Snagged by the Network
That Willingness to Help Contacts Get Hired Can Backfire

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 28, 2006

The nonprofit group where Sadie Dingfelder works was looking for a new Web designer a few months ago. And so when she met an unemployed friend of a friend at a party who told her he had just that background, she thought she could help.

"It sounded like he had a lot of experience," she said. She kindly told him to send her his résumé and she would assist him. As an editor, she figured she could look it over, give him some tips, and then forward the résumé to the hiring managers.

Dingfelder's offer is every job seeker's dream: an "in" that will help his résumé stand out beyond the hundreds of others that are e-mailed or sent to "To whom it may concern."

But despite last week's column about the right way to network, we all know that there is an ugly underbelly to networking, as Dingfelder soon discovered.

She quickly received a cover letter and résumé from the guy, written in rambling, stream-of-consciousness prose. Both were full of errors and red flags -- the kind that would cause any hiring manager to toss the résumé into the trash. But Dingfelder didn't give up. Yet. This guy had good experience, and she'd said she would help. So she went into editing mode and sent the letter back with all sorts of (somewhat snarky) comments. ("You might want to have a subject and a verb here" and "You probably don't want to mention interpersonal problems you've had with previous bosses in this cover letter.")

The applicant then sent the "corrected" cover letter to the hiring manager and to Dingfelder. With all the comments still attached.

"Now I'm afraid that I can't recommend other people," she said.

No doubt.

It is well established that if we have a decent relationship with someone within a company where we want a job, our résumé will likely go to the top of the pile.

And so we network. Or we think about networking. Or we think about how to network.

But all of that networking talk can lead to networking nightmares. Many people are overwhelmed by the number of requests they receive after a cocktail party to chat about their company. Others are afraid their reputation will plummet if they recommend someone who is just all wrong. And many others are flummoxed by the audacity of some people who come to them with demands -- all in the name of networking.

Over-networking is probably one of the biggest complaints among people on the receiving end of the conversation, particularly in this town, where the vendors along K Street NW could make a fortune selling business-card holders.

Vickie Gray fits into the overwhelmed category, though she understands the importance of networks. She had let her network lapse a few years ago, then found herself in the position of needing to ask for references. She knew she could not simply ask someone she hadn't seen in two years for a favor. "I just vowed I would never let my network lapse again," she said.

And in the midst of rebuilding her network, she offered much guidance herself. Unfortunately, being in a niche field of professional-services marketing, she now finds that her desire to help has sort of backfired.

She is bombarded with e-mails, requests for lunch and people asking for recommendations for vendors. Helping was "something I'd always done," said Gray, the director of marketing for a District-based law firm. But lately she has felt as if she has to stop.

Serving as a reference, when she is asked whether she would hire someone, is fine. Of course she can spare a minute or two for that. But she is also asked for recommendations, both for people and vendors, programs or business leads. "It started to feel like I'm giving away intellectual property," she said.

"I'm realizing I need to just pull back," she said. "My inclination is to help and be collegial. But I can't spend an hour a day or more helping other people develop business. I have my own people I have to make a priority."

Others say people should not think they are owed anything, particularly by near-strangers.

A journalist in Philadelphia said she loves to bump into people at the National Association of Black Journalists convention every year who went to her college. But last year, a woman she barely remembered said hello, then promptly asked for a recommendation. "I feel like I'm putting my name on that, and if the person's a wacko, I look terrible," said the journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity so she won't upset possible contacts. "I looked very uncomfortable, and said, 'I'm so sorry, but no. I can't do that.' Inside, I was saying, 'Why are you putting me in this position to have to say no?' "

Networking should be a mutually beneficial relationship, said Heather Hamilton, staffing programs manager for Microsoft Corp. She is a recruiter for the company's marketing department and is a company blogger who at times invites readers to send her their résumés.

But some people ask for too much, such as contact information for other divisions or people, or to put Hamilton on their online list of networks. "Because people read my blog, they feel like they know me. And I want them to feel comfortable reaching out to me," she said. But, she is a marketing recruiter and simply can't be an "in" to every stranger who wants to work at her mammoth company.

Her advice? "If you're going to network, know what you're trying to get out of it," she said. "Tap into people you have something in common with, whether it's a mutual friend or an industry you're in."

She relies mostly on professional organizations, which is how she has made most of her contacts and finds new employees. When someone posts to her blog looking for a contact in another department, or when readers get snippy with her when she says she can't help, that's not networking. It's socially awkward begging. And begging is never attractive. Which is why Hamilton advises both on her blog and to her friends to establish a network before it's actually needed. "You want that already in place, so you can go back to them to help you in your career search."

E-mailing a marketing recruiter who has a blog when you want a job in programming is not going to win you any friends. Or networks.

Join Amy from 11 a.m. to noon at Tuesday athttp://washingtonpost.comto discuss your life at work. You can e-mail her atlifeatwork@washpost.comwith your column ideas.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company