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Job Networking in Diverse Communities

Research to Practice 37


Originally published: 4/2005

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Despite some advances in the employment of people with disabilities, only 35 percent of Americans with disabilities have full- or part-time jobs, compared to 78 percent of those without disabilities (National Organization on Disability/Harris Survey of Americans with Disabilities, 2004). While individuals with disabilities face many obstacles when seeking employment, there are usually more challenges for those from diverse cultures, who are typically employed at even lower rates, for less pay, and for fewer hours than people with disabilities in general. Another one of these major challenges is the difficulty members of these communities have using networking techniques. Networking is a viable employment strategy that has been proven to yield positive results when used in conjunction with other job search methods.

To address this issue, the Making Connections project based at the Institute for Community Inclusion (ICI) formed a unique partnership with four community-based immigrant organizations. Our goal was to introduce and broaden personal and professional networking techniques among Massachusetts job seekers from African-American, Haitian, and Latino backgrounds to help them find jobs with better pay and more hours.

This brief, which is based on an analysis of focus groups and on our experience implementing a networking curriculum, offers insights and a broad perspective on how enhanced networking strategies can be used in diverse communities to help people with disabilities find better jobs and increase their integration into their communities.

The Four Community-Based Organizations Linked to This Initiative

Dunbar Community Center (DCC). DCC is a nonprofit community-based agency located in the heart of Mason Square, an economically deprived community of Springfield, Massachusetts. The center was founded in 1913 to empower individuals from diverse cultural groups in Springfield to secure their rights and claim their dignity. DCC is especially well-regarded for its outreach and services for people with disabilities and their families from African-American and Latino backgrounds.

Haitian American Public Health Initiatives, Inc. (HAPHI). Founded in 1989, HAPHI was incorporated by a group of Haitian-American health care professionals to address the gaps in health education and services for Haitians living in the metropolitan Boston area. Their work initially involved the church, health fairs, presentations to Haitian students in public schools, and a broadcast radio program that discussed public and disability issues affecting the Haitian community. In recent years, HAPHI has expanded its services and supports to include Haitian individuals with developmental disabilities and their families.

Casa Primavera. Casa Primavera, the only Latino clubhouse program in Massachusetts, is a psychosocial rehabilitation community-based program located in Boston that provides supportive skills and skills development services for older individuals with mental health conditions who are seeking transitional, supported, and competitive employment. Training is provided to members in the following areas: recovery, staying healthy, GED preparation, employment, resume writing, computer literacy, Social Security benefits, and other activities related to the job search.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center (MLK). MLK is a community-based organization founded in August 1969 to serve the needs of the Springfield community and the surrounding area. MLK has a core set of "family-centered" services as well as expanded services in the areas of education, recreation, social services, health care, and disability issues. The staff has been particularly dedicated in supporting young people with disabilities and their families to pursue training and employment goals in their communities.

How Different Communities View Networking

In the United States, networking has been defined as
...talking with many people to learn about job openings faster. It involves telling people about the kind of work you want to do, and about past experiences you have had. It also means asking people about their work and employers, and requesting the names of other people who might be willing to offer information as well. This process lets you gather information and eventually provides you with opportunities to speak with prospective employers (Gandolfo, 1999).

The term "networking" is hard to translate from English to other languages such as Creole or Spanish. At times, it may be confused with and linked to the world of technology. Though the term does not exist in the Latino or Haitian languages, the closest equivalent to the concept is "estableciendo conexiones" in Spanish and "koneksyon" in Creole. For this reason, it is important to use other phrases such as "talking to people you know (or don't know) in your neighborhoods" or "using connections that you already have to inquire about jobs and opportunities."


Cultural Nuances in Networking

Finding a job in this country is not easy, and a person who has a disability and comes from a diverse culture faces even greater challenges. Although research has shown that the use of personal networks is the best strategy for finding a job, many people with disabilities from diverse cultures underutilize networking techniques.

The following lists cultural factors that may contribute to the underuse of personal and professional networks in diverse communities.

Cultural Factors That Contribute to the Underuse of Networks

Issue: Limited size and diversity of networks.
Community Examples: Recent immigrants and job seekers with disabilities have smaller networks consisting mostly of family and friends.

Issue: Limited work and training experiences or exposure to jobs.
Community Examples: Some job seekers have never have worked before and may not have a reference point for a job that they want. Therefore, it may be difficult for some individuals to respond to questions about their "dream job."

Issue: Discomfort in approaching people they don't know.
Community Examples: Most job seekers show higher levels of comfort talking to personal networks (i.e., family and friends) versus strangers or employers.

Issue: Frustration with the prolonged nature of the job-seeking process.
Community Examples: Many job seekers become frustrated with the long-term process of finding a job, especially when they expect immediate results.

Issue: Preference for familiarity with the potential employer and/or a common language.
Community Examples: In ICI's study, people spoken to needed to be people job seekers knew and were comfortable with. For job seekers from Casa Primavera and HAPHI, the language barrier also played a part in their selection of contacts.

Issue: Discomfort with speaking boastfully about oneself during job interviews.
Community Examples: The job seekers from Casa Primavera indicated that speaking well about oneself could be considered boasting. This was brought up in HAPHI as well and may be a general cultural issue among diverse populations.

Issue: Varying acceptance for discussing work experiences during networking and career exploration.
Community Examples: For some job seekers, asking about a network member's work experiences may be considered rude or intrusive.

Issue: Varying locus of network members.
Community Examples: Springfield participants' networks were heavily church-based; HAPHI participants' were friends (fellow immigrants) and often immediate (nuclear or very close) family; in Springfield, participants had a significant extended family focus (aunts, uncles, etc.).

Issue: Language and communication barriers.
Community Examples: Communication, both verbal and non-verbal, was considered a difficult aspect of networking for job seekers from Haitian and Latino backgrounds because of their lack of English-speaking skills and interactions.

Considerations When Assisting Job Seekers from Diverse Cultures

One important challenge when introducing job networking skills to diverse cultures has been the difficulty of blending approaches used in the American culture with those common in diverse communities. For example, differing value systems and attitudes, life experiences and priorities, and responses to authority-to name a few-may make the job search more difficult.

In general, many job seekers with disabilities from diverse cultures possess limited facilitation skills to approach employers to inquire about jobs. In addition, many Spanish-speaking participants from Casa Primavera had not conducted a job search for many years due to their disability (mental illness). For this reason, many participants needed hands-on instruction and support in identifying job openings, conducting a job interview, and/or talking to people about their jobs. Similarly, many of the participants at HAPHI, Dunbar, and MLK had little or no job or career exploration experiences and therefore needed more assistance in taking steps in their job search and planning their careers.

We found that some Latino and Haitian individuals considered it improper to talk openly about oneself or to ask questions about another person's work. These factors were not as much of an issue for African-Americans at Dunbar and MLK. In other cases, some participants experienced low self-confidence and self-esteem and, for this reason, found it difficult to "sell" themselves to an employer, regardless of their skill sets.

Building Networks: Formal and Informal Approaches

The way people network can vary significantly depending on their culture. Although the use of personal and professional networks is critical in finding jobs in this country, people from diverse communities, particularly those with disabilities, often prefer talking to people in their own established networks rather than approaching new contacts outside of their circles. In some cultures, networking within the immediate community, such as with friends, family, and neighbors, comes naturally. In others, it is more appropriate to network outside of the immediate group and reach out to a more formal network, such as the business and professional community.

For example, in the HAPHI group, some young adults were hesitant to talk to certain people in their informal networks (e.g., mother, sister, church pastor) and actually preferred discussing their job search with people outside of their group (i.e., formal networking) to prevent conflicts and potentially keep their privacy. The Dunbar young adults, on the other hand, were less hesitant to approach people within their group (informal networks) and were able to expand their job search efforts more comfortably in this way.

Attending a job fair is another excellent networking venue for young job seekers, especially if they have had little work experience. MLK organized a job fair in Springfield for young job seekers and the community at large. At this event, young adults with disabilities from African-American and Latino backgrounds participated in a range of activities that included telling employers about their skills and interests, learning about different employers and businesses, filling out applications, and asking employers questions about their companies and job openings. Many were rewarded for their efforts by making connections with future employers.

Venues for Networking: How to Build a Community Network

In many diverse communities, job seeking by "word of mouth" and just talking to other people in a job seeker's inner circle helps form useful networks. Churches and other faith-based organizations (e.g., synagogues, mosques, temples) also served as popular "places" for networking for participants from Dunbar, MLK, and HAPHI. For example, one community member in Springfield stated, "It was when community members got together in less formal networks that we really learned what was available in the larger world." Participants at Casa Primavera, on the other hand, had less opportunity to network at their houses of workshop since, compared with their peers, they came from smaller networks and were more isolated due to both disability and language barriers.

Community-based immigrant organizations also provided important networking opportunities for Dunbar, HAPHI, MLK, and Casa Primavera groups, acting as a cornerstone for job seekers and enabling them to make social and professional connections and access information. For example, a community member at Dunbar stated that "hobbyism" (i.e., special interest activities) was an excellent way for individuals with disabilities and their families to network in the Springfield community. One father stated, "I'm biased towards this, but youth or sporting organizations are very helpful. If I had kids, nephews or nieces who are involved in Girl Scouts, football, basketball, swimming, we're going to network with their parents at those events, and we're going to talk about things. And if I have to initiate it, then that's what I do."

Another potential job networking location is the bus stop. One mother from Springfield talked about a job networking experience she had with a service provider while both were waiting for a bus. Another parent said that she got to know a woman at her bus stop who later brought information that helped the parent improve her relationship with an adult daughter who had a disability.

Other Strategies for Networking: From the Basic to the Novel

When parents were asked about networking approaches they used to find jobs, many mentioned basic strategies such as talking to others and letting them know they were interested in jobs. In such cases, friends, family members, and even people from church were mentioned as important to network with about jobs. However, one parent described a novel approach in which she and her daughter acted as a team to network with an employee who ran a day care center. The daughter approached the employee to ask if she could help, and then let her mother talk to the woman. The daughter was able to get a volunteer job taking care of children.

In the Dunbar young adults group, participants mentioned some sound advice applicable to any networking situation: "You've got to find the right people." Another participant added that effective networking involved "calling the people who know about the positions you're applying for."


Although job seekers with disabilities who come from diverse cultures often underuse networking strategies, they may have a variety of formal and informal networking techniques both within their community and culture that they can begin to use to find a job. Sharing these techniques both within and between communities may be an asset to others in their networking efforts and help them succeed in finding a job. The key for all individuals is to become comfortable with networking, in all its forms, as a mechanism to introduce themselves to as many potential employers as possible with the goal of finding the job that best matches their skills.


Special thanks to our partners: Dr. Renald Raphael and Micheline Jean-Baptiste at HAPHI; Dr. Jean-Claude Gerlus and Tammy Parker at Dunbar; Veronica Nielsen and Bob Schueler at Casa Primavera; and Dora Robinson, Denise Stewart, Larry Leak, and Rocky Slaughter at MLK. Thanks also go to our colleagues at ICI: Meredith Aalto, Cecilia Gandolfo, and Deborah Metzel.

This publication was funded by the Administration on Developmental Disabilities under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Alternate formats will be made available upon request.

ICI: promoting inclusion for people with disabilities