Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal

, Volume 25, Issue 4, pp 295–310 | Cite as

How Do Social Networks Influence the Employment Prospects of People with Disabilities?

  • Christopher R. Langford
  • Mark L. Lengnick-Hall
  • Mukta Kulkarni


We explore the role of social networks used by people with disabilities for finding employment. In addition, we outline obstacles to network building for those with a disability. We contend that this group is often constrained and they underutilize their networks during job searches. Both factors are likely to result in negative employment outcomes and contribute to the employment gap between those with and without a disability. We outline how key network characteristics such as homophily, tie strength, and centrality influence job search outcomes for those with a disability differently than for those without a disability. Furthermore, we propose that although individuals with disabilities develop and rely upon networks that are comprised of close bonds with similar individuals that are either unemployed or underemployed in lower status positions, optimal networks for employment purposes should consist of diverse acquaintances that occupy central positions and higher status jobs within organizations. Finally, we outline propositions to guide future research on this neglected topic and also suggest practical implications.

Key Words

Disability Job search Social networks Diversity Human resources 

Job seekers use many methods for obtaining employment, ranging from directly contacting employers to reading classified advertisements, using internet resources, participating in professional organizations, contacting labor unions, and using state and federal government employment services. They also talk to friends, family members, neighbors, acquaintances, teachers, former coworkers, and others, hoping to discover job openings and perhaps get a foot in the door. It is this last method—personal contacts—that is the focus of this paper and in particular the role that such networks play in the employment of people with disabilities (hereafter referred to as PWD).

Prior disability employment studies (e.g., Kulkarni and Valk 2010) primarily have examined employment outcomes resulting from formal job announcements—where a position is advertised to reach a broad pool of candidates, often containing a description of the knowledge, skills, and abilities associated with the task requirements of the position. However, many positions (as will be discussed later in this paper) are not filled through such formal organizational announcements and procedures. Instead, professional and personal contacts are leveraged to find potential employees. This may be considered to be a less formal but equally important aspect of the recruitment process. Disability research has largely overlooked this issue and little is known about the successes or limitations that those with a disability have in leveraging social networks for finding and securing employment. This paper seeks to take an important step in addressing this neglected issue.

In popular culture, the importance of social networks is often reflected in the expression: It’s not what you know; it’s who you know that gets jobs. An individual’s social network has been shown to play an important role in obtaining employment (e.g., Granovetter 1974; Montgomery 1991). A network is a set of nodes (actors) related to one another by a set of ties (bonds) that denote some important characteristic, such as communication, advice, power, or resource movement (Brass et al. 2004). According to Wasserman and Galaskiewicz (1994), a main objective of social network research is to study the interdependence and positioning of network “actors” and how these factors affect actors’ opportunities and behaviors. In the case of employment, network analysis provides an opportunity to study how different network attributes facilitate or hinder job information and candidate selection, just to name a few.

Researchers have examined a number of factors in social networks that seem to influence job search success (e.g., Granovetter 1974; Montgomery 1992). One significant finding from this research is that individuals who have many weak ties (acquaintance relationships) are likely to gain non-redundant job information that facilitates their job search process. This is contrary to conventional wisdom that primarily strong ties (close relationships) should result in surfacing more job possibilities. The thinking behind the latter assertion is that stronger relationships imply that the other party will work harder at seeking and matching the individual with job openings. The majority of the research on strong and weak ties has been conducted on samples of individuals who do not have any disability, as we indicate through later sections.

It would be inappropriate to generalize the employment findings of social network research to individuals with disabilities, or to generalize the findings and discussion of a few disability-related social network studies (e.g., Carey et al. 2004). However, even the samples used in the few disability-related social network studies are unique in both observable and unobservable characteristics. We thus do not have a generalized model of how social networks affect the employment outcomes of those with disabilities. Potts (2005: 22) states: “that job contacts should affect access to employment opportunities for persons with disability in the same way that they do for the general population seems quite plausible though it could be that some disabilities might pose such substantial obstacles to employment that social networks matter little, or not at all. It is also possible that networks might be more important for persons with a disability than for the general population.” Very little research has been done on this critical topic.

In this paper, we examine the role of social networks used by people with disabilities for finding employment. In contrast to previous research based on samples of individuals without disabilities, we contend that (a) it is difficult for people with disabilities to form social networks that lead to employment opportunities and that (b) people with disabilities may often be constrained by their social networks and may underutilize them as a method for obtaining employment. Both factors, we argue, may result in negative outcomes for people with disabilities and may contribute to the employment gap between this group of people and those without any disability (e.g., DeLeire 2000).

This paper makes four important contributions to our understanding of social networks in the context of job search for those with disabilities. First, by focusing on a yet unexplored set of employable people in the context of social networks, we extend the generalizability of previous social network research. For example, although we argue that weak ties may have similar positive outcomes for those with a disability in terms of obtaining employment, the creation and utilization of weak ties is likely to be different for individuals with disabilities. Second, we provide a framework for analyzing how people with disabilities may use social networks for obtaining employment. This framework may help further conversations for the implications of network research for other historically disadvantaged groups.

Third, we identify obstacles PWDs confront in establishing social networks. If PWDs have difficulty establishing social networks, then their ability to leverage these networks for job search purposes will be seriously impeded. Identifying obstacles to network building for those with a disability facilitates theory development regarding the recruitment of disadvantaged applicants through traditional means. Identifying and understanding obstacles also may help practicing managers and human resource professionals better tailor their recruitment practices to tap into all external labor pools. Additionally, the network shortcomings identified in this paper may aid in the enhancement of the assistance (e.g., interpersonal skills training) that vocational rehabilitation offer to their clients. Finally, we provide a set of propositions for guiding future research using social network analysis to address the employment prospects of PWDs. These propositions will also help human resource professionals examine their organizational policies and practices regarding the employment of those with disabilities.

The paper is organized in three broad sections. First, we review research on employment discrimination of those with disabilities. Next, we outline obstacles to forming networks and explain how a few key social network theory constructs help explain employment differences among those with and without a disability. We end with a discussion of the implications of our theorizing for both research and practice.

Barriers to the Employment of People with Disabilities

Even after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the employment rate of people with disabilities continues to be a fraction of that experienced by individuals without disabilities (Burkhauser and Stapleton 2004). For example, only 45.6 % of individuals with disabilities are employed in the United States, compared with 83.5 % of individuals without disabilities (Brault 2008). This gap in employment is also reflected across the globe (United Nations Factsheet on Persons with Disability 2009). Despite global policy making, the latest trends indicate the relative exclusion of those with disabilities in the workplace (World Health Organization 2011).

There are numerous possible contributors to this situation, including shortcomings in the hiring process, or biases against those perceived as stigmatized. For example, some research conducted in the European context indicates that though organizations wish to recruit people with disabilities, they may not directly and explicitly advertise this fact in order to treat all recruits as regular employees. Although the intention is benign, applicants with a disability may shy away from applying, not knowing if they are indeed welcome (Kulkarni and Valk 2010). Research in the United States also points to other factors that contribute to the incomplete assimilation of those with a disability in the workplace. Managers may not be aware of incentives associated with hiring those with a disability, or may fear the unknown (Lengnick-Hall et al. 2008). With regards to biases in the hiring process, recruiters may screen out those with disabilities considering them to be inferior applicants (Stone and Colella 1996; Stone and Williams 1997).

Research has documented that employers often discriminate, sometimes unconsciously, against job applicants with both visible and non-visible disabilities during the hiring process (e.g., Ravaud et al. 1992; Stone and Sawatzki 1980). One of the first steps that recruiters undertake is the screening of resumes and related documents, which often involves searches for negative information that disqualifies applicants (Stone and Williams 1997). This negative information can include a variety of factors, from previous work experience, length of employment, and other items found on resumes to the writing style and information contained in a cover letter. Research has shown that the mere mention of a disability in an application leads to the formation of biases against the applicant (Stone and Colella 1996). This might be due to a number of reasons, ranging from simply not wanting to deal with a person with a disability to concerns about the ability of the applicant to carry out the required job functions (Lengnick-Hall and Gaunt 2007; Lengnick-Hall et al. 2008).

Job seekers with a disability face particular obstacles in the employment process. For example, many physical disabilities are observable to others and invite stigmatization. Stone and Colella (1996) suggested that once a job applicant has been identified as being disabled, observers’ beliefs will be influenced by stereotypes attached to the disability. PWDs are likely to be viewed as having certain activity limitations. Such views constrain the number of jobs for which applicants will be considered qualified. Those with mental disabilities may also be subject to negative biases and stereotypes with regards to employment (Scheid 1998). Further, disability stereotypes affect the employment-related action undertaken by the applicants. Stone and Williams (1997) suggested that PWDs may conform to self-stereotyping in their employment searches and limit their search to jobs held by similar others. The end result is an ineffective employment process for both the applicant with a disability and the employer.

In addition to concerns about their ability to perform the task requirements of a position, those with a disability are also likely to confront other hostile reactions from those in the workplace. The extent to which a disability is visible and apparent to others has been suggested as having a major impact on others’ reactions: the more obvious the disability, the more negative the reaction (Stone and Colella 1996). Many disabilities meet this criterion. For example, many physical disabilities involving impaired muscle coordination and usage, including cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s disease, and paraplegia, might be considered visibly displeasing to others. These negative reactions in the employment process can result in rejection of the applicant and may also result in other biases during the interview and selection stages.

Overall, those with a disability experience a lower employment rate as compared with the overall population. This is due to shortcomings in human resource management systems and interactional and other biases and obstacles that appear throughout the recruitment and hiring process. We argue that apart from these obstacles, those with a disability may have trouble forming as well as leveraging social networks in obtaining employment.

Obstacles to Network Building for Those with a Disability

Our review of prior research points out three interrelated barriers that people with disabilities may face when trying to build social networks: (1) they may suffer from an outgroup status in social settings, (2) they may themselves play a role in staying on social peripheries, and (3) technology mediated interactions may inadvertently exclude them (e.g., those with visual disabilities may not derive as much benefit from networking websites such as Facebook).

Research shows that proximate interaction with those with a disability is avoided by those without disabilities; people maintain greater interactional distance and hold unfavorable impressions of those with a disability (Kleck 1969). Research further shows that both the interaction partners (Kleck et al. 1966) and the persons with a disability (Comer and Piliavin 1972) experience discomfort during social interactions and both sets of people try to terminate the interaction sooner. Interactional barriers and associated outgroup status (Shore et al. 2009), we argue, can stem from perceptions of low competence of those with disabilities (Boyle 1997) because of labeling and stigmatization (Wertlieb 1985), because of perceived differences based on identities of interaction partners (Tajfel 1981), and non-similarity (cf. Byrne 1971).

Those with disabilities in turn may include such negative expectancies in their self-concept (Kleck 1969) and can exclude themselves from social groups. Some research shows that individuals from disability rehabilitation groups express more positive evaluations of the normal (no disability) person and relatively more negative evaluations of the disability driven stigmatized group (Zernitsky-Shurka 1988). Those with disabilities also shy away from initiating legitimate help seeking interactions (Baldridge and Veiga 2001).

Technology, seen as such a ubiquitous part of forming, sustaining, and leveraging social relationships, may further pose barriers to those with a disability. For example, many job seekers may scour networking websites such as LinkedIn or Facebook to find or form relationships that can lead to knowledge about certain jobs, organizations, or about possible job interviews. These same websites may not be as easily accessible to those with severe visual problems. Career pages of certain organizations that elicit interactions from potential job seekers and hope to create social connections for these job seekers within the organization (Chatman et al. 2005) may also be used relatively less frequently by those with a disability. Technology usage patterns thus may hamper the creation of relational networks for those with certain disabilities.

Overall, people with disabilities face challenges to building social networks. Failure to overcome these obstacles may lead to deficient social networks that inhibit their employment prospects. We discuss these possibilities next.

Social Networks and Employment of Those with a Disability

Prior research has stressed the importance of networks in the job search process (e.g., Granovetter 1974; Montgomery 1991) for both employers and job seekers. Employers favor the use of informal networks for filling job vacancies (Rees 1966). In fact, Ruef (2003) noted that the number of positions filled without the assistance of active recruiting sources might be as high as 30 %.

There are many plausible reasons why employers may prefer to recruit via social networks. From the organization’s perspective, employee referrals oftentimes are the least expensive method of recruiting and are likely to attract applicants similar to the employees referring them (Fernandez et al. 2000). Thus employers are likely to benefit from soliciting referrals from high ability employees. Referrals also reflect upon the employees doing the referring. This implies that employees will most likely refer those who are good performers with desirable work traits, as the referral influences their own workplace reputation. In addition, Wanous (1980) suggests that those being referred receive realistic job previews from those employees who refer them, which may explain why this is a preferred method of recruitment.

For applicants with disabilities, the use of network contacts in employment searches has received some recent support. Carey and colleagues (2004) found that most (89 %) of the severely communicatively-challenged job applicants they studied used their social networks when trying to secure employment. Kulkarni and Lengnick-Hall (2011) in a more recent study have also documented how those with disabilities secured employment based on their social network contacts. This raises the possibility that social networks are equally or even more important for those with a disability in finding and securing employment as compared with those without a disability.

Network research focused on historically-disadvantaged job applicants has identified the benefit of using social networks to secure employment. For example, research has suggested that the use of contacts is the most effective method of landing a job for both women (Reid 1972) and minorities (Holzer 1987). Further, this line of research has identified part of the process (the social network characteristics) through which this occurs. The extent to which these characteristics have similar influences on the employment of PWDs is not known.

In the following sections, we borrow from this aforementioned body of network research and outline key social network attributes that can directly influence employment prospects of those with disabilities. Social network research has suggested that homophily (e.g., Mollica et al. 2003) tie strength (e.g., Fairchild and Robinson 2004) and centrality (e.g., Brass 1985) are social network characteristics that limit the employment and advancement prospects of other disadvantaged groups. We will argue in the remainder of this paper that these social network properties are also useful in examining employment challenges faced by job seekers with disabilities.


A characteristic gaining increased attention in social network research is homophily, which has been defined as the degree to which two or more connected actors in a network are similar in identity (Marsden 1988). The characteristic being compared between individuals need not be the same attribute across studies and depends on the research question(s) under investigation. Popular attributes that have been studied include gender, race, occupation, and wealth. Homophily in networks has been associated with a wide array of workplace outcomes such as norm enforcement (Rogers and Kincaid 1981), access to information (Granovetter 1973), and instrumental power benefits (Ibarra 1993).

Granovetter (1983), Ibarra (1993), and South and colleagues (1982) have suggested that homophily serves an important role in networks by providing crucial social support. This is likely because similar others can provide trust, reciprocity, and enhanced communication (Kanter 1977; Lincoln and Miller 1979). Many researchers have noted the general tendency for informal social and friendship ties to develop between people possessing commonalities (Ibarra 1993; Lincoln and Miller 1979; Tsui and O’Reilly 1989). Mehra and colleagues (1998) noted that this is specifically the case when such commonality inducing identity characteristics are rare in a social setting. This idea is supported by the finding that race promotes homophily in African-Americans’ (another historically disadvantaged social group) social networks when race was the most salient social identity (Mollica et al. 2003).

Much of the disability research (e.g., Stone and Colella 1996) has indicated that many disabilities are not only salient, but evoke labeling and negative reactions from others. It thus seems probable that individuals’ disabilities are likely to comprise a large part of such individuals’ social identities and images. Frable and colleagues (1998) have noted that stigmatized individuals often form relationships with similar others to generate social support and protect their psychological well-being. We found one recent study that supports this idea especially for those with disabilities (Kulkarni and Lengnick-Hall 2011). If this type of social bonding is a regular occurrence, then individuals who interact primarily with others who are similar to themselves may limit their own access to useful, non-redundant information and resources from dissimilar social contacts. It is further likely that such individuals form social bonds with similar others in disability training agencies, vocational or specialized educational schools or programs for those with a disability, or at public employment agencies.

This may hinder employment prospects for those with disabilities in their employment search, since such a high percentage of this group is already unemployed or underemployed. Research has suggested that disadvantaged individuals’ relationships that are homophilous tend to provide less instrumental benefits, such as information, advice, and resources (Ibarra 1993) while diverse networks are more likely to include individuals that have high status (Stoloff et al. 1999). This is noteworthy since the status of the job contact has been found to be positively correlated with the occupational status of the job seeker (Lin et al. 1981). The study by Ibarra (1993) also indicated that disadvantaged individuals’ homophilous networks are likely to consist of similar others that hold low-level organizational positions. This in turn may lead individuals to gain only information about positions at the lower levels of the organizational hierarchy and contribute to underemployment for disadvantaged groups, such as those with disabilities. This discussion leads to our first set of propositions.
  1. Proposition 1

    People with disabilities are more likely to leverage homophilous ties than non-homophilous ties in attempting to obtain employment.

  2. Proposition 1a

    People with disabilities who develop and leverage more diverse social ties for job search are more likely to obtain employment and less likely to be underemployed.


Tie Strength

Network structures often vary on another key characteristic: tie strength. Tie strength refers to closeness and level of interaction between two actors (Granovetter 1973; Hansen 1999; Levin and Cross 2004). Those with strong ties have more interaction with each other as compared with those who have weak ties. Although there is an element of subjectivity in determining the strength of an actor’s ties, the distinction is often useful in helping to explain differences in the flows of network information and material. Research has also discussed the strength of weak ties in providing diverse, non-redundant information (Brass et al. 2004; Granovetter 1974).

Granovetter (1973, 1974, 1983) demonstrated the effectiveness of weak network ties in providing useful job information. He explained that weak ties afford job seekers greater utility in the form of non-redundant information. Having access to multiple sources of information via acquaintances may allow job seekers to learn about multiple job opportunities that they otherwise would have no knowledge about. Further, research (Bryen et al. 2007) has indicated that most job vacancies utilize job referrals and job references, which oftentimes have weak tie connections with job seekers. The strength of weak ties can also be observed by examining potential limitations of strong ties. For example, strong ties require more time commitment to maintain than weak ties (Brass et al. 2004). In a society that places great value on time, maintaining strong ties suggests significant opportunity costs to those possessing such relationships.

Alternatively, strong ties provide some benefits not associated with weak ties. For example, strong ties may more willingly provide benefits (Burt 1992) and more complex knowledge (Hansen 1999) as such ties are based on deep trust among actors (Levin and Cross 2004). Individuals also spend more time in contact with their strong ties, and such ties are hence considered more helpful and accessible (Krackhardt 1992). Even though weak ties provide potentially more useful and non-redundant information (Granovetter 1973; Levin and Cross 2004), the trust and bonding developed through strong ties provides for greater levels of social support.

Research investigating another historically disadvantaged employment group—racial minorities—has found that strong tie relationships are particularly utilized in securing employment (Fairchild and Robinson 2004). Racial minorities are similar to PWDs in that both groups have outward characteristics that are often sources of stigmatization that hinder social interaction, including the employment search. Fairchild and Robinson (2004) noted that segregation often results in minorities having to rely on strong ties during employment searches due to the lack of weak tie connections with owners and hiring managers. The lack of weak tie connections limited the extent to which this marginalized group of individuals was able to obtain employment.

We extend these ideas to PWDs. Disabilities are likely to limit the extent of weak tie formation and utilization. Many disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, impose activity limitations that individuals may engage in and thus reduce socialization opportunities. Further, the stigmatization often associated with disabilities (Baldridge and Veiga 2001) may influence the extent to which PWDs voluntarily take part in networking opportunities or the extent to which current weak ties are utilized in the employment search. Only one research study so far by Carey and colleagues (2004) has demonstrated that applicants possessing severe communication disorders benefited the most from their weak ties in finding employment. However, this study was focused on a very small subsample of communicatively-challenged adults, and utilized a convenience sample of individuals potentially possessing an above average level of motivation and ambition.

Overall, disabilities are likely to limit the extent of weak tie formation and utilization. Alternatively, the accessibility, dedication, and trust of strong ties should motivate their involvement or mobilization during the employment process. As previously discussed, weak ties are associated with lower levels of trust when compared to strong ties. PWDs may feel that weak tie actors have a poorer understanding of their abilities and instead rely on salient stereotypes when forming ability expectations and making job suitability judgments about them. Additionally, given their relatively infrequent communication and interaction, weak tie actors should be less likely to initiate employment-related contact with PWDs—thus reducing reliance of PWDs on such ties for job information. This leads to our next set of propositions.
  1. Proposition 2

    People with disabilities are more likely to rely on their strong ties than their weak ties in attempting to obtain employment.

  2. Proposition 2a

    People with disabilities who develop and use more of their weak ties than their strong ones are more likely to be successful in obtaining employment and less likely to be underemployed.


The Interaction of Homophily and Tie Strength

Strong ties often occur among individuals possessing similar attributes (e.g., Ibarra 1993). Research has indicated that certain ascribed attributes, such as race, tend to promote homophily while other attributes, including education, do not have this effect (Marsden 1988). One possible explanation for this can be found when considering distinctiveness theory, as advocated by Mehra and colleagues (1998). According to distinctiveness theory, individuals tend to identify with others possessing similar characteristics when such characteristics are scarce in a particular context (McGuire 1984). In fact, racial minorities and women have been found to form strong homophilistic friendship and support ties in social contexts promoting such conditions (Mehra et al. 1998). Although adequate research is lacking on the network structures of individuals with disabilities we can suggest that similar findings are likely to be found.

Here, based on prior research (Kulkarni and Lengnick-Hall 2011) we argue that PWDs may form strong ties with others possessing a disability, based on perceptions and feelings of homophily. Those with disabilities feel like similar others understand their limitations and the specific challenges they face (Kulkarni and Lengnick-Hall 2011; Stone and Colella 1996). Such homphily and associated strong ties thus stem from the trust, dependability, and complexity of information that are exchanged and fostered in close relationships (Burt 1992; Hansen 1999; Krackhardt 1992; Levin and Cross 2004).

Although weak, non-homophilitic ties provide potentially useful and non-redundant job information and access to a more diverse set of job referrals to PWDs, the stigmatization and segregation that PWDs face are likely to foster strong tie connections with similar others. This leads to our third set of propositions.
  1. Proposition 3

    People with disabilities are most likely to leverage homophilic strong ties in attempting to obtain employment and most likely to be underemployed.

  2. Proposition 3a

    People with disabilities who use non-homophilic weak ties are most likely to obtain employment and least likely to be underemployed.



While the similarity (homophily) and strength of ties between the focal person seeking employment and her contacts is crucial, research also points out that network centrality of the contact is a determinant of employment seeking success (Brass 1984). Thus, the extent to which contacts of a PWD occupy central organizational positions may be extremely important. This is because social actors who occupy central positions in a network are potentially powerful given their greater access to and possible control over relevant resources. These resources may be physical in nature, such as financial resources, or they may be informational. Individuals occupying central positions within networks are generally considered to be leaders of their groups (Brass 1984).

The occupation of a position of leadership or centrality in networks brings with it opportunities for such individuals to positively (or negatively) influence a wide variety of decisions that are made within their organizations—including the potential selection of job candidates. Westmorland and Williams (2002) indicated that many organizational leaders in their study were instrumental in integrating individuals with disabilities into their organizations. Given the negative stereotypes often associated with many disabilities, leaders’ support seems crucial for PWDs’ employment prospects.

Freeman (1979) noted that centrality can be measured in three related ways: degree (the number of connections with others), betweenness (the extent to which the individual connects two other individuals directly or indirectly), and closeness (proximity with other actors). Although the three measures have unique attributes that are potentially useful in studying various social phenomena, the three measures suggest some common benefits for the purposes of this paper. The three measures indicate that centrality, however measured, provides the centrally located individual with more power and communication advantages in the workplace relative to non central actors. Likewise, on an aggregate level, such individuals are able to more efficiently and effectively communicate with the other actors of the network, given that they 1) have a higher degree of connectivity with actors as compared with non-central individuals, 2) possess higher betweenness than other employees, and 3) are more proximate to the set of workplace actors, and can engage in more intimate conversations. To the extent that information flows occur in organizational networks, central network actors are favorably situated to receive and disseminate information.

Having contacts that occupy central network positions within their organizations should be beneficial for any job applicant. This may be even more important for PWDs since contacts in central network positions can help them overcome discriminatory obstacles not faced by those without disabilities. Earlier in the paper we noted that disabilities often carry stigmas and stereotypes attached to them. This potentially influences the level of interaction a PWD may have with organizational recruiters and the extent to which the PWD can engage in impression management. In turn, the applicant is likely to be excluded from further hiring consideration. PWDs having central organizational contacts may benefit through the influence that the contact can exert either directly, by hiring them, or indirectly, through social influence on those charged with the hiring process.

Given the preceding discussion about the power and communication advantages possessed by individuals occupying central positions, the advantages afforded by these contacts are many. From a power perspective, the contact can leverage his organizational influence to either directly hire the job applicant or generate pressure on the individuals charged with the recruitment and selection process. Alternatively, the central contact may simply have access to job information that other employees in the organizational network do not have. The information is not only likely to be greater in quantity but also greater in diversity (in terms of functions and positions). In theory, a truly central organizational actor will be connected with all of the various departments, each having their own human resource needs. This diversity in job information is extremely important. Although the job applicant may be poorly qualified for certain job positions, the central contact may have the ability to sift through a multitude of job vacancy information to locate a position that matches the KSAs possessed by his contact (the job applicant with a disability).

We noted earlier that strong ties are less likely to hold negative stereotypes of their exchange partners and stand to affect attitudinal change (Fairchild and Robinson 2004). This influence ability is extremely important as it provides the PWDs with a legitimate internal advocate who has the authority and respect to persuade others to hire them. Thus a central contact person who is also pro-disability, holds favorable attitudes toward competencies and abilities of people with disabilities, and is an advocate for people with disabilities, will be quite helpful during the job search. Some research indicates that PWDs may benefit from professional, educational, and other social events where leaders or other centrally located actors may be in attendance (Carey et al. 2004; Kulkarni and Lengnick-Hall 2011). To the extent that PWDs develop ties with central organizational actors, the possible benefits offered during the job application process should be even more strengthened.
  1. Proposition 4

    People with disabilities who leverage centrally located social contacts (who are themselves advocates for hiring PWDs) are more likely to obtain employment and less likely to be underemployed.



How do social networks influence the employment prospects of people with disabilities? In this paper we have argued that the low employment rate of individuals with disabilities may stem in part from their ineffective creation and utilization of social networks. We assert that key network characteristics such as homophily, tie strength, and centrality influence job search outcomes for people with disabilities. These influences may be different for those job seekers with a disability as compared with those job seekers without any disability. In particular we have proposed that PWDs are more likely to form and leverage homophilous as well as strong ties in their quest for employment. However, such homophilic and strong network ties are likely to constrain information and hence negatively influence job search options of PWDs. Further, we have also proposed that people with disabilities are more likely to obtain employment when their focal contacts are centrally located in their organizational networks, and when those centrally located social contacts also are advocates for hiring PWDs. We believe that the ideas we have outlined in this paper provide a starting point for addressing the important issue of employment prospects of PWDs with regards to their social networks.

Theoretical Implications and Directions for Future Research

We have argued in this paper that empirical social network studies focused on disability factors in the employment process are noticeably absent in the literature. Thus, while we have taken a preliminary step in providing a framework for the network study of PWDs, we believe that social network analysis offers many more fruitful opportunities for research on the employment of people with disabilities. For example, our treatment of disabilities is notably generic. While this paper does provide a starting point for theoretical conversations, we acknowledge that there are many different forms of disabilities (e.g., intellectual, psychological) and different levels of disability severity (e.g., minor visual problems, severe limb atrophy) (Stone and Colella 1996) that also deserve examination. This is because the extent to which disabilities are concealable or directly applicable to work tasks may also influence the level of stigmatization that individuals may anticipate in the employment process. Such disability differences may also influence the type of network ties formed or mobilized for the employment search process. Thus, future research can theorize and test for these differences in disability type and severity. Such theory also has clear policy and organizational implications.

While we focused only on specific network characteristics to maintain boundaries of this paper, future theoretical conversations can focus on PWDs and their active role in breaking stereotypes or overcoming network liabilities. For example, while we have more or less focused on networks as constraints, it is quite likely that many PWDs are proactive networkers with strong positive personalities who can turn their networks into powerful self promotion tools in the employment process. Thus, the role of the PWD, past work experience, socio-economic status, and possible dual minority status of the PWD (e.g., a racial minority being a PWD) may add nuance to our proposed framework. Future research should explore how these factors influence PWDs’ employment prospects.

In addition to further employment network research, organizational disability research can be enhanced by using social network analysis to study other areas of interest to human resource scholars and practitioners. These issues might range from organization specific training and retention of PWDs. For example, how do organizational networks of PWDs influence their training opportunities or job performance, which may eventually influence their retention? Other research might also seek to determine effects of social networks on promotion possibilities and paths for PWDs. Considering that people with disabilities are the largest minority group across the world and a group that currently non-disabled individuals can become part of at any time (Lengnick-Hall 2007), the study of PWDs’ networks has much potential to inform organizational research.

Figure 1 summarizes our propositions and provides a framework for future research. Our framework can be viewed as providing an agenda for two major streams of research on how social networks affect the employment prospects of PWDs: (1) how do PWD attributes affect the formation of their social networks, and in particular their networks that can be used for obtaining employment? and (2) how do characteristics of PWD social networks affect their prospects for employment?
Fig. 1

Social networks and employment prospects of people with disabilities.

First, we propose that attributes of PWDs (in particular outgroup status, being on the social peripheries, and having constraints on access to forming relationships) have significant effects on the formation of social networks used for obtaining employment (what we define as PWD employment networks). Our view is that these PWD attributes will result in PWD employment networks that are (a) smaller in size, (b) more dense with more members in the network who already know each other, (c) a greater percentage of strong ties and a smaller percentage of weak ties, and (d) more homogeneous in composition due to more relationships formed with similar PWDs and fewer relationships formed with nondisabled individuals.

Second, we propose that characteristics of PWD employment networks have significant effects on the employment prospects of PWDs (becoming aware of job openings, being invited for interviews, being selected for jobs). Our view is that the predicted characteristics of PWD employment networks will result in fewer employment prospects for them. Specifically, smaller, more dense and more homogeneous networks, with a greater percentage of strong ties and smaller percentage of weak ties, reduce the opportunities for PWDs to become aware of job openings, obtain job interviews, and ultimately obtain employment. However, we propose that this relationship is moderated by the number of central connectors in the network, and in particular central connectors who are advocates for hiring PWDs. Central connectors, especially those who are advocates for hiring PWDs moderate the relationship between PWD employment networks and employment prospects.

Future research can empirically test ideas proposed here. For example, focus groups and in-depth interviews with those with a disability can help identify specific network characteristics that act as enablers or barriers to obtaining employment. Using social network tools, researchers can examine the degree or extent of homophily in the networks of PWDs. Interviews with employers can also help us understand the extent of disability hiring through networks or referrals. Conversations with both the applicant or employees with a disability and their employers can help us verify propositions presented in this paper. For example, we will then know if PWDs indeed develop and leverage more diverse weak social ties or homophilous strong ties in their search for employment. Characteristics of PWDs that have the potential to influence network formation and leverage can also be subject to empirical scrutiny. Such empirical research has clear practical implications, an area to which we turn next.

Practical Implications

Employers can draw upon ideas proposed in this paper to create a truly inclusionary recruitment process. First, employers and human resource professionals can cast a wider net and recruit in nontraditional places (e.g., in disability specific vocational schools or job fairs conducted specifically for those with a disability) to find hidden talent. This is especially important given that those with a disability may have difficulty forming diverse weak ties across traditional recruitment locations to showcase their abilities to potential employers and help secure a job. This is also important as someone with a disability may prove to be as effective an employee as someone without a disability (Stone and Colella 1996).

Second, employers can encourage existing organizational members to suggest names of those with disabilities during the referral process. Such an inclusive referral process may not only help employers find good talent, but may also turn the organization into a truly inclusive workplace. Third, employers can encourage centrally located actors who are also pro disability hiring and inclusion in the workplace, to be spokespersons along with human resource professionals, to sensitize all hiring managers to focus more on the abilities of those with disabilities. The words and actions of such central actors may not only reach many across the organization, but may also hold weight in terms of swaying popular perceptions towards true inclusion within the organization.

Finally, conversations such as those initiated in this paper may also hold implications beyond organizational boundaries. For example, such conversations and associated future research may suggest important changes in how vocational rehabilitation specialists implement programs and practices to assist those with disabilities in finding and securing employment. Greater emphasis on both identifying, expanding, and utilizing social networks should prove beneficial in addition to more traditional approaches. PWDs can likewise take a more educated, proactive, and targeted approach in shaping network formation opportunities for bettering their employment outcomes. This may include creating as well as taking advantage of opportunities to strengthen and expand their social networks.


The persistent employment gap between PWDs and those without a disability has remained a vexing problem for researchers and practitioners. Decades of research in vocational rehabilitation and related disciplines has failed to make significant improvements in the employment of individuals with disabilities. The application of social network analysis, offers a heretofore unexplored avenue for research. Moreover, findings from a research agenda focusing on PWDs’ social networks has the potential to find new opportunities for identifying training and development interventions that may facilitate individuals with disabilities in their already difficult pursuit of employment. Many organizational stakeholders, from the employer, to government agencies involved in policy making, to people with disabilities, are potential beneficiaries from such research.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Christopher R. Langford
    • 1
  • Mark L. Lengnick-Hall
    • 1
  • Mukta Kulkarni
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of ManagementUniversity of Texas at San AntonioSan AntonioUSA
  2. 2.Indian Institute of Management BangaloreBangaloreIndia

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