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Ditching work friends could be the best career move

Do not conform: mix with different types at work to get the most from your career.

Story highlights

  • Sticking with people from similar background at work could hinder your career, suggests study
  • Report identifies dangers of keeping a closed group of work friends
  • Companies should encourage employees to mix and diversify their friends and contacts

When starting a new job it is only natural to bond with people who share a similar background with you. But don't get too comfortable: sticking with your own kind can be a hindrance later in one's career, a new study suggests.

Whether consciously or not, people in the workplace gravitate toward others who share similar characteristics like ethnicity, gender and religion. This tendency to stick with people like yourself, known as "homophily," has been seen as a truism by sociologists for decades.

In the workplace, networks that result from homophily are initially helpful to get ahead, according to the study published by graduate business school, INSEAD.

When an employee first enters a career or organization, "they have little legitimacy, they have little formal power over anyone else. If these people talk to people who are like them, at least they will get some information," said Gokhan Ertug, one of the report's lead researchers and assistant professor of strategic management at Singapore Management University.

But the report shows that once an employee has moved up in the organization or demonstrated good work, staying with that first group of colleagues can hold them back.

"If you still insist on people who are like you, just contacting them, then in a way you're wasting the power, the legitimacy, the credibility you have," he said.

Work like a spy to be the best boss

Employees at an investment bank provided the case study for the report that compared how successfully subjects rose through the ranks compared to how much they associated with people of the same nationality. They chose banking because much of the work in this field is based on having the right information, and communication and networking are key.

Yet what is harder than recognizing the limitations of one's first work clique is stepping away from this network in favor of a new, more beneficial one. It's a move that could create awkwardness between old friends.

To avoid the appearance of heartlessly ditching once-useful colleagues, Ertug suggests joining a different team or project group, or rotating to a different position or office -- an option at many multinational companies. Such a change of environment would make the transition more palatable to old contacts.

Human resource experts and career advisers seem to agree that while minorities especially tend to form bonds with people in an organization who share commonalities, not knowing how to branch out can be a major hindrance.

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"People prefer to operate in their comfort zone, that's human nature. And I think that what's important to understand what got you to a certain level won't necessarily get you to the next level," said John Rice, the chief executive of Management Leadership for Tomorrow, a U.S.-based nonprofit that provides job coaching for minorities.

Rice says it would be most beneficial to have a "360 degree network" of high performers, meaning surrounding oneself with successful people who are more senior than you, at your peer level and working beneath you.

"If you are a woman, if you are an underrepresented minority, in most organizations (in the U.S.), those people are probably underrepresented at the top," he said. "Therefore if your strategy is only to focus on people who you have things in common with, then you run the risk of missing a lot of people who are either at the top or are on the way to the top."

Don't get carried away with work goals

Fern Ngai, the chief executive of Community Business, a Hong Kong-based consultancy that helps companies build inclusive workplaces, said support networks for specific groups like women, parents and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual) individuals are becoming more commonplace in the workplace in Asia.

But she says one important way for companies to hone talent is to encourage employees to diversify their networks. They can then learn about different career paths and understand the work of different teams within the company.

In many cases this type of broadened exposure could be facilitated by the company using networking events that bring a variety of staff members together, especially high-potential employees who can gain insight from high-level executives.

"Talent get inspired by this. So from an employer's standpoint, creating these networks and getting them to go out and interact I think is very important," Ngai said.

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