounded more confident when recommending a firm that I do not know than when recommending a friend that I do know rather well. If the person asking is not critical, it is likely that s/he would have hired the firm in Case One, and not my friend in Case Two. This is just an example of what is called the strength of weak ties - a hypothesis proposed by sociologist Mark Granovetter.

Granovetter argued that an individual person tend to get access to job opportunities through their "weak ties", namely others with whom this individual have only casual relations - "acquaintances" instead of "close friends". The idea is that "[acquaintances], as compared to close friends, are more prone to move in different circles than oneself" so that they can offer a greater set of information compared to close friends.

I have my own spur-of-the-moment take on this. Another possibility of why weak ties work better in providing employment information is that weak times make us assume very little about our acquaintance - about his/her fit in the job offered, etc. When honest people are asked about something, especially from their supervisors, they have the incentive to give out the best information that they have.

When the information they have is nothing more than "it's a good (person/firm)", that's the information that gets transmitted. But when there is more information than that, one tends to want to include that information - and often that information is "noisy" from one's interpretation of the recomendee's characteristics. This might have resulted in the exclusion of some possible matching opportunities.

Anyway, I recommend Granovetter's paper. Unlike economists, most sociologists can write and their writings are, relative to economists', much more readable and enjoyable.

PS: As I was browsing Weakties's blog, I found this entry which tempts me to buy this book.


  • arya - i think your comment is a bit odd. isn't it true that more information always better?

    By Anonymous weakties, at 12/13/2006 08:15:00 am  

  • Weakties,

    It's a principal-agent problem. My useful set of information is of course useful for my boss. The problem is that of incentive: Do I have the incentive to tell him/her the full information set?

    My incentive is to be considered helpful by both my boss and my friend. To be considered helpful by my boss, I need to convince him/her that I have divulged all that I know about a certain candidate.

    If the candidate isn't somebody I know well, an "it's good" answer is adequate, even it's wrong. It isn't adequate if the boss knows that I know this candidate.

    If I were a practical boss, having to choose two candidates, one with an unblemished recommendation from a casual recommender vs. one with some weaknesses from a recommender that knows him/her well enough, which one will I choose?

    My hypothesis is that practical bosses will more often choose the former (with a view that s/he can fire him/or afterwards if things don't work out). This is, I think, particularly true if the number of applicants is large and employees are easily replaceable.

    Anyway, I need to sort the idea out. More comments are welcome.

    By Blogger Arya, at 12/31/2006 06:11:00 pm  

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