Getting a Job is About Personal Relationships… and Not (Usually) Online Applications

David J. Smith

Often when I attend career events or professional meetings and have been given a chance to speak, I will ask the audience: “Of those present who are currently employed, how many of you would say that you got your job primarily based on an application online?” and then, “Or primarily because of a personal relationship or in person encounter?”

The response is frequently a handful of folks answering “yes” to online. With an audience of 20 working professionals where I did this recently, I had 4 individuals answer online.  And the rest in person.  I’ll bet no one reading this is surprised including (and especially) those who work for online job sites.   For all the hype about and sites for applying for work online: Monster, Indeed, or Idealist (popular with the conflict, social change, and peacebuilding community), most job seekers find work by connecting in person.

In the fields of conflict resolution, social change, and peacebuilding, developing professional “live” relationships are important.   The work that we do is personal:  often dealing with individual and collective fears, anxieties, and hopes. Interpersonal skills – good listening, empathic and compassionate attention, and serious and focused engagement – are essential to successful outcomes for the people we are trying to assist.   And those who hire understand that getting to know face-to-face a potential employee or colleague to determine whether these capabilities are present is essential. An online application can never give you a sense of someone’s potential for empathy. You might be saying, “Well if I can make an impression online, then I will be called in for an interview and dazzle them with my personal skills.”  Maybe.  But if you are one of 200 applications, will you even get that interview?  Those engaged in assuaging conflict and building peace need to read others’ emotions, body language, intonation, dress, and myriad other forms of communication and interaction.  And we can only do that in person. And those who hire want to know in person if a candidate is up to the challenge.

I know this may come as a disappointment to many, especially those who dedicate much of their time to online applications.   Now, I am not suggesting that online applications don’t have their role and value.  They do: especially when other means for connecting with a prospective employer is impossible like when applying with the federal government through or with a rather large (and faceless) organization.   But given the option of applying online or connecting with individuals in person, do the latter.   Connecting with people is critical: at meetings, during an informational interview, or for coffee. 

The “strength of the weak tie” is by far the most effective means to getting a job.   You will meet someone and get to know them as an acquaintance or professional colleague. They will learn about your interests, and then afterwards out of the blue you will get a call (or, yes, maybe even an email) from them saying something like: “I remember that you told me during coffee last week that are interested in conflict resolution training work.  I was just talking with a colleague at ABC Institute, who is looking for someone to replace a trainer who is going on long-term leave. They’d rather not have to go through a long search.  Are you interested?  I can connect you two.”   There you go.   And no online application needed.

Though it seems easier, it can be monotonous and mind numbing applying for jobs online.  It requires less mental focus, and you don’t have to change out of your pajamas.   Engaging in person takes more effort, time, and planning.   You have to be in the right psychological state and have your game face on.  It requires practicing how to engage with others (including developing a 2- minute strategic share).   But in the end, you will leave a personal impression, which you can’t do online.   You will win over someone because of your personality, warmth, sincerity, knowledge, and personal aptitudes.   You can’t do that online.   At least not yet.


David J. Smith is a career coach focusing on peacebuilding, social change, conflict resolution, and international career pathways.  He is the author of Peace Jobs: A Student’s Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (IAP 2016) and is the president of the Forage Center for Peacebuilding and Humanitarian Education, Inc.  David is a member of the career advisory board of PCDN.  He can be reached at

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Craig Zelizer

Craig Zelizer

Dr. Craig Zelizer is the Founder of, which connects a global community of changemakers to the tools, community and opportunities to build careers of impact and scale change. He has strong experience in the development sector, academia and social entrepreneurship. From 2005 to 2016 he served as a professor in the Conflict Resolution program at Georgetown University (where he still teaches). He has led trainings, workshops and consultancies in over 20 countries organizations including with USIP, USAID, CRS, Rotary International and others. Craig is a recognized leader in the social sector field. He has received several awards including George Mason’s School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution’s alumni of the year award and an alumni career achievement award from Central European University. Dr. Zelizer spent two years in Hungary as Fulbright Scholar and was a Boren Fellow in Bosnia. He has published widely on peacebuilding, entrepreneurship, and innovation in higher education.
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