Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Career Networking

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An interview with QuintCareers Creative Director Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., about the revised edition of her book, A Foot in the Door, in which she discusses the answers to frequently asked questions about networking … showing how all job-seekers can use networking to enhance their job searches.

Career Networking FAQ for Job-Seekers

  1. Networking sometimes gets a bad rap; some job-seekers worry that networking is equivalent to “using” people. How do you define networking and what do you say to those concerned about being users?
  2. Why is networking so important to job-seekers?
  3. So networking helps job-seekers find “hidden” jobs. But why are most jobs never advertised?
  4. With whom, where, and when should you network?
  5. Who are the best kinds of network contacts?
  6. How many people should be in your network?
  7. What are some of the best venues for networking?
  8. In your book, A Foot in the Door, you offer some unusual places in which people have networked. Can you list a few of those?
  9. You claim that you can bond more closely with your networking contacts by letting them do you favors. Can you elaborate?
  10. Networking is difficult for shy people. Can you offer a few tips?
  11. What about networking for career changers?
  12. The part of A Foot in the Door that is new to the 2nd edition is about networking on the Internet. What can you say about that?
  13. What are some mistakes people make with online networking?
  14. You devote a large section of A Foot in the Door to what you call “the ultimate networking technique.” What’s the technique, and why is it so effective?
  15. What’s the biggest mistake a job-seeker can make with networking?
  16. Beyond buying your networking book, where can job-seekers get more information about networking?

Networking sometimes gets a bad rap; some job-seekers worry that networking is equivalent to “using” people. How do you define networking and what do you say to those concerned about being users?

Networking doesn’t mean asking everyone you run into for a job or even if he or she knows where the job openings are. It means establishing relationships so that you can enlist support and comfortably ask for ideas, advice, and referrals to those with hiring power. Leslie Smith of the National Association of Female Executives defines networking as the process of “planning and making contacts and sharing information for professional and personal gain.” The key word is “sharing.” Successful networking doesn’t mean milking your contacts for all they’re worth; it means participating in a give-and-take. Networking is at its most effective when both the networker and the contact benefit from the relationship. Even if your contact does not benefit immediately from knowing you, he or she should gain something from the relationship eventually.

Why is networking so important to job-seekers?

It’s because the majority of job vacancies are hidden from the average job seeker. These positions are never advertised and are part of the “hidden” or “closed” job market. While career experts have for years used figures ranging from 75 to 95 percent to quantify the hidden job market, no one really knows how large it is. (See our article, Is the Hidden Job Market a Myth?.) You can find out about jobs in this market only through word of mouth, and word of mouth means networking.

Study after study shows that networking is the most effective way to get a job. The annual Sources of Hire study conducted by the consulting firm Career Xroads consistently shows that referrals are the source of about 30 percent of hires. How do job-seekers find out about internal vacant positions, as well as vacant positions outside their own companies? By networking.

So networking helps job-seekers find “hidden” jobs. But why are most jobs never advertised?

Employers’ reluctance to advertise is partly tied to the economy. Despite fluctuations, unemployment numbers remain relatively low in the United States. With the vast majority of the adult population employed, employers assume not many prospective workers will be scanning Internet job postings. With a limited audience for their ads, employers are disinclined to spend money on advertising for workers.

The second reason is more psychological. The people who read job postings are looking for jobs. While it might seem that an employer offering jobs and people looking for jobs are a perfect match, that’s not often the case in the employer’s mind. The employer has to wonder, why is this person looking for a job? The answer that pops into the employer’s head, whether fairly or not, is probably not a positive one. People look for jobs, many employers believe, because they are unhappy losers, job-hoppers, or unproductive malcontents who blame poor performance on their employers and believe switching jobs will solve their problems. Employers would rather go after people — called “passive candidates” — who aren’t necessarily looking for work. In the employer’s mind, those people will be successful, productive contributors to the company’s bottom line.

Employers also know that the best candidates are likely to be those referred to them through word of mouth. It is only when employers are truly desperate to fill an opening that they place an ad.

In A Foot in the Door, I quote Ohio State University career counselor B. J. O’Bruba, who said: “The last place I want to pull applicants from is [an advertisement]. … Ad applicants are unreferred, untested, and unknown. The first place I look for applicants is within my current or previous organizations or applicants who were referred to me by professional colleagues and acquaintances. These applicants are better referenced, tested, and known.”

Further, busy employers simply don’t have the time to go through the mountains of resumes a job posting is likely to produce; it can draw thousands of responses because of the relative ease of responding online. Employers often find it far more efficient to ask their employees and other members of their personal networks to refer high-quality candidates to them.

Finally, the process of defining job vacancies can take a long time. In some companies, a year or more can elapse between initial conceptualization of a job and actually filling the position. Thus, at any given time, a theoretical position may exist within an organization, but the formal mechanisms of funding, structuring, and writing a job description for the position mean that the job cannot yet be advertised. That’s another reason networking is so valuable. If you can tap into a job in its embryonic stages, you will have a huge advantage over those who wait to answer ads. Let’s say Megabucks Corporation is planning a position that you’re well qualified for, but the firm is six months away from advertising the job. You don’t know about the position, but your networking efforts lead you to a key person, Joe Honcho, at Megabucks. After talking with you, Honcho attends a meeting and tells his colleagues, “Hey, I just met someone who would be great for that position we’re working on.” The management team may even decide to reshape the job to fit your unique qualifications. With his team’s blessing, Honcho gets you in for a series of interviews. Megabucks still may not be able to hire you until all the t’s are crossed and the i’s dotted, but once the job is official, you are in — all before Megabucks even had the chance to advertise the position.

With whom, where, and when should you network?

The short answer is: everyone, everywhere, and all the time.

Who are the best kinds of network contacts?

For college students and new grads, the best networking contacts are:

  • Classmates
  • Alumni, especially recent grads
  • Parents
  • Parents of classmates
  • Other relatives
  • Professors, especially your adviser
  • Fraternity brothers, sorority sisters, and Greek organization alumni
  • College administrators
  • Coaches
  • Guest speakers in your classes
  • Informational interviewees

For established job-seekers, the best networking contacts are:

  • Members of professional organizations
  • Your past or present co-workers
  • Friends you’re in touch with regularly
  • Old friends, such as college buddies whom you see infrequently
  • Members of your religious community
  • Peer volunteers
  • Informational interviewees
  • Your kids’ friends’ parents
  • Your mentor(s)
  • Business associates, such as customers, clients, vendors, and suppliers

How many people should be in your network?

The consensus among networking experts is that 250 contacts is a good goal to shoot for. Why 250? Because, supposedly, everyone knows 250 people. If you were going to, say, plan your wedding, the guest list for your side of the aisle could have 250 people on it, according to Brian Krueger in his book College Grad Job Hunter. Others have put it more morbidly: If you died, 250 people would be affected by your death. Does that mean you should feel inadequate if your network comes nowhere near that number? Of course not. Only a small percentage of those I surveyed for A Foot in the Door had a network that large. Of survey respondents for the book, only 25 percent had networks of 100 people or more (and of those, only 7 percent reached the magic 250 contacts).

What are some of the best venues for networking?

Among the 240 respondents to the survey I conducted for A Foot in the Door, the three venues that survey-takers found most effective were at meetings of professional organizations, during volunteer experiences, and at charity events and fundraisers.

In your book, A Foot in the Door, you offer some unusual places in which people have networked. Can you list a few of those?

Some of the wildest ones include during a slaughterhouse fire, in a cadaver lab, while getting a mammogram, as a car-accident witness, on a gondola ride to a mountain top, during a prolonged rain delay at a baseball game, while donating blood, in a hot tub at a conference, and at a psychic fair waiting for a tarot-card reading.

You claim that you can bond more closely with your networking contacts by letting them do you favors. Can you elaborate?

I got that idea through Chris Matthews, who quotes Ben Franklin in his book, Hardball, about how the game of politics is played: “If you want to make a friend, let someone do you a favor.” The art of letting people do you favors, which Matthews contends is a key facet of political success, is also one of the best routes to effective networking. “Contrary to what many people assume,” Matthews writes, “the most effective way to gain a person’s loyalty is not to do him or her a favor, but to let that person do one for you.” Matthews explains that when you enlist someone’s aid, you are soliciting that person’s investment in you and your success. The person not only feels good about helping you now, but watches out for you in the future to make sure her faith in you was not misplaced. “Those who give you one helping hand very often make a habit of looking out for you further down the road,” Matthews writes. “We tend naturally to remember the people we ‘discover’ along the way and seek to ensure that they prove us correct.”

Networking is difficult for shy people. Can you offer a few tips?

I offer a number of tips for shy folks in A Foot in the Door; here are just four of them:

  1. The buddy system is an effective defense against shyness at networking events. Pair up with a friend and make the rounds together. In an article on the buddy system, Clay Barrett tells the story of Joan and Cathy, who worked in different industries and in different job roles but were both were laid off at about the same time. They met at a local networking group and hit it off immediately. Joan was shy but felt much more comfortable at the events with Cathy along. Meanwhile, Joan held Cathy accountable for following through on her networking efforts, previously her weak spot.
  2. Even if you’re feeling uneasy, try to smile and project enthusiasm and confidence. Networking for the shy and introverted is something of a performance. Sometimes you have to be a good actor. Even shy individuals are capable of acting like confident people. You simply have to step into your self-assured persona. You can slip back into the shy identity you’re more comfortable with after you’ve accomplished what you need to. Does this basically amount to faking it — pretending to be someone you’re not? Probably not. You’re just using the tools within you to get a job done. They may not be tools you enjoy using every day, but they are tools you can employ when you need them.
  3. One good strategy is to redirect your shyness toward helping others have a productive time, says the National Association for Female Executives. If you pretend it’s your party and your responsibility to ensure everyone’s enjoyment, you can relegate your shyness to the back burner.
  4. While you should avoid using as a crutch online methods of networking that keep you out of the social fray, the shy person can learn to get the most out of online discussion groups, Web-based networking, and discussion groups.

What about networking for career changers?

A chapter in A Foot in the Door that describes a week in the life of a networker happens to be about a career changer. He attends the meeting of a professional organization in the new field into which he’s interested in entering, making some good contacts, collecting business cards, and asking questions to learn about the field. Later, he follows up with some of the people he met at the meeting. He makes plans to have coffee with a woman from the meeting to get more advice. He writes letters to some of the other people he met since he doesn’t know them well. At his coffee meeting, the career-changer gives his new contact copies of his resume to distri