Friends are your best job-hunting resource—so why is it so hard to ask for help?

On the hunt.
On the hunt.
Image: Reuters/Yuya Shino
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When you’re networking, how do you avoid the awful, soul-crushing dread that goes along with asking everyone you know to find you a job? Here’s an easy way to turn networking into something that actually feels right and is really very effective.

First of all, when you’re networking, ask for a reference, not a job.

Whether you’re grabbing drinks after work, or meeting up on the weekend, you need an ally, not a tally of job listings. Adding a friend to your network who will be a helping hand in your job search is your goal.

So don’t ask your college friend if she knows of any jobs for people like you. How would she? And don’t ask your boss from two jobs ago if she has the names of any people who are currently looking to hire somebody like you. It puts her on the spot. Uncomfortably.

No, instead, ask for a reference. Mention that you’re going to be moving on, or you’re already looking, or that you’re actively out on the street. Let them know the type of positions you are and are not suited for, and what you’re hoping to achieve in your next opportunity.

Next ask them if it would be OK to use them as a reference when you’re at that point of your search. By not putting them on the spot about specific job openings, you reduce the awkwardness that’s always there in any kind of networking conversation.

And by letting them know that you hold them in high enough esteem to potentially use them as a reference, you’re actually paying them a compliment. You’re also making it easier for them to say “yes,” and to feel good about themselves for being a good friend and helping you out with a little favor.

All of which means that you have a new buddy in your search — one who’s going to be thinking about keeping an eye out for new opportunities for their friend with good taste in references: you.

It’s wins and grins all around.

Now, this doesn’t work for just any old person you meet on the street. There’s probably a pretty good match between people you’d meet for a beer and those you could ask to be a reference. So my advice would be to stick to asking those you know well enough.

The widely offered and deeply wrong advice from the past decade that you should try to extract favors, concessions, names, jobs, and career assistance from people you’ve only met over the phone is not only useless, it can be counterproductive to your aims by antagonizing your broader network.

By making your networking about compliments and good feelings, rather than taking what you can get, you’ll make an easier path for yourself, and your friends, to get you where you want to go in your job search.