Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Case Against Networking: The Give-So-You-Can-Get-More ploy hurts target, networker, and society

In decades past, networking was merely a few-minute conversation at some gathering that ended with an exchange of business cards.
But that was correctly viewed as ineffective, so today, the advice is: Develop long-term relationships with a dozen targets with power to help you. That approach, which I call, The Give-So-You-Can-Get-More Ploy, was touted in this exhortation to the Thiel Fellows.  Yes, some people do give for generosity's sake but too often that's not what's operative.

Ever more in recent years, I have been a frequent target of the Give-So-You-Can-Get-More Ploy. Typically, the networker emails me articles and at some point starts asking me for help, help that would benefit them much more than their effort cost them.

Like many targets of this ploy, I dislike it. The help the networker gives me is usually trivial, indeed often a net negative: I end up feeling obligated to read the articles they send me, stuff I'm usually not that interested in--I have better uses of my time. If I want to learn something, thanks to Google, on-target articles are just clicks away. Alas, despite my not appreciating users of The Ploy, as a human being, I haven't been able to restrain myself from feeling obligated to them because it is possible they were just trying to be nice. So I end up doing them favors, in one case, losing money: After a career counselor said she needed money to put food on the table, I referred some prospective career counseling clients to her that I'd otherwise see myself or refer to another colleague.

Worse, when I, for example, help Ploy users get a job, I feel I'm helping a person who likely isn't as competent as those I'd otherwise advocate for. On average, the people who take all that time to do that modern-day networking are less competent than others. If they were that competent, emotionally together, etc., they're less likely to have needed to spend all that effort selling themselves. It's the same way I feel when a job seeker shows me a glossy presentation packet instead of a resume. If they were that good, would they have need to spend the time and money on that gift wrapping? I wonder, "Are they gift-wrapping a bad product?"

One person bombarded me with articles for months, literally daily, interspersing ever more requests for free advice. Finally I asked him to stop. He responded by emailing me this cartoon mooning me. I guess he was frustrated that the Give-So-You-Can-Get-More ploy didn't work.

There are many ways to implement the Give-So-You-Can-Get-More ploy. A current version is to get active in or start a LinkedIn or Facebook group, and/or Google+ circle, and help solve group members' problems. Then there are traditional approaches: business networking groups such as Business Networking International, joining the Chamber of Commerce or a service club (e.g.,Kiwanis, Rotary), where you invest your time until you feel you can cash in.

Despite what networking's proponents claim, much networking is manipulative--you're not being kind to be kind, you're being kind as a way of getting people to do things for you they wouldn't otherwise do. For example, instead of hiring the best person for the job, the target hires the networker because the networker did nice things for the target, even if it's just listening to the target complain. Ultimately that hurts the target: They would have been better off having searched for the best employee.

Even the networker ultimately suffers from spending all that time cultivating their networking targets. That's time the networker could better spend improving skills, creating something, or yes, the old-fashioned applying for advertised jobs. That's the ethical way to land a job: An employer needs to hire someone, you make your case that you're worthy of being hired, and the employer selects the person most appropriate, not the person who most savvily networked him.

Of course, if networking is bad for the networker and for the target, it thus is bad for society. Society is worse to the extent it reallocates time from productivity to schmoozing. And alas, its impact is ever more negative today as people reallocate productivity time to networking time. Especially in these tough times, America needs to spend more time on steak, not sizzle.

It's heretical to assert, but I believe that muchnetworking is unethical and ultimately deleterious to all.
I must admit that, as a career counselor, I do teach people how to network effectively. It is often effective. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder how ethical it is of me to continue to do so.


Robert said...

I suppose networking seemed A Good Idea At The Time, the time being (at least for Australia) the 1990s, in other words, the era of Toni Braxton CDs, Princess Di funereal frenzies, and Chechen wars. But now, the notion of networking appears so discredited even here - even among Da Lesbian Sistahood, which once obsessively promoted it - that I increasingly sympathize with the much more basic approach of the late lamented Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who certainly knew how to influence people. "Don't pay 'em a nickel," Daley said, "just give 'em your business card."

My one query re Dr. Nemko's post relates to his remarks about résumés. Given the amount of résumé fraud that occurs (I've encountered estimates that 80% of résumés contain outright lies as well as fudging), aren't they just as useless as "presentation materials", and rather less ethical?

Wouldn't an employer be better off sleuthing a promising-sounding candidate on Facebook? (Unless the candidate has a name as common as "John Smith.") People seem to be much more candid about themselves on Facebook than they are at job interviews or in formal job applications.

Marty Nemko said...

Yes, Robert, from the employer's perspective, I think it's wiser to rely more on sleuthing about a person on the Net, conducting simulation rich interviews, and by trying to engender candor about the candidate from previous co-workers.

But from the applicant's perspective, in that employers placing a want ad demand a resume, I believe that sending one along with a thoughtful cover letter is probably wisest and most ethical.

Anonymous said...

What world are you living in. Networking is THE most important today. We live in an hyper-connected global economy. If you are not networking, you're not a player in any business and no one should hire you. What matters is smarts, education and your network.

Marty Nemko said...

Most recent Anonymous,

As I wrote (in the final paragraph), I am well aware that networking "works." But I'm not convinced that its ever growing primacy is good for society.

Anonymous said...

In my not-so-humble opinion, networking is, to borrow a phrase from one of your earlier articles about whether going to college makes sense, like a chain saw: It's a powerful tool, but only in certain circumstances is it the RIGHT tool, and if used improperly, can do more harm than good.

Here are some situations when networking might not be the right tool:

1. What if you just moved into town, either because you're following your spouse's new job, want to be closer to parents/kids, or find that your locale is poor job hunting grounds?

2. What if you are changing careers and don't know anybody in that field?

3. What if you live in a place where you already know almost everyone or where it's hard to make a decent number of connections, such as a small town in a sparsely populated state?

4. What if you're not the networking type? Introverted folks come to mind.

5. What if you have physical, psychological, financial, or other limitations that interfere with networking?

6. What if you're applying for highly specialized jobs that you can't just schmooze your way into, such as nuclear power plant operating engineer?

And like college, we tend to put too much undeserved stock into networking and think it's a better way than it is.

On a personal note, I haven't gotten any of my jobs through networking per se. The closest thing that happened was that someone I knew said "I saw this job on that you might be interested in."

Anonymous said...

When my friend's son graduated, he made a pact with his friends that whoever got employed first would help the others to get in, through, and/or over.
I think the younger generation's emphasis on "networking" is an acknowledgment that the company/corporation could care less about "their people." Your real occupational loyalty should be to your friends.
Also, unlike many my age (55), these younger people don't make a separation/distinction between their work life and their personal life—they want to work with their friends/be friends with those they work for/with.
I think also could explain why there seems to be more tension (for lack of a better word) when colleagues vary in age.
for what it's worth....

Grace said...

Networking, when it is a slick job search technique, is creepy. Feigning interest in someone else for the purpose of using them is not natural.

The people that seem to succeed in networking do so, not because they have mastered a technique, but because they not networking at all. They are simply engaging individuals who show genuine interest in other people. The questions they ask are relevant, and not just posed to make them look good. The help they offer is practical and the contact they make is minimal. I think the classic "How to Win Friends and Influence People" is a great networking tool because of the hard core tips such as "Smile." These people don't expect others to do their work for them and do the research before opening their mouths. They are good listeners. They read others well and offer simple courtesy and respect.

If you are a person that engages others in pleasant, natural, meaningful conversation and combines this talent with a willingess to talk to people from all walks of life you will be more than a good networker. You will be a good citizen. And you will probably find employment fairly quickly.

Marty Nemko said...

Great comment as usual, dear Grace.

Matt said...

Your 2nd anonymous poster and Grace both brought my concerns straight to the foreground. The 2nd anonymous talked about how networking is disadvantageous to introverted people as well as those who are entering a new field.

Those are both my main concerns and getting over this hump is a major problem for me which brings me to the point Grace made. Grace had talked about the forced feeling of talking to people so they can get you a job and how it 'uses' people. I say that as someone who has done it myself. We continue to be told that we have to know the right people in order to get the job we need. Most of us didn't set out early in our lives to make friends with future CPAs, lawyers, managers, or any other occupation. We simply made friends due to common interest or circumstance.

Now, all the people in the know are repeating the same message ad nauseam. "If you want a good job, you have to tap into your network of contacts so that they can get you a good one." Many of us probably don't know well-connected people and even those who do will likely still be in a hiring freeze.

Now we feel forced to talk to people we otherwise would never talk to simply because of who they are and who they work for, just like in the movie "A Man For All Seasons". This insistence that networking is the only way to get a leg up on the competition forces people like myself to spend a lot of time talking to people we would otherwise likely not talk to. This isn't because they might not be good people, but because they are a stranger and don't share a common interest with us. Many of us are quite aware how creepy we appear when we do this. But what's the alternative? Should we destroy our circle of friends and play the charade so that we can get a job 3 or 4 years down the line? It feels like "no one can just get in, either you were already in or you're not" What can one do?

Marty Nemko said...

I, who truly am a hermit at heart, have suffered from my unwillingness to schmooze. I've done okay by working hard at what I do best: write, think, and counsel, and taking the time it takes to become expert. And instead of networking, I got my clients originally by being good on the radio and later by referral and by writing a ton and putting it up on my blog and site, and sending my best writings cold to prestigious publishers and I, often enough (except when my work is politically incorrect), get published. When I get published once with an organization, I try to be as low-maintenance and kind as I can be.

I know that's an inadequate answer but it's the best and most honest I can come up with. Matthew.

Frustrated Fed said...

I have also suffered from my unwillingness to schmooze. That’s why I advise self-employment in a field where there is always demand. Example: My cousin graduate from Virginia Military Institute in the late 1980s with a degree in mechanical engineering. He spent the next 15 years working for architectural firms designing HVAC systems. In 2005, he started his own HVAC business in Richmond. I was surprised because he is NOT a schmoozer. However, despite the recession, business is great and he has no regrets. He loves being self-employed. He attributes his success to word of mouth advertising and delivering quality service.

Grace said...

We should all continue to network, but we need to redefine what that means. Networking does not have to equal "schmooze". We should never engage in job search activity that does not reflect our own values or style. Work with what comes naturally to you.

Instead of calling it "selling yourself", simply try sharing yourself. Put yourself in a position or at a function where it is likely that someone will ask, "And what do you do?" and then have a genuine conversation.

Your network doesn't have to be filled with so-called "well-connected" powerful people. Networks do more than just connect you to job leads. They give you information, ideas, and new perspectives. Your great grandmother may tell an inspiring story that may have an impact on how you conduct your job search.

You never know who you are going to learn from. That's the exciting part.

Marty Nemko said...

Thank you, again, Grace. You make me glad I blog.

Maureen Nelson said...

"All networking is ultimately manipulative"?? There you go with your black-and-white thinking again. (Clooney's character: "I stereotype; it's faster.") I give a lot to many people where I never get a thing back and never give it a second thought. I'm always connecting two people who should know each other, or giving info interviews, or, like you, free advice, and I don't count the cost. If you feel taken advantage of, you ought to say "No" more or simply stop doing stuff for people if your heart's not in it. BTW, as a hiring manager, I once interviewed a colleague in my field with whom I'd done much "networking" and didn't hire her because she wasn't the best person for the job. Also, consider this: there's a particular person I give a lot to and I ask a lot from them as well, but those two actions aren't connected. I ask them because they have what I need, not because I think I have something "in the bank." (Shame! Shame! on that kind of score-keeping.) My motives are pure. The flip side of that: even though they act against me, I'm kind to them. No one can tell me what to do with my "wealth" (generosity of spirit).