Standing in a towel in her bathroom, Emily Durham, a Toronto-based career coach, brushes her hair while doling out advice. “Your company will work you to the bone if you allow it ... There’s always going to be something, and it’s always going to be you doing it,” says Durham, brandishing the hairbrush, in an Instagram video. “Boundaries, baby.”
With a quarter of a million followers on the platform, 26-year-old Durham is one of many social-media influencers who have risen to prominence by sharing tips about work with a casual, accessible tone. Many of these influencers reside in the US, but others span the globe: Mehar Sindhu Batra, with nearly 400,000 followers, is based in London, but says most of her audience is in India; another popular career coach with a quarter of a million followers, who goes by “Rosie”, is New Zealand-based.
Regardless of their locations, these content creators often adopt a similar style: filming themselves talking to the camera about topics such as how to ace interviews, negotiate salaries, handle performance reviews and communicate with managers.
It’s no coincidence large swaths of people are consuming work-related content right now, given the increase in workers switching jobs, even industries. According to a 2022 global survey from management-consulting firm Deloitte, roughly 40% of Gen Zers and 24% of millennials would like to leave their jobs within two years.
But beyond the general thirst for career guidance, young workers are finding particular appeal in these informal channels, generally helmed by millennial and Gen Z women, that deliver bite-size bits of advice. Experts say this is partly because early-career employees are looking to peers on social platforms and in formats they’re already fluent in. But this may also be because millennial and Gen Zers value relatability in mentors, often more than other factors like years of experience or affiliation with a formal institution. When they feel they can relate to an influencer, they’re open to trusting their advice.
Users of this content say it can help them to feel empowered to take control of their working lives. Ultimately, however, there are limits to the scope and quality of support young workers can get from scrolling through short videos.
Toronto-based Emily Durham, 26, is one of many influencers who have risen to prominence by sharing tips about work with a casual tone (Credit: Courtesy of Emily Durham)
'Exactly what I was looking for'
Career influencers on TikTok and Instagram generally create content around a wide range of work-related subjects. Many of these creators post advice-driven videos, coaching people through topics such as finding new jobs or getting promotions.
A common theme is how to ask for a higher salary in a job offer. In one of Sindu Batra’s videos, she acts out both the parts of a hiring manager and an interviewee asking for better compensation, essentially giving her audience a script to use themselves. “You have a very short window to negotiate a higher salary if it’s not what you were expecting,” she writes in the caption.
Other times, creators focus on how workers should advocate for themselves within an organisation. For instance, Montréal-based career coach Tiffany Uman, 37, tells followers that they’re crippling their own progression if they think being a strong performer will necessarily lead to a promotion, or take on more responsibilities and expect that it will lead to a pay rise. In another post, she provides three steps to follow to ask a boss for a raise.
While these career influencers vary in terms of location and cultural background, many of the most popular are young women in their 20s or 30s. Those who spoke to BBC Worklife said their followers largely share these traits. Durham, Sindhu Batra and Uman, who are all either Gen Z or millennials, say that while they don’t speak exclusively to women, their audiences are majority female and of peer age. “I think my community is very similar to who I am,” says Sindhu Batra.
US-based Ashley Luts, a 28-year-old university recruiter, says she started following Uman early in 2022 when she came across her videos through Instagram Explore. She’d been in the workforce a few years, but felt she was at a crossroads. “I was trying to figure out if I should try to attempt to get promoted internally or explore other options externally,” says Luts.
I would spend hours going through her stuff, because it was all right there, but it was short-form and actionable – Ashley Luts
She looked at more traditional coaching services, but they didn’t resonate with her. “You don't get to learn as much about who you might be working with,” she says. Because she was able to explore social media influencers’ content, she felt like she could get to know the creators. This was especially important to her given that she was going through a hard time emotionally: “I realised social media was where the people I would want to be working with are …That relatability factor played a huge part in it.”
One of Uman’s coaching clients, 30-year-old Montréal-based Andriana Hnatykiw, says that when she first saw Uman’s content, she took to the coach’s style immediately. “How she presented herself and how she spoke to me is exactly what I was looking for, and there was no point in adding more work to find someone else.” It was the opposite, she says, of the typical career professionals she saw, who felt “too sterile and removed”.
‘I would spend hours going through her stuff’
While career coaching is not a new industry, experts say social media provides a new way to deliver this information that’s particularly appealing to young workers right now.
Mary Chayko, a distinguished teaching professor and Director of Interdisciplinary Studies at Rutgers University's School of Communication and Information, US, says seeking advice on social media feels more convenient and efficient to young people. "You're there anyway. It's in your pocket. It's on your laptop. It just seems like a more modern way to get a lot of this done,” says Chayko.
Montréal-based career coach Tiffany Uman, 37, also runs a private coaching business for followers that want dedicated help (Credit: Courtesy of Tiffany Uman)
Luts echoes this sentiment, saying she loves that Uman makes videos on Instagram’s Reels feature. “I would spend hours going through her stuff, because it was all right there, but it was short-form and actionable.” And while many influencers offer paid, individual consulting services to monetise their channels, much of their advice is free to consume – another benefit that makes these social-media coaches both appealing and accessible to younger audiences.
Even if influencers lack their own extended professional tenure, and often don’t hold credentials like coaching certificates, experts say they have qualities that make followers trust them. Uman worked as a marketing manager at global beauty company L'Oréal for more than a decade; Sindhu Batra holds an MBA from Imperial College Business School in London, and served as a senior consultant at UK-based management consultancy Moorhouse. Both women started out career coaching while working at corporate jobs, and both quit their former positions in 2021 to focus full-time on their own businesses, which took off during the pandemic.
According to Kelli Burns, an associate professor in the Zimmerman School of Advertising and Mass Communications at the University of South Florida, relatability, authenticity and likeability drive users to trust them. Their transparency, she adds, makes them feel largely accessible and non-intimidating: their casual style – like a video filmed in a bathroom – appeals to audiences, because it offers glimpses into who they are as people.
"Not being too polished in the way that you present yourself is another indicator that you are somebody who can be trusted,” she says. “This perception of authenticity can lead to credibility. It takes down your guard as a follower.” She adds that people can build a trusting connection more easily with people with whom they can identify.
What I’m sharing is nothing unusual. They can Google this stuff. I think it's just the human connection – Mehar Sindu Batra
“We’re more likely to compare ourselves to similar people,” agrees Selin Kesebir, an associate professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School. “If I’m a 30-year-old woman, I’m going to compare myself to another 30-year-old woman, and I am going to get my cues about whether I’m on the right track, whether I’m doing the right things, whether I’m living my life the right way from her.”
Of course, what these influencers offer isn’t entirely novel; even influencer Sindhu Batra acknowledges that a lot of the advice she gives her coaching clients is available elsewhere. “What I’m sharing is nothing unusual. They can Google this stuff,” she says. “I think it's just the human connection. If I have a video that doesn’t have my face on the cover, it won't do as well.”
Connection was a key factor drawing Tanvi Passi, a 22-year-old finance student in Jalandhar, India, to Sindhu Batra. She began following her in 2020 and says one thing she appreciates about Sindhu Batra’s style is that she’s open about her own life. “She will tell you that she was feeling nervous before an interview, and then how it went really well,” says Passi. “She makes you realise that we are just people, like her … So that’s why I think she's really credible, because she herself does all those things.”
As an influencer, Durham understands the value of fostering a sense of familiarity with her audience. “Ultimately, what they're looking for is a friend to validate their experience,” she says. “It's kind of that, like, on-demand best friend who's going to be able to coach you through things without it feeling like a very formal, arduous process.”
Career influencer Mehar Sindhu Batra, with nearly 400,000 followers, is based in London (Credit: Courtesy of Mehar Sindhu Batra)
‘It’s a possible self’
While social media advice can be motivating, it has its limitations. Videos on Instagram and TikTok tend to be fairly broad, relying on generalisations about corporate culture and human behaviour that may not apply to a person’s individual situation.
Moreover, many of the decision-makers in the workforce belong to older generations, meaning young workers’ ability to understand the values of these leaders will also be important as they build trust and influence within their organisations. Relying solely on younger coaches could narrow their knowledge scope.
Plus, following advice on social media can be risky because people often conflate popularity with trustworthiness. “Without even thinking about this person and whether they have expertise or are not, we just say that the fact that they have this many followers is a good indicator that they are a credible source of information,” warns Burns .
Yet for young workers, following career influencers may be as much aspirational as it is practical. Influencers project an idealised work persona, conveying a sense of control and confidence that many people crave in their professional lives. When someone sees a popular creator talking about how they were promoted, they may not be interested solely in practical tips.
“It's not just the transfer of information, but also using that person as a role model and inspiration,” says Burns. “It’s a possible self… something within my reach.”