The networking faux pas almost everyone makes

You can’t start the clock on your request if you didn’t actually make one.
You can’t start the clock on your request if you didn’t actually make one.
Image: Reuters/Arnd Wiegmann
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About once a month, I get an email, Facebook message, or text informing me that someone—usually someone I barely know, or have never met—applied or wants to apply to Quartz or another publication owned by our parent company. This person (or their courier) rarely asks me to do anything. But the outreach always implies I should act. This is deeply annoying.

I’m casting stones at a glass house, of course. We’ve all been there, myself included, sending vague networking messages and hoping others will offer help without requiring that we have the guts to ask for it outright.

Our “subtlety” rarely scores, says Alison Green, who dispenses sought-after advice on the popular “Ask a Manager” blog. ”When people say ‘I applied!’ they’re hoping the subtext is ‘So would you please recommend me to whoever is doing the hiring?'”  But unless you’ve worked together before or are a known superstar, upon receiving your message, your contact will probably think “good to know,” or “good luck,” without being particularly moved to help you.

How to get what you want

“If there’s something specific you want the person to do, you really need to directly ask them,” says Green. If this feels too awkward, you probably should find a new contact.

But success often hinges on our ability to make connections with people we don’t yet know. It is possible to do this without appearing presumptuous. If your contact has never worked with you or doesn’t know you well, use a lighter framing that includes an “ask” but acknowledges that their help isn’t guaranteed, says Green. One example: “If you think I might be a good match for the role, I’m hoping you might flag my application for the hiring manager.”

In any case, your best bet when you reach out to people, including people you already know well, is to make it easy for them to help you. “Think of your message as a very mini-cover letter,” advises Emily Miethner, CEO and founder of the career website, and be sure to include:

  • The job title, and job ID if it’s a larger company
  • The details of the role, and one or two lines on why you’re a good fit for it
  • Who you’d appreciate them “dropping a line” to. (Don’t guess—do your research to see who they’re connected with, or who the head of the department or recruitment is.)
  • If you’re sending the message via email, attach the resume and cover letter you applied to the job with.

To go a step further, you can write a message in your voice, for your contact to edit and forward on, says Miethner; but never employ this tactic unless you’re specifically asked to or if you’re reaching out to a very close friend who won’t mind doing some translating for you.

Importantly, when someone is willing to use their reputational capital to help you (potentially) land a job, it’s your responsibility to follow up with them, says Kelly Hoey, author of Build Your Dream Network. Send a thank-you note of course, but also send updates when you officially submit your application, land a call or interview, and are either hired or informed that you won’t be getting the job.

If you’re the recipient, protect your time

Whether from a friend, friend’s child, alumna of the same college, former colleague, or total stranger, at some point in your career you’ll be on the receiving end of a (hopefully well-considered) networking message. When that happens, you should be just as direct in your response as the hopeful should be in their request.

If you know the person, have time, and are willing to help, be upfront about what you need (ask for the job description, why the candidate is a good fit, and their resume), and what you’re willing to do—i.e. if you’re happy to introduce them to a colleague, but would not directly refer them for a job, say so, says Hoey.

In the iMessage screenshots below, Miethner shows an example of how to respond when a friend reaches out after applying to a company you’re connected to. Miethner is in blue, her friend is in grey:

The company this applicant applied to, as well as her name and contact info, has been blurred for privacy.
The company this applicant applied to, as well as her name and contact info, has been blurred for privacy.

As for strangers’ networking requests, remember that when you back someone’s application, you’re putting your reputation on the line, too. When a job seeker messages you and you don’t want to help, it’s polite to respond with encouragement and guidance on how the resume screening and application process works, says Hoey. “And if they ask for a reference, I would politely decline.”

If there’s anything job seekers need to realize, says Hoey, it’s that that many of us have network fatigue. “We’re tapped so frequently to make introductions for new jobs or referrals that we are hesitant to make another, unless we really know the person making the ask.”

And “if you’re the person who is only showing up in someone’s inbox (or Facebook messenger or voicemail) when you need something,” Hoey says, “you shouldn’t expect people to leap to your assistance just because they are connected to your dream employer.”