In the September 22, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, we try to eliminate the jerk factor from networking.


Everyone talks about networking as the best way to find the right job. There must be a key to this approach beyond just going to networking meetings and signing up with one of the online social networks. What advice can you give me about how to do it right?

Nick’s Reply

Last week (Please! Stop Networking!) I offered some How to Say It tips about starting legiitimate conversations with people you’d like to get to know.

jerkNow let’s talk about how not to be a jerk. What passes as “networking” today can make anyone a jerk. And, if you feel awkward about networking, it’s because you really don’t want to behave like a jerk!

Let’s look at some really stupid ways networking is sold to the public. And make no mistake — it’s sold because someone makes money at this.

Networking meetings

You have no doubt been to networking events where people spend a minute apiece with you, and then expect that you will introduce them to your closest business buddies. Such gatherings have gotten a bad reputation because they can be mercenary and impersonal.

What’s the point of meeting someone if you have no real common ground, and there’s no value in your connection because there are no shared experiences between you?

Online networks

The online social networks are even more problematic. (See LinkedIn: Just another job board.) You sign up, add the names of your co-workers, former employers and friends, and the network links you to other members with similar backgrounds.

But while networks like LinkedIn create lots of connections, there is little emphasis on the quality of those links.

And that’s the key: The quality of relationships. Social networks suggest that having lots of contacts is more important than having good contacts, and they help you highlight your number of links. Why? Because the networks themselves profit mainly from their size. The more members they have clicking on one another, the more ads and digital “services” they can sell. It’s an inherent contradiction and even a conflict.

But the people who benefit from online social networks are the same people who know how to turn a first meeting into a healthy, long term relationship. They know it requires a considerable investment. There’s nothing automated about it.

Phony networking has just one tenet: Behave like a selfish jerk. I think there are three tenets to real networking:

Common ground

First, it requires common ground. People must have something to share that is useful to others. The best place to start is with your work. Identify people who do the work you do (or want to do), then e-mail them, call them, meet them and talk with them about their work and your work. (Not about jobs.)


Second, good networking is sustained by value. Five minutes sharing your elevator speech and business card is worthless.

What can you do to either help or genuinely engage another person? How about a tip that will enable her to be more productive? Or you can ask honest, sincere questions about the work she does. That identifies more common ground. You’ll either find it and build a relationship on it, or you won’t. Don’t fake it.


Third, good networking takes time.This is what networkers have the most difficulty with. Trust grows between people through repeated good experiences. Once I trust you, I’ll draw you into my circle of friends — and that’s where valuable job referrals come from.

The best way to become well-connected is to meet and stay in touch with people who do the work you’re interested and who are good at what they do. Don’t go to them when you’re job hunting. Establish the kinds of relationships — and reputation — that make them want to come to you when they learn about a great job.

How can you put these three tenets of networking to good use to get the job you want?

In Fearless Job Hunting, Book 3: Get In The Door (way ahead of your competition), I discuss “How to make great personal contacts” (pp. 15-17):

“Personal contacts are the foundation of every business. Rather than wait for ‘opportunities’ to come along, learn to participate in your community — go meet people. Learn about their business, get their opinions and advice, and ask for introductions that will help you become a useful member of that community. Personal contacts begin with you reaching out. Start now.”

In Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5: Get The Right Employer’s Full Attention, I tackle the objection many people have: Networking is icky! Only if you behave like a jerk! This is from “Do I have to ‘kiss ass’ to get a job?” (pp. 2-:5):

“When you send a company your resume, you’re not demonstrating anything. All you’re saying is, ‘Here are my credentials, all typed up nicely. Now, you go figure out what the heck to do with me!’ (What’s ickier than that?) A personal contact is a filter that helps a manager find what he’s looking for. A personal contact quickly gives you an opportunity to actually show what you can do — it’s like a voucher that expresses your value and suggests how you will help the company.”

Is your networking based on creating common ground, adding value and investing a lot of time? How does networking work for you?

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  1. All of your comments and advice are spot-on, as usual, Nick. Here are a couple of observations I’ve made regarding networking events over the years that I think reinforce your comments.

    First of all, they tend to be sponsored or “presented” either by local publications, chambers of commerce, “headhunters,” or career coaches.

    Invariably, the local publications and chambers of commerce that present such events subsequently invite you to marketing-oriented events where various vendors try to get you to buy their goods and services.

    At “headhunter”-sponsored events, the “headhunter” is operating like a well-trained salesperson, gathering 80-120 people together in hopes of finding one or two who might be viable candidates for existing or anticipated searches. Those lucky one or two professionals will certainly receive more post-networking assistance than the rest, and will be encouraged to recruit others for future similar events.

    Likewise, career coaches are looking to add to their own portfolios — and bank accounts — by dispensing the same wisdom that can be found in any number of books, newspaper and magazine articles, and websites, but at substantially higher prices.

    Furthermore, in all cases, virtually everybody participating (except for the sponsors) is unemployed. How valuable is someone else who is unemployed going to be for me, let alone how valuable will I be for them? And what makes a “career coach” think that someone who is unemployed will actually have $3000 or more of disposable income to invest in some hand-holding and sweet talk without any guarantee of the desired goal, which is to land an appropriate job?

    Unless there is a rigid “speed dating” format in place, the conversations tend to be very stilted (as you’ve stated, just a collection of “elevator speeches”), and the parties usually just try to kill time until they’re able to attract the attention of someone else who looks as though s/he might be more influential, better connected, or at least more interesting.

    I’ve found the most productive events to be those where there is some common ground other than being unemployed. Professional association meetings for my industry or function (e.g. finance, accounting, marketing, product development, etc.) have always provided me with more substantive contacts than so-called “networking” events.

  2. In the “old days” networking meetings were more formal and productive. Attendees could present their “pitch” to HR directors who would attend in search of potential prospects, sort-of a “Betty Crocker Bakeoff” to show your skills. Now these meetings are non functional, like nipples on a bull. They are a meeting of unemployed networking with unemployed. The people who you want to see no longer attend. Now HR is a cloistered conclave of inacessable bureaucrats

  3. @Robert and Eddie: The best “networking events” are not designed for networking. As you’ve both pointed out, they’re for sharing common interests. I always caution unemployed job seekers that the biggest waste of time is meetings of unemployed job seekers. While there’s comraderie, there’s little more.

  4. Yes to all three — common ground, value and time. Also pay attention to the content of your networking interactions — although I often meet people at events, the best networking activities are one-on-one meetings.

    I have a list of nearly 200 people I would like to meet with over the next six months. I send about two dozen emails requesting a meeting (coffee, lunch, breakfast) every two weeks. Because most of these people know me well or have known me for a long time, my success rate is about 50%.

    At each meeting, let the contact set the tone and agenda, even let them do most of the talking, as long as you make sure you get your five minute “speil” worked into the conversation at some appropriate point.

    I have had many good meetings where I let the other party do most of the talking (primarily about themselves or their opinions on things), but make sure I work into the discussion the key points I want to make for myself — what I do, what I want to do, what I am looking for, who I’d like to meet, etc (I am a consultang, so my meetings are about referrals to potential clients primarily).

    Above all, be a good listener!

  5. Some technical (such as my local IEEE) are holding events they call networking events; usually a general technical presentation with a social time (and free food). While not of much use for job hunting, they are enjoyable.

  6. In addition to all the above quality insight I suggest that the best networking to find a job is your personal network. My first job out of college that launched my career was through a college friend’s dad who introduced me to one of his clients. It was a perfect job out of college and they didn’t post the opening. My current job, that I do love, was through my kindergarten son’s best friend in school. We got to know the parents. His dad works for a fast growing company that does interesting work with Fortune 500 clients. After hearing more and more about his company as we got to know them I finally asked the dad to meet over coffee and inquired about opportunities. Both jobs were through me asking friends which I propose is your best network. But you have to research and then ask.

  7. Networking does indeed take time.

    Even if I make a contact on LinkedIn, it takes phone calls, a few meetings, lunches (perhaps), and then some time thereafter (perhaps a small collaboration/project) before they are even eligible for my professional ‘circle of trust’.

    I don’t expect much from a stranger off the bat, nor should they.

    I’m 41 years old and I’m probably just as cautious when meeting friends as I am potential business partners. Maybe I’m old and grumpy. haha.

  8. Any conversation is a potential chance for a networking contact. Even unemployed people know people… though, defintitely, talking with people who are employed tends to give better results in general.

    What I’m finding, though, is that networking is losing it’s moxie. (Shameless self-promotional plug for my essay:

    I think one of the real issues is that people are just TIRED. The economy has sucked canal water for so long, a lot of people have given up. And even those that are still trying, they’re weary.

    So, too, are people on the other side of the equation – they’ve been bombarded for so long by so many people wanting “just 15 minutes over coffee” or some such, that they’re exhausted too.

    Nick has it right. The only REAL way to do this is to show up, and do so repeatedly, in venues where you can become known.

  9. I think there is a place for the unemployed to be talking to the unemployed, that being in a “job club” format where fairly similar folks looking for fairly similar jobs can meet together, briefly, maybe twice a month or so, and share job leads, scuttlebutt, and encourage each other.

    For example, a job I turned up yesterday may be of no interest to me, but might be just right for you. A job that I applied to but was not called in for, might be a good fit for you, providing you knew it existed. And I might have discovered some important trends during an informational interview that don’t apply to me, but would be very important for you to know in your job search.

    The point is, networking is about gaining information, getting to know other folks, and providing value to each other. We often don’t reap the benefits of networking because we have a predetermined idea of what it is and how it’s supposed to work.

  10. Honestly, unemployment is leprosy. The sooner we accept that, the easier it will be.

    That’s how employers and the employed see the unemployed.

    That’s why I’m self-employed (and have been for two years). I have no time for being treated like garbage. My paying clients respect my work and treat me well.

    When I (very, very occasionally) put in for a traditional job, I’m treated like crap.

    Same bias exists in the head of employed people the unemployed are networking with .

    Unless you bring big value, you just get pity and unspoken scorn.

  11. @Chris Hogg: Good point! I just worry that job clubs serve as a painless alternative to meeting other viable sources of jobs.

  12. Excellent points, all.

    @Dave Hunt: great article from your own blog. I have often gotten the same run-around, despite being introduced by people known to the hiring managers. It is very frustrating. A couple of years ago, a friend knew of someone (friend of his) who needed help, and thought of me. He called his friend, talked me up to him, then called me and passed along his contact’s name and information. I called the hiring manager the same day, and we spent some time chatting on the phone. Heeding Nick’s advice to cut to the chase and discuss how I can do the job profitably, I focused on that (my friend gave me some intel about the job, and the hiring manager told me more). The hiring manager seemed interested, so I suggested meeting in person over coffee to further discuss the job and his needs, and that’s when he got weird, telling me that I’d have to go through HR before he could meet with me. This was a small business, and according to my friend, the hiring manager had the final say on hiring decisions. I offered to send him my résumé instead (anything to avoid the HR black hole), but nothing doing. At that point, I thanked him for his time, wished him good luck in finding someone to help him, and that was that. I did call my friend to tell him how it went down, and he was shocked. He said that hiring manager has been complaining for months that he’s overwhelmed, that he’s losing business, that he can’t find any good people, yet when a trusted friend (and former colleague) makes a recommendation, he gets cold feet and hides behind HR’s skirts.

    But I do agree with you–I think people are burned out, and they don’t want to bother. And, I suspect that there are some who are short-sighted–I don’t expect networking to point me to a job opportunity immediately. It takes time to build and develop relationships, and people may not think of me until we’ve gotten to know eachother better and until there is actually a job opening. But for those who complain about the talent shortage but refuse to meet for coffee for even 15 minutes, then there’s a problem.

    And I think that age, employment status, and other matters factor in as well. I’m not in my 20’s and can’t pass for a 20 something. And Carl is right–unemployment is leprosy. I’d have called it measles, but leprosy works just as well :).

  13. @ marybeth: Personally, if I was talking to the hiring manager and the hiring manager said the next step was HR, I’d have gone to HR and then called him back after I did that. Starting with HR is a black hole, but HR after you’re already in touch with the hiring manager is different.

  14. @Carl: I feel your pain, but I think the reason employers treat people like “garbage” is more subtle. The process has become commoditized. Automated hiring has convinced employers that you’re fungible. People are records in databases and employers no longer invest time in the people asset. Just look at the huge drop in spending on training and development. Employers really believe they can pop the database and find a replacement – rather than train employees to handle new jobs. I really think the problem is structural. The system is broken because how employers think is broken.

  15. @marybeth: Please see my comment to Carl. When managers defer to HR on hiring, something is very, very wrong structurally. Why would a manager defer to HR on hiring matters? Because the system has taught that the HR bureaucracy “processes” people and that people need to be processed. That manager is a dope. I applaud you’re walking away, but next time do a manager a favor and be politely frank: “Look, I’m interested in working on your team. But I’d never work for a manager who defers hiring choices to HR. Do you realize how you make your department and your company appear? I wish you luck.”

    Managers need to hear it, because HR ain’t explaining it to them!

  16. @Marybeth: YOU “get it”; networking contacts are about building a relationship. TOO MANY, however, view it as a pure mercenary thing WIIFM – on both sides of the table. (And some have been burned by people being mercenaries.)

    Your case sounds like my column (and other experiences I’ve had).

    @nick: I DO like your approach to giving feedback. In this day and age, though, when company HR people talk with each other, this has a potential backfiring possibility. “Oh, so-and-so is ‘difficult’.” Said casually, rumors spread.

    And you are absolutely correct in your assessment that people are now fungible assets. It reminds me of an episode of “Kung Fu” where a rancher comments to his son – who has fallen in mutual love with one of the Chinese women working on the ranch – “I could buy a dozen like her for the price of a good meal.”

    Whether or not people consciously acknowledge it, the workforce “knows” this is now the prevalent attitude. And it colors everything that happens. On a LI column talking about the emotional damage of layoffs, the author encourages bosses to talk things through to get productivity back.


    What’s really happened is that, through the layoffs, people see how the company REALLY treats people. Especially if done in the ham-handed, brutal way that is becoming so common. If they’re smart, they’re updating their resumes as well, and looking to bail too.

  17. @David Hunt: “when company HR people talk with each other, this has a potential backfiring possibility. “Oh, so-and-so is ‘difficult’.” Said casually, rumors spread.”

    Point well taken. Sometimes my comments have a smidgen of scorched-earth-strategy about them. The job seeker has to judge the risks. Sometimes the risk is that you’ll wind up impressing a personnel jockey who brings you in and feeds you dog food.

  18. @Nick you’re right we’re commodified and interchangeable — a “human resource” rather than human beings who bring different value/profit to a company.

    Think ‘ Soylent Green’ — humans ground up like a blender by the process!

  19. @BS: This was not a “I’m hiring you; please contact or go see HR to set up a time to fill out the on-boarding paperwork/set up a start date” kind of thing. The hiring manager was interested but when push came to shove, he waffled and said I’d have to go through HR first. This came AFTER our mutual friend (someone he not only worked with but was friends with and trusted) went the extra mile for me. I’ve been reading Nick’s newsletters for some time, as well as other posters’ comments, so I knew where this was going (nowhere fast).

    At my current job, I was hired after another friend talked me up to the dept. head. This friend is now the dean. There was a vacancy; the job had not even been posted yet, and my friend knew that I was looking for work and not having any luck. She also knew that I had library experience. She, too, talked me up to the dept. head, and the dept. head agreed to meet me. My friend called me and asked me to come in. We chatted, and I was hired. Only AFTER I was hired was I told to go to HR to fill out the appropriate paperwork so I would be paid, etc. There was no deferring to HR, no “I can’t meet with you until we post the job, until you apply online through HR, until HR’s ATSes decide you’ve hit enough of the keywords to call in for an interview.” My current job is with a community college, so I work for state government. Governments are big bureaucracies, and you’d think that compared to a small business owner who is losing business and can’t find good help, that the latter would have more flexibility than the government. Yet I did not so much as even submit a résumé, provide my SS#, give up the names of my kindergarten teacher before I was interviewed and hired for the library job. So if the Commonwealth of Massachusetts can do this (not go through HR when hiring), anyone can. What is lacking is the will.

    @Nick: thanks for your comments. I thought something was fishy–when management hides behind HR’s skirts, something is wrong. I did think about telling the hiring manager what you suggested, but as I was still looking for work, I didn’t want to burn any bridges. I was honest with our mutual friend, but was wary about being too honest with the other guy. Maybe he needed to hear it, maybe he just likes to complain too much, and hiring someone to help out means work would get done and he’d have to find something else to complain about. I don’t know. But I did think more like David Hunt in that I didn’t want to get a reputation for being difficult, even if this is a classic case of the emperor’s new clothes. I just didn’t want to be the child who points out that he’s naked! It can be a very small world, and too much honesty when I still have something to lose wasn’t a risk I was willing to take because it can backfire. If I had no skin in the game, nothing to lose, then I probably would have been more honest.

  20. @Nick: “Real” networking (not gross opportunism) continues to diminish along w/the American attention span & lack of social skills IMHO.

  21. @ marybeth: I get what the difference is. Even so, if I was talking to the hiring manager and the hiring manager said the next step was HR, I’d have gone to HR and then called him back after I did that.

    I might also have the mutual friend talk to him again.

  22. If you haven’t seen today’s NY Times, here is a most timely article re this week’s Q&A:

    She writes the same thing Nick does, only Nick is more succinct!

  23. @marybeth: Had those too. In one instance I networked my way to the hiring hiring manager of a company; long story short, he COULD NOT physically meet me, in any capacity, without HR’s blessing.

    In your case, I’d definitely ask your friend to talk to the hiring manager. It might be “policy”, it might be a case of sudden cold feet.

    How did I get my two current (PT) jobs?

    1. At U Mass / Lowell, because I’d stayed in touch with someone from my co-op days. A full professor, going on sabbatical, he asked if I might take over his class.

    2. At MWCC, because someone I know talked with someone she knew, which resulted in my being interviewed and a decision made on the spot.

    In general, one of the things that really irks me is that NOBODY wants to really talk about what’s wrong. And it’s like the Emperor’s New Clothes – precisely like it. When I’ve been “called out” for discussing things (e.g., in a link below) I ask “Well, am I WRONG?”

    In this column, I quote MULTIPLE PEOPLE – including Nick – who are “names” in the HR / recruiting industry. I say virtually NOTHING, but instead quote others. Yet I’m the one called out for it… almost as if it’s the fact that if a “mere engineer” sees this, it’s obvious.

  24. @David Hunt PE: Yes, that was my experience. It was fine to talk on the phone, but in order to meet in person, I had run the HR gauntlet. If I made it through unscathed, then HR would give the hiring manager permission to meet with me.

    I did talk to my friend and let him know what happened. He was shocked, and told me that his friend always complains about how much work there is, how things aren’t getting done, how he can’t find any “good” help, and that he’s lost business. I thought it was a case of sudden cold feet, and that maybe this guy just liked complaining better than getting things running more smoothly again.

    My brother works at UMass/Lowell now, and like you, got his current job through a connection/buddy from a previous job!

    I got my current part time job the same way you got your jobs–through a personal connection.

    Thanks for the link: it made for very interesting reading and, as the links within your column make clear, this problem spans industries (not limited to engineering or lawyers or librarians) and employers big and small, public and private.

    Please don’t feel singled out for pointing out the obvious. The Titanic is sinking and they’re in denial, choosing to re-arrange the deck chairs rather than fix the problem. I got dinged for my comments (polite, but firm) in one of my LinkedIn groups. The discussion was one of those the sky is falling panicky why college kids can’t immediately step into a job and do it perfectly and why colleges are to blame–they’re not churning out perfectly trained drones, and I had the nerve to post the link to Peter Cappelli’s article about the broken hiring system and comment about employer’s unwillingness to train not only recent college grads but more experienced people who meet most but not all of their requirements. So much for some groups fostering an open, honest discussion!

    Now I’m going to go back and re-read your fine column and the links within it (re-confirms that it isn’t just me), and keep trying. But it is discouraging.

  25. @Nick,
    Here’s an article which is tangential to networking, but I thought you’d like to read it.

  26. I like being a jerk really I do. Anyone that knows me, Tim Trotter, can tell you that!