Using your contacts without making them feel used

February 16, 2009: 11:03 AM ET

If there were ever a more important time to network, I can't remember it. I've been to so many going-away parties in the last few weeks that I'm starting to wonder what I'm still doing here. People who thought they'd played it professionally safe -- bankers, lawyers, significant others of bankers and lawyers -- are suddenly finding themselves among the nation's growing jobless. And even those who remain gainfully employed are hoarding their cash, certain they'll be the next to go.

So we young people do what any sane person would do: We spin the old mental Rolodex. We note all the people who don't hate us and might be of some use. And then we send messages that read something like this:

Hey, Person I Need!

Long time no talk! How are you?! Sorry I haven't written you in 17 years -- boy have I been busy -- but here's some contrived anecdote to show I've been thinking about you. Thought you'd like to hear these few random things that are going on with me, too. Oh, by the way, I was thinking you could hire me/refer me/help me in some other way I've been generous enough to dream up for you. And since I'm sure you're dying to read my resume, it's attached. Totally can't wait to catch up!

Sincerely,

Most Transparent Jobseeker Ever

If that sounds extreme, believe me, it's not. I have, in fact, received a number of notes not unlike this myself in recent weeks. And for the record, it isn't that I wouldn't be happy to help if I could. It's just that the approach is so completely disingenuous that it's actually detrimental to the person's cause. (And we Yers tend to be more prone to it because of our sometime lack of social graces, the quick and familiar way we communicate, and the broad if not deep virtual networks we're able to maintain.)

As understandable -- and essential -- as the urge to work one's connections is in times like these, there's still an art to doing it. It's rooted in basic common sense and good manners, and it applies in every situation, whether you're sending an e-mail, Facebook message, smoke signal, singing telegram, or (gasp) letter. So, in the interest of maintaining our networking dignity, here are a couple suggestions for reaching out the right way...

  1. Be honest -- no, really. It's important that any networking note we write contains the usual niceties (a "hope you're doing well," and some punctuation, for example), but don't overdo it. When we try too hard to be all "great"s and giggles -- especially in an attempt to obscure the fact that we want something -- it usually has just the opposite effect. Not only does it draw attention to our self-serving motives, it can also be fairly insulting to the intelligence of the recipient. Why not, instead, try telling the truth? "I know it's been a long time," you might say, "but I recently started looking for a new job and, since you're one of the people who's offered help in that arena over the years, I thought I'd check in." (And if the person's a legitimate friend, a light-hearted nod to the awkwardness often diffuses any tension: "I'm so sorry you're only hearing from me now, when I need you, but I hope you won't hold it against me forever.") It's nothing revolutionary, but with trust in short supply these days, a little sincerity goes a very long way.
  2. Ask for advice, not a gig. It's never really proper to ask for a job outright unless you're in an actual interview. But with the job market in the state it is, and everyone worried about their own job, it's particularly poor form right now. Some people may not even respond to you if they feel pressured to produce a possible job or broker an introduction, so focus your energy on seeking out good advice, insights, and resources. If, for instance, there's a job you're interested in at an acquaintance's company, write to ask what s/he thinks of the department, not to look for the hookup. This tack is flattering -- after all, who doesn't like the idea that their perspective might be valuable? -- and it puts you in the positive light of a potential protégé or close colleague, someone that your contact may think of (fondly, and maybe even first) should a job prospect arise. This way, if they have a post or person to share with you, they can do so on their own terms. And if all they have to give you is a few words of wisdom, at least they know that's worthwhile to you, too.
  3. Do not attach your resume. And for that matter, don't attach any other representations of your wonderfulness that are likely to lock up people's inboxes, even if you're sure they like you. Not only can it seem presumptuous, it also looks a bit desperate. Even if you're posting to a group of friends about your job search, it's much more effective (not to mention safer) to just include a few sentences about what you're looking for and what you've done, rather than giving them your entire work history, which they're not likely to read anyway. As a rule, re-establish contact first, then ply with documents.
  4. Facebook doesn't change anything. In our age of social networking, it can be tempting to use the relaxed attitude of tools like Facebook to take the work out of networking. It's so easy now to just "friend" a person you haven't talked to in years -- without so much as a, "Remember me from high school?" -- then hit them with the old, "I really love your company, so..." But take it from me, that isn't going to be received any better by a Facebook friend than it would be by anyone else. Even on the Web, people know when they're being used, and they don't like it. So apply the same amount of courtesy and concern there as you would everywhere else.
  5. Show a little gratitude. Remember that everyone, from the C-suite all the way down, is under pressure right now. So thank them for their time, and if they make an effort to respond, even if they don't say much, realize it means something -- and say so. Not just because it's the right thing to do, but because it fosters a continuing relationship. We're so connected, and it's so easy to maintain those connections in today's world, that there really is no excuse not to build and nurture as many substantive relationships as you can. (And just to be clear, by substantive, I don't mean poking and gifting, but actual communication, like with words.) That may seem like a big investment of time for not very much immediate return -- and goodness knows many of us really need the return at the moment -- but trust me, you just never know.
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