How to keep networking (without looking like an insensitive clod)
How are you supposed to “network” when everyone is scrambling to relearn and teach their kids geometry, find a package of toilet paper within county limits, and get through a conference call before the dog starts barking (again)?
Reaching out to your professional network (no less, reaching out to strangers) can feel overwhelming under the best of circumstances. Pile a global pandemic on top of that? That’s some next-level madness.
If you’ve been struggling with this, you’re not alone.
This topic is front and center among many jobseekers right now. In fact, I’ve had several conversations on it since the proverbial bottom dropped out.
The two main questions seem to be:
- Am I even allowed to network right now, or would it be insensitive?
- If I decide to network, what am I supposed to say?
These are both very good questions, especially considering the fragility of, well, everything right now.
Here are my answers:
Number one: Yes, you are allowed to network right now. In fact, it’s going to be more important than ever if you want to edge out the competition through this period of skyrocketing unemployment. But – and this is a very important but – you MUST do so with acknowledgement and care. (Also, assume everything will be conducted virtually for now, so brush up on your email, video chat, and phone game.)
I’ve received more than a few cringeworthy “ask” emails in recent days. The worst of them dive right in without so much as a sentence related to the “now.” See if you can tell what’s missing here:
Are you tired of always cold-calling or having to do endless follow-up to generate new business? I'd love to show you a better way. I know these messages can get lost in the shuffle, did you see my note about the free training we are offering to firm owners? I don’t want you to miss out. Here’s where you can sign up!
Did you say “empathy?” “Authenticity?” “Acknowledgement that our world’s been turned upside down in a very short period of time?”
Had this person simply added some verbiage to acknowledge the big ol’ coronavirus elephant in the room – and maybe make me feel like I wasn’t receiving five-year-old canned copy – I would have likely responded. Instead, I hit “delete” and moved along through my inbox.
So how can you approach people right now?
Like a person. Like an empathetic, calm (even if you’re feeling a bit panicky) human being who understands that pretty much everyone around you is experiencing some level of distress and uncertainty.
I’m not saying you need to belabor the topic, but be sure to let the recipient know – before you dive in on a request – that you’re thinking about how they’re doing, that you understand if the timing may be off, and that you’d love to speak if circumstances permit.
In a weird way, now may be a really great time to reach out to your network, or even to strangers, if you do so with care. We’re isolated, we’re bored, and we’re craving community, levity, and contact with others. We want to care for others and be cared for.
So, yes: It’s okay to network right now. Smart, even!
Which leads us to number two: What, specifically, you should say.
Obviously, everyone has their own communication style, so there’s no one answer here. My best advice is simple: Answer the question, “How would I like to be approached right now – and what wouldn’t work?” If someone were to contact you today – looking for your input, an introduction, or maybe an informational interview – what would you most likely respond to?
For me, it’s something like this:
My name is _______. I sincerely hope this note finds you and your family safe and healthy.
Listen, I know you may very well be navigating immediate issues related to coronavirus, so if it’s simply not feasible to connect right now, I absolutely understand.
If you are open to [a quick conversation, introducing me to so-and-so, answering the two questions below], I would be most grateful.
[Enter any additional specifics here – but be concise!]
Thank you for any [guidance, support, help] you may be able to offer. And, of course, if I may return the kindness, please let me know.
If I received a note like this, I’d feel acknowledged: like this person understands that I’m probably navigating all kinds of new terrain with my family and job. I’d feel like they’re willing to be a bit patient – which, given the influx in messages we’ve been receiving of late, would likely be needed. And I’d feel inclined to respond favorably.
Proceed with care, proceed with humanity, and, if the situation permits, proceed with an appropriate sense of humor.
Above, all: Proceed. Because the even smallest steps forward are still steps forward.
Jenny Foss is a career strategist, recruiter, and the voice behind the popular career website, JobJenny.com. You can find her latest project, A Career Strategist’s Guide to Getting a Job, on LinkedIn Learning.