Career Advice

How Not To Network

Lisa M. Balbes

Everyone knows networking is a highly effective way to get a job. However, many people are not sure exactly what networking is or how to do it. To help you figure that out, here are two examples of how not to network.

Case Study One: Serena and the Coffee Networking Meeting

Once upon a time, before COVID-19 complicated in-person meetings, Serena attended a meeting with people who shared a common interest. She had a good time and had a particularly engaging conversation with someone she had never met before, Jessica.

A few days after the meeting, Serena got a LinkedIn connection request from Jessica, which she accepted. A few minutes later, she got a message from Jessica, asking about meeting for coffee. Serena accepted, and they set a time and place to meet before work.

The morning of the meeting, Serena arrived at the coffee shop 10 minutes ahead of the scheduled time. She walked around the seating areas but didn’t see Jessica, so she waited by the door, eyeing all the delicious pastries. At 15 minutes past the appointed time, she sent a text but got no response. At 25 minutes past the appointed time, she called, but the call went to voicemail.

Finally, just as Serena was getting ready to leave, Jessica came out from a back room, where she had been sitting at a table and talking on the phone. Jessica escorted Serena back to her table, right past the registers, and they sat down. Jessica had her computer set up and plugged in with a notepad on the table, so it was obvious she had been there for some time. However, there was no evidence that she had purchased any food or drink.

After spending 20 minutes recounting the details of the phone call she had been on with her daughter, Jessica became all business. She asked Serena for a list of every company at which she had worked and then started grilling her about exactly who she knew at specific companies. When Serena could not immediately come up with long lists of names, Jessica invited Serena to leave.

Serena shook her head as she walked out, purchasing a pastry and coffee for her breakfast on her way. She never heard from Jessica again.

If you cringed as you read this, good for you. How many things can you identify that Jessica did wrong?

First, Jessica was only interested in what she could get from the Serena. She had no real interest in building a relationship or even in being willing to return the favor at a later time.

In addition to personal rudeness, Jessica at best ignored a social contract and at worst was a thief. By using the facilities at the coffee shop but not purchasing anything, she took advantage of that business and exposed her selfish nature to Serena. People notice not only how you treat them, but also how you treat others around them.

Furthermore, since she invited Serena for coffee, Jessica was hosting her. Jessica should have offered to purchase coffee and pastry, or whatever Serena preferred. She also should have had something herself. (Incidentally, any time one person hosts another, it is polite for the guest to reciprocate by hosting the next time.)

Jessica’s inconsideration continued with how she treated Serena. Even though Jessica arrived on time, she sat at a table all the way in the back, effectively hidden. Especially since they had only met once, Jessica needed to be in a place where Serena could see her upon entering—near the door or ordering counter. If it was a crowded location and Jessica wanted to take advantage of a free table, she should have at least made sure to choose a seat that let her watch the door. It also would have been polite for Jessica to text Serena to let her know she was in the back room.

Finally, Jessica dismissed Serena when she was not immediately able to provide useful information. However, who knows what Serena might have shared if they’d had an actual conversation instead of an interrogation? Serena might have even shared more information over the years if that meeting had been the beginning of a professional, mutually beneficial relationship.

Case Study Two: Do You Have a Job For Me?

Once upon another time, there was an early career chemical engineer named Dave who heard a rumor about a new position opening up at a local company. The person who told him about it didn’t know much, but it sounded like a perfect match. To make things even better, Dave realized he knew the hiring manager for the new position, Bryan. They had volunteered together at an ACS event a few years back and always had pleasant conversations when they ran into each other at local ACS events. Dave was surprised Bryan had not contacted him about the position.

Dave watched the job postings on the company’s website but didn’t see a listing for this particular position. He realized there was an ACS local section meeting coming up, and that Bryan was likely to be there. Dave made it a point to attend, and he was ready to go as soon as Bryan walked in the door. The conversation went something like this:

Dave: Hi Bryan! I’ve been wanting to talk to you.
Bryan: Nice to see you, Dave. How are things going?
Dave: Well, to be honest, I’m not really happy with my current job.
Bryan: Oh, that’s too bad.
Dave: I’m really looking for something that would let me move more into management and not spend quite as much time at the bench. I’m thinking that would be more likely at a bigger company than where I am now.
Bryan: Oh.
Dave: Your company is pretty big, isn’t it? I seem to remember you telling me there were more than 5,000 employees in the local plant. I think there would be many more places for someone like me to move up with a bigger structure like that.
Bryan: That seems logical.
Dave: And maybe even in a department with a manager who is willing to listen to feedback from the people who report to him. Remember when we did that school outreach program together and I showed you a better way to do the elephant toothpaste demonstration? You were appreciative instead of dismissive, like my current boss. He never listens to anyone else’s opinion.
Bryan: I’m sorry to hear that.
Dave: I would love to have someone like you as my manager.
Bryan: (nervous laugh) That’s nice to know.
Dave: I actually heard a rumor that there was a position opening up in your department. Do you know anything about that?
Bryan: Um….
Dave: Do you think you could hook me up with that job?

Bryan mumbled something about not knowing much. Then he said he was thirsty and headed off to get a drink. For the rest of the night, Bryan avoided Dave and never looked him in the eye. Dave was left wondering where he went wrong and why Bryan didn’t offer him the position.

So, what did go wrong? Before this conversation, Dave had been doing great! He was networking without realizing it. By volunteering with his local ACS chapter, he met many other chemical professionals. He showed up on time and prepared, demonstrating his reliability. He offered constructive suggestions for improving the activities and made sure to stay as long as there was still work to be done. He had the beginnings of a solid reputation with those who volunteered with him at those events, including Bryan.

However, Dave made two major mistakes. First, he pushed the relationship too fast. He and Bryan were casual professional colleagues who chatted companionably when they happened to be at the same event, but they did not make any effort to keep in touch between events. Dave jumped ahead several steps, not only asking for general information, but also for a fairly significant favor. He didn’t just request information about the job, or even an interview; he actually asked for the job itself.

Second, Dave asked Bryan about a specific position that was not yet publicly posted. By revealing that he had inside but incomplete information, he put Bryan in a difficult position. There are many reasons why a position might not be public—there might be an internal candidate or funding issues, or the position might reveal a new direction for the company that they aren’t ready to announce.

What should he have done differently? Dave could have contacted Bryan outside of scheduled events and invited him for a cup of coffee or lunch. He could have explained that he was thinking about a career change and asked what advice Bryan had to offer. Then, when they were sitting down together, he could have explained what he was currently doing and what changes he wanted to make in his career. This would have allowed Bryan to offer whatever information he felt comfortable sharing without pushing him to reveal more.

Be a Networking Tortoise, Not a Hare

Most people want to help others, so if they know of a position that is appropriate, they will share that information. If they choose not to, there’s probably something else going on. You are much better off allowing them to help you, rather than forcing them into an uncomfortable position that may permanently damage the relationship.

Networking is a marathon, not a sprint. It involves real people who have their own interests, constraints, and personalities. By investing the time to create strong relationships with your professional colleagues, you will have the resources you need when you really do need them.