Conventional wisdom says that, “Good people know good people.” So it naturally follows that the most common question in recruiting is, “Who do you know who might be good for this job?” Good people will inevitably lead you to other good people, right?

But what if, “Good people know good people” was more untrue than true? What if it’s really a “tip of the iceberg” situation, where the visible part of the statement that’s true is so much smaller than all the hidden assumptions underneath the statement that are not true?The visible part is easy. We all have evidence to support it. When you hire someone you know, it can be less risky than hiring a stranger. Whether you worked in the same organization or just volunteered with someone, you probably know more about them than you would learn in a typical interview. So yes, it’s true. Good people do know good people. 

But it’s not that simple. There’s quite a bit missing from the argument that, “Good people know good people.” The frame of reference is far too small. The five simple words overlook the fact that:

  • Good people never know ALL the good people.
  • And of the people they do know, they rarely remember or recommend ALL the people who should be considered.
  • Good people aren’t necessarily good at matching people to jobs
  • And they don’t have ANY idea how the people they know compare to the people they don’t know.

So no matter how well connected anyone is, they only ever meet a fraction of the potential candidates for any particular open job. And we all have preferences and biases about the kinds of people we might recommend. And none of us have any idea about the people we’ve never met. So whenever I ask anyone, “Who do you know who might be great for this job?” their answer is always limited by:

  • Their desire to take any time to help me with my question.
  • The size of their circle of friends.
  • Who they actually remember from their circle of friends.
  • The depth of what they remember about someone they worked with years ago.
  • The context of the work environment in which they observed someone else’s work.
  • Their understanding of your open job and their ability to discern who might be a fit
  • The kind of people they happen to enjoy working with.

When you add up all those unspoken limitations, the limitations are bigger than the true part. The biggest part of the iceberg is invisible.

When you look at the larger context, “Good people are an unreliable way to find other good people” is a more accurate statement.

So, to keep from fooling yourself, if you want to keep playing the “Who do you know?” game, just give voice to the limitations of it. To that end, please allow me to offer you a more complete question:

“If you don’t mind me interrupting you, and you are willing to spend time with me on this question, who have you ever worked with for long enough that you could actually comprehend the totality of their skills, and have you taken the time to carefully evaluate their ability to thrive in a completely different context such as the one I am proposing to you now? And precisely what are your qualifications to evaluate someone’s ability to succeed in a different work environment? Have you left anyone out from the list of people you are recommending, and is that because of a personal preference of yours that you may not even be aware of? Do you know if I share that personal preference? Have you ever considered just how many people you do not know? And, if you are even qualified to judge them, please evaluate the abilities of the person you are recommending relative to the population of other qualified people?”

But if you are a recruiter, and if you are talking to a stranger, I suppose that question could be a bit more uncomfortable to ask.