In the October 4, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter asks whether social networks like LinkedIn are a great way to get a foot in the door when looking for a new employer.

I am currently looking at new job opportunities. Your suggestions are to network in order to find out more information about a company and to get to know the right people before you even think of trying to get a job there.

What is your view on making contact with people you don’t know at all via social networking sites, such as LinkedIn? I have joined some of the professional communities and this seems like a great way to make initial contact with people in a particular industry, but is this just a fake idea or is there actually some merit in this method?

My Advice

Getting to know a company through people connected to it is the best way to land the right job, and it’s the best way to avoid mistakes. But social networking sites portray this inaccurately. They show you a cool database of names and information, and they suggest that the links between people’s records constitute “your contacts.”

What’s a link?

That’s absurdly reductionist. It’s like suggesting that because your name sits alphabetically beside another, you share a “contact.” In the database, perhaps you do. But in real life, the fact that we both do business with a certain auto mechanic, or that the mechanic attended the same college we did, doesn’t hold any value. The only thing we share is a coincidence. To make that serendipitous “link” useful, one or both of us must invest a lot to create the shared experiences that lead to a relationship and friendship.

What are you going to do for me?

LinkedIn — like any other online social network — is just another social environment. Imagine walking up to someone at a friend’s party — someone you’ve never met — and asking them to recommend you to the president of their company. Other than the fact that you and the person “share a link” via the friend whose party you’re attending, there are no shared experiences between you. There’s no justification in asking for such a favor, and the person has no reason to trust your intentions. Even if the referral were made, the president of the company would not be able to obtain any useful judgments about you from the mutual contact, because there’s no basis for such judgments. There are no shared experiences. Just that serendipitous meeting.

That’s why you feel so awkward asking a favor of someone you don’t know who doesn’t know you.

The LinkedIn party is not much different. In both cases, the only way to make a real contact is to start a conversation on a legitimate topic you’re genuinely interested in. Use the normal rules of conversation. Invest in a real relationship that takes time to develop. But don’t expect someone who is “linked” to you in a database to feel any obligation to talk to you.

I found you in the phonebook

People construe the existence of a social network as permission to exploit nodes (people) when there’s no substance in the links between them. That is, they think that belonging to a huge list of people means those people should bend over backwards to help them. When help doesn’t come, LinkedIn turns a dumb expectation into a dumber process: Make more links until you get what you need!

LinkedIn is little more than a big phonebook. No one’s going to take your call just because you looked them up. It takes more. (See also: LinkedIn’s New Button: Instantly dumber job hunting & hiring.)

Take a hike

To answer your question, I think a social network is just one more list of people. So’s a phonebook, and I always hang up when someone calls me from a list. I also instantly delete e-mails that say, “I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn.” That’s the new “Hey, Babe, don’t I know you from somewhere?” and it’s just as presumptuous — and just as offensive.

LinkedIn is a nice directory. Social networks are the new phonebooks. How you make new friends who care about you, however, hasn’t changed. You still have to hang out with them and share experiences that matter.

What do you think about social networks? How do you use them effectively? Hey, is this blog a social network? Have you met anyone on the blog who’s become a friend?

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  1. I agree with what you say when you consider how (I believe) many people use Linkedin. However, if you follow the principle Linkedin suggests and only link to those whose work you respect, then I think the connections reflect relationships that are based upon mutual professional respect.

    I agree with your comment “How you make new friends who care about you, however, hasn’t changed. You still have to hang out with them and share experiences that matter.” Linkedin is simply a way (or another way) of maintaining those connections.

  2. I definitely agree that walking up to a stranger, whether in person or via a website, won’t get you an interview let alone a job. But I have gotten one good interview via LinkedIn (alas, didn’t get the position). I did some research on who the hiring manager was at a company I was interested in, and found him on LinkedIn “connected” to my old supervisor. I used that former supervisor to get an introduction to the hiring manager at that company, started an email exchange with him, and got the interview. So it can work, but should only be used as a tool in the overall process.

  3. I find LinkedIn useful for maintaining up-to-date contact information…yes, it is a “phone book” or “business card file” of sorts, but a valuable one that is always brand new and current. I connect with people I know so I can easily find them again when I have work for them, need a professional speaker or have a question to ask – and expect them to call on me in the same way.

    I find former employers will rarely share new employer names, so it can be tough to track down professionals that have changed jobs since your last contact. And I don’t always know professional contacts well enough to feel comfortable trying to track them down at home.

    I also have learned by reading profiles that some of my contacts have areas of expertise that I wouldn’t have guessed at.

    And seeing who knows who can be interesting – some people have contacts only within their own companies or industries and others are connectors with broad interactions across many industries and geographic areas. That tells me alot about who will be the best fit for a particular project.

    And if I want to hear about what makes an potential interviewer tick, I can search on that person’s name to see who I know that knows (or might know) that potential boss.

    All of this can be done without LinkedIn, but LinkedIn just makes it easier.

  4. I find LinkedIn extremely valuable precisely for providing me the opportunity to reach out to people I don’t know at companies I want to work for. In the party analogy, sure you wouldn’t ask a stranger at a party to recommend you to his company’s president, but if that were only employee at that company whom you have access to, then that’s a huge step up from talking to no one from that company. In the event that you have zero personal connections to a firm, LinkedIn is great for allowing the job seeker to reach out to find people to make connections with.

    Just in the past month, I’ve requested and actually conducted about a half dozen informational interviews over the phone with perfect strangers I found on LinkedIn (on the basis of some shared experience), in order to learn more about their respective firms, so I’ve found it extremely useful.

  5. I agree with Justin. I have had great sucess with LinkedIn. Participating in discussions has brought me visibility and allowed me to have private conversations on the side that are developing good relationships.
    Coupled with Nicks other excellent advice my job hunting and interviewing has taken a dramatic turn for the better. A big part is trying to help others as well. If your are seen as a helpful person or SME (because you are) you will eventually find yourself positioned with the right contacts. Stay focused on the targeted company and stay away from the constant temptation of job sites!

    But do not forget, that when on LinkedIn you are on DISPLAY!! Choose your picture and your words carefully, ALWAYS! Be professional from the outset. The harder you work, the luckier you get. If you are going to the dance don’t sit in the corner, get into the action.

  6. @Robin: “if you follow the principle Linkedin suggests and only link to those whose work you respect…”

    I agree, but just like kids snort aerosol cans to get high, too many people request links just because they’re there. I’m really a good example: I’m not famous, but I’m visible enough online that I attract a lot of LinkedIn requests. I can tell they’re looking for “junk contacts” because they don’t bother to customize the boilerplate. I’d say >90% of requests I get are nonsense — people I don’t know who don’t know me. People I’ve never even heard of.

    I think LinkedIn is awash in this. I know some “industry names” who parade their 500+ links, and it’s embarrassing. I’d like to give them all a test: Tell me 3 useful things about each of your links.

  7. Great comments about how you’ve used LinkedIn successfully. I get two main points from this and I’ll let the participants say it:

    1. “Just in the past month, I’ve requested and actually conducted about a half dozen informational interviews over the phone with perfect strangers I found on LinkedIn (on the basis of some shared experience)”

    Justin took time to create some shared experiences. I think that’s absolutely key. People respond best when you spend time with them and do something together, even if it’s just reviewing some ideas via e-mail. The more you share, the better.

    2. “Participating in discussions has brought me visibility and allowed me to have private conversations on the side that are developing good relationships.”

    Charles nails it, though others allude to this, too. You can use the “phonebook” to send out your resume and to request help. Or, you can use it to develop a dialogue that leads to relationships. Help comes after that, not before it.

    Good stuff!

  8. I agree. Getting the most out of social media tools like LinkedIn and Twitter take time – you’ve got to join in the dialogues and post good content. That last part is particularly true and ironically was how I found you online around 8 years ago.

    Over the past 10 years I have met and done business with many, many people I originally started interacting with online.

    I think that communicating online does tend to be preferred by natural introverts and maybe some of the clumsier online approaches are made by people who are more extrovert and less aware of the medium than the message.

  9. I don’t view LinkedIn as a social network, I view it as a business networking tool. Something to help build an maintain a business network.
    I think people who use social/business networks fall into 2 camps, either quality or quantity based, and I see them referred to in Nick’s article and folks responding.
    * The quantity approach. simply put, the larger number of connections you have somehow means networking goodness. Hence boilplated invitations from strangers or people who glory in the large # of connections they have. I’m not in that camp.
    * The quality approach. Ideally, I’d like my network to consist of networkers I know, people who give as well as get, that didn’t blindly kneejerk an invitation but established some kind or rapport and relationship to put firm ground under the connection. My base is people I already have a relationship outside LinkedIn or when they reached out they signaled they are networkers by providing contact info, a reason why they believe there’s mutual interest and benefit, which you can follow up on. I do likewise. When someone sends a boilerplated invite, they’re telling you they don’t understand this and are playing a quantity game. This triggers the delete button.
    How well you need to know someone may vary from person to person, but basically if you’re in the quality camp, you want to know the person to some degree that makes your comfortable that they can be counted on to help, and in return that you’ll help them, or be a delight to talk with etc.
    Here’s a Linked In connection story. I got an invitation from a guy, in the same industry, in the same town who did go beyond the boilerplate. If you do this I’ll meet you half way and respond (not accept, respond with a reply) asking if we can chat and how I can help him/her. If they don’t respond to that, end of discussion. I asked the guy for his phone # and he asked why & I said I’d like to talk to him, that I liked to know people a bit before I connected etc. Now coincidentally I’m a recruiter, but this had nothing to do with it. This was a simple networking discussion. He got huffy and told me that if he had “to be interviewed” to connect he wasn’t interested. I didn’t grieve, because I felt he didn’t get at least my concept of networking.
    I’m sure that people in the quantity camp shake their heads and wonder why someone doesn’t accept their boiler plated invites and grow their networks, but it isn’t networking. I don’t have a large # of people in my LinkedIn base, but I make an effort to keep in touch, and it’s a maintainable # that I can reach over time or if needed and know they’ll respond.

  10. read your column most every week and really like your advice. This week though I think you missed the mark. Before I explain I want you to know that I am not a social media guy. I am on linked in and I am on FaceBook but I do not spend much time posting and checking other people’s posts. I do believe however that we are seeing a shift in the way that people communicate with each other. People from my generation (I am 49 years old) grew up with the telephone and now we tolerate and use the cell phones that are always with us. We have also learned to communicate through e-mails. Todays generation grew up with the internet and are accustomed to sharing information through social media outlets like Linked In and FaceBook. These forums are where people share information with each other. They can post articles that they think will be interesting to their friends and colleagues. They can also find people who have common interests. They may not know that the person they went to college with works in a company that they want to get a job out without seeing it in Linked In. This is the new way of developing contacts and interacting with each other. I agree that it seems very impersonal and at times shallow but you can add “meat to the bones” by actually calling up that person you knew in college and letting them know that you are very interested in their company.

    Sorry to ramble but just wanted to let you know I appreciate your work and we are listening out here. I respectfully disagree with you on this one.
    Best Regards,

  11. I generally ignore the random requests to network unless I know or have worked directly with the person in some capacity.

    Sure it costs me “contacts” but I feel I have a stronger, more meaningful network because of it.

  12. I think you missed the point,I would not down social networking. All types of networking is getting to know total strangers. Afterall, what is a friend of a friend of a .. … … The more degrees of separation the more remote is your relationship. I basically exhausted my close network and have found circular references that looped back to other people I already know, so it is just another connection source to others that I would have not met.

  13. @Don: Your story about the guy who wanted to link without talking reflects my reason for doing this week’s column. Anyone who “gets” networking is mystified at that sort of story. But what you describe happens all the time. It’s a prevalent attitude. “I signed up, I asked you to link, now LINK.”

    Someone else points out that LinkedIn advises people to link only to those they know and trust. I say bunk. That’s pure marketing. LinkedIn says that because it’s the right thing to say. In practice, that’s not how LinkedIn operates. It markets a fantasy.

    LinkedIn is a database. It makes money when the database grows, when links grow, and when links are propagated outward. This is the same model job boards use. Job boards are not about matching people with jobs. They’re about selling, renting, expanding the database.

    I don’t hold this against LinkedIn. They’re running a business. But I wish they were more honest. I think they behave the way they do (“Click this button to apply for a job!” How stupid can we get??) because they lack vision and creativity. The company is run by database salesmen. Look at what happened when they went public — out went the savvy new management team that was excited about building relationships, and in came a bunch of hacks from and HotJobs. More database salesmen. These are not people in the relationship business. They’re selling data and queries.

    So it’s not at all surprising that Don is right. People expect unreasonable benefits without having to commit to anything. That’s what LinkedIn markets. There should be no surprise that people have wrong expectations — it’s in the marketing.

    Kudos to those who use this phonebook intelligently. I have no sympathy for those who expect something for nothing. But I wish they would wise up.

  14. @Ross: Thanks for posting your views on this. Please see my comments to Don Harkness. My problem with LinkedIn is not that it isn’t useful. It’s that the way it is marketed encourages meaningless activity.

    @Eddie: Networking is getting to know better those you already know, but it is also about meeting strangers. My favorite book about networking — Six Degrees, by Duncan Watts — emphasizes what you point out. Your best contacts can be those farthest on the periphery of your network.

    But they don’t just happen. My beef is with the failure to facilitate those contacts so they become meaningful. Joining groups on Linked is a good thing – I think it’s the best idea they’ve had. But they could do so much more.

  15. I’d have to temper what you said about LinkedIn. I agree if you just use it for a place to “make connections” then it is probably not useful.
    But there are interest areas (in my case, I am a software developer) and by answering questions, interacting with others on those questions, I actually developed working relationships with some other competent developers around the world. It also allowed me to hear about a job posting that I probably wouldn’t have seen had I not been participating in the forums, which ultimately led to me being able to leave the job I was trying to get rid of.
    I found the forums useful for my professional knowledge, but also allowed me to demonstrate a competence to a broad audience.
    It’s the difference between networking at a networking party and networking at a professional meeting.

  16. Nick,
    This is an excellent dialogue that strikes at the importance that social media has in our world today.

    Social Networking sites believe that today’s generation is interested in sharing information freely/openly with anyone who would like to listen. The networks like LinkedIn and FaceBook provide a forum for people to interact and connect with people who similar interests. They allow people to build relationships.

    Like you said the problem is that LinkedIn and FaceBook do not care about the relationships- they are businesses trying to make money by attracting the most people to their database and creating a competitive advantage over the other database vendors. They make claims that you can have relationships without effort- simply getting connected to as many people as possible. The only way to build meaningful relationships is by helping others and building trust through real dialogue.

    We can use these social media networks to further our relationships with others and find people who have similar interests. It allows us to grow beyond our normal bounds of friends and meet people around the world. It takes work- there is no magic.

  17. Nick,
    As a headhunter who is sick to death of all the hype, even amongst the headhunters, as to social media being the silver bullet for headhunters to find candidates and candidates to find jobs. This post is the most common sense post i have had the pleasure to read in months.

    The groups and forums on Linkedin have been the most value for me as a headhunter. They give me the ability to interact with people as well as read the subject matter that they post.
    My last three executive placements have been the result of people (notice i didn’t say candidates) that i met and got to know on Linkedin. I don’t even remember most of the people who just send a linkedin request unless they follow up with questions, emails or just normal conversation that indicates they really would like to know more about what i do and where i do it.

    Not long ago i had a candidate send a linkedin request which i was glad to accept. A day later he came back and asked me to introduce him to the VP of Finance with one of my clients. The job he had responded to was in a remote location from the corporate office and was an operations position. I explained why that would not be a good idea and did not do so. It is my hope that he did not try to connect as the VP of Finance has no connection to the operations management group in the remote location. This is the kind of networking that doesn’t work and exactly what Nick is talking about in this blog.

    I am amazed that people think nothing of doing something via the social media sites or email that they would never do in the real world.

    As to the Apply now button ….don’t get me started. That already is a disaster and i predict will get worse. We have to remember that Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter and all the other sites are exactly that. Internet Sites.

  18. Nick, this is an excellent post and most timely. I was advised by a career counselor at one of my alma maters that I needed to get on LinkedIn asap and start building connections because that is how people get jobs today because employers are checking people out on LinkedIn and other networking sites (Facebook) before considering whether to interview them or not. I’m old school–in my mid-40’s so I decided to join LinkedIn but to use it judiciously. I would only ask people I know personally to connect, and would only accept offers to link from people I know. And I would use it only for professional purposes. I haven’t joined in any of the discussions, but I suppose that is next. I’m still a little wary. I have joined some groups, but there are so many that I feel like a kid in a candy store. I have no idea which ones will work best for me, nor whether I am the best fit for that particular group.

    I have received some invitations from people I know who didn’t personal their invitations, and because I know them, I have no problem accepting them. Would a personalized message have been nice? Yes. But I don’t hold it against them. It is kind of like sending birthday or other cards. You can use the boilerplate cards and just sign your name, or you can use the boilerplate cards and add a few lines, or you can go all out, get a blank card, and write your own message. Not everyone is good at this, so I’m a little more forgiving of those who use the generic invitation. But if the invitation comes from someone I don’t know, or only met once, then I think they’re only out to win the number of connections game. I’m with Don Harkness–I’d rather have fewer connections but better connections–quality over quantity. I don’t know how much good it does you to have over 5000 connections if you don’t know them very well.

    In the same sense, I’ve asked a few people I know well but who are outside my normal professional circle, and they’ve had no problem with my request. And I’ve had people I know well but don’t have an obvious professional connection to ask me to link, and I have no problem. It is the people I don’t know who ask because they have a connection to one of my third connections that I refuse.

    I’m not even going to get started on the click here to apply for a job. I think LinkedIn screwed up big time with this feature. What made them unique was that it was professional networking site. Adding the button for jobs makes them like any other run of the mill jobs board.

    I joined Facebook too, but see Facebook as purely social, LinkedIn as professional, although some folks have blurred them.

    I agree–it is how many people network today. I personally prefer to talk and to meet face to face. Too much can be misunderstood in email and online.

    If any of you have any ideas for how I can better make use of LinkedIn (and any other social media), I am open to suggestions. Getting a job is and has always been more about who you know/who knows you than what you know. You can have all the knowledge and skills in the world, but if you’re not connected to the right people, it doesn’t matter.

    Good comments all, and thanks again Nick for a most timely article.

  19. Hmm, this makes a lot of sense. I have used social networks to touch base with friends. Suddenly a lot of things I have seen make sense, in a sad way.

    On the other hand, the essay and the comments are excellent reading for anyone thinking of using one of these sites to make connections rather than to keep in touch.

  20. I would also expand this not just to LinkedIn or other social networks but to the Internet in general.

    I’ve had several people come knocking, including the likes of Google, based on my posting history on several forums, blogs, mailing lists, etc.

  21. Nick,

    Whilst I see your point, I think you are slightly unfair to Linked In. I do agree there are a number of people who use it to gather contacts along the lines you suggest. However, if people take the time to read your profile or point out why they want your help or where they know you I think it is different.

    I am an interim and I have to say I have landed a couple of assignments through this brochure. I think in todays challenging market place you need to keep your options open and not just restrict to one avenue. The Q&A sessions can help raise your profile.

    You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a princess.

    Michael Ware

  22. I don’t usually request connections, but I accept them from people in my pre-existing network, built the old-fashioned way. But I could see using Linked In to remind me of the names of people I might have forgotten but who are linked to my contacts. Lots of people worked in tightly coupled areas, and it is good for figuring out who else might still be working in the area.
    I’d have no more problem chatting with someone who found me on Linked In than with someone who found me from a paper or conference.

  23. I think groups are the most powerful aspect of LinkedIn. It’s how this phonebook is leveraged into relationships. Otherwise, I think Linkedin has totally bungled the opportunity to help foster more and better relationships among members.

  24. Sorry, bit late to this one, but I saw this cartoon today which touches on a more positive aspect of the social networking phenomenon: its function as a “web of trust”.