The Dos & Don’ts Of Friends & Family Helping Your Job Search

mm Russ Finkelstein

A big part of the equation of overall happiness as an adult is the quality of the relationships around us. These relationships can be tested during times of transition – moving, children, illness and certainly a change in job status.  Your friends and family can undoubtedly be helpful as you navigate your job search, but it’s important to remember that you only get one set of friends and family. They’re not an inexhaustible resource!

As a career coach, you won’t be surprised that people out of work ask me for help fairly often. When the people asking are my friends and family, I have an even greater responsibility in helping them out, because I have more of a shared history with the person, not to mention the unblinking eyes and expectations of my collective extended family!

However, I have learned a few things from these experiences that enable a more successful job search AND lower the possibility of friction with them or my network. Here’s how to ask them for help when you’re looking for work, and still be a welcome presence at family and social gatherings:

Do:

  1. Know what you want are looking for

It’s a lot easier for people to help you and make necessary introductions if you know what you are seeking. Of course this means that you will have done some work to figure this out. If you have been through any introspective process either with a program or person, you should be able to narrow in on your strengths, and to get a realistic sense of what your next move should be. It is then a lot easier to approach your connection saying, “I’m looking to move into this specific field, at this specific level, and I’m after introductions to people who might be able to give me some advice about doing that.

Think about the difference in how you can offer specific help if someone says:

  1. Hey, I want a job
  2. Hey, I want a job in marketing
  3. Hey, I want a job in digital marketing at a start-up
  4. Hey, I want a job in digital marketing at an educational start-up in the Bay Area  

Now, here’s the thing: It is very likely that as you get to (d) your friend or family member is less likely to have many people in mind, and perhaps they may not even have one. However, the more you know and can direct others the more likely they are to get you a contact that can help you. You can always work you way back to (c), but know that the less sure you are the more you may need to change the expectations shared in your introductions.

In fact, at some point as you get more general it becomes much smarter to actually get across the point below.

  1. If you don’t know what you want, say so!

The majority of people who tell me they know what they want are incorrect. They try to get across a certainty that quickly disintegrates after a few basic questions about the position or industry. It is ok not to know. It is not ok to not know, but have your friend or relative advocate for you as though you do. When that happens every person in that process you, your friend or relative and/or the person you engage are worse off for that misinformation. Remember the mantra that we do not tread on the reputations of others.

If you aren’t sure, it’s typically better to initiate the conversation with your friend or family member like so, “I’ve decided to have some exploratory conversations for now. I’m a little unsure of what my next move should be, and so I’m really looking to gather as much information as possible, and that means meeting people in the fields or roles I’ve always been interested in.” This enables them to share with their contact(s) a very different narrative and changes the expectation that you might be seeking a job as soon as possible and shifts expectations about how much you should know about that field. It doesn’t reduce the likelihood that they will meet with you. In fact, often it will increase because while they can’t guarantee you a job they can guarantee you a thoughtful answer to your questions.

  1. Treat their connections like gaining ever more exclusive access at a club.

Whether we think about it in such transactional terms, we all have networks of varied size and quality. I tell people to visualize them like unlocking a series of velvet ropes at an exclusive nightclub. You get access to someone’s inner circle based on the math of who that person is and how available are they usually and your preceding behavior. How were you in the line outside? (i.e. Is your professional email address “jimmybuffetfan4life at parrothead dot com”) In the main room? (I.e. Do you say, “I just want a job that’s easy where I get paid a lot!”) In the public VIP area? (I.e. Do you have a set of questions that you are pulling from to ask the person?) No matter how well you know your connector, prior behavior carries a lot of weight at each stage.

Whom they will introduce you to will be determined by how you carry yourself in the earlier conversations. Remember, they too have people in their network that they know they can reach out to less frequently, and they are careful with who gains access to them. They don’t want to be downgraded either. How you act in your preparations, conversations and follow-through will determine whether you get to meet more people in their network.

  1. Give them the best version of yourself to share.

Do you have a LinkedIn profile that shares your accomplishments that your friend or family member can refer others to? Do you have a succinct elevator pitch developed that can be used by them to get across who you are? This stuff, honestly, is so, so, so, important when it comes to making the right first impression and offering you some further professional context to this stranger. I would give this tip ten tips of its own, if I thought it would make you take it very seriously! Remember, you aren’t just representing yourself, but also the reputation of someone you care about. You want to equip them so they have the greatest likelihood of helping you.

  1. Update your friend or family member after you met their connection.

After you’ve conducted the conversation, follow up with your friend or family member and tell them how the conversation went, what you learned, and how your search is going, now. Of course, you will have extended your appreciation to the person you have spoken with at the beginning and end of the conversation and ideally with a follow-up email. However, it’s also important that you let your friend or family member know about the impact of these collective conversations.

As a reminder, if you told them you were certain that you wanted to speak with a pastry chef in Boston and now you decide that you want to meet an actuary in Atlanta, they are likely going to not be excited to make more introductions. This is the value of saying that you are exploring what you might want to do versus being certain that you know what to do.

Don’t:

  1. If an introduction isn’t followed-up, don’t expect further help.

If you ask someone for an introduction, and they make it, and you don’t follow up, you shouldn’t expect them to do more for you. I know that short of some catastrophic reason I’m never going to make another introduction for you again. It is amazing the number of people who fail to follow through. It is also shocking, the number of people who do that, and then come back later, wanting further introductions.

You’ll be unsurprised: I tend to give them short shrift, at that point.

  1. Don’t expect your friends or family to do all of the heavy lifting

It they have been generous by making a few introductions, it doesn’t mean that your effort to hold conversations should be only through people in their network. The idea is that I have given you a foundation of individuals, and you can use those people to get several more people to interview. This is an opportunity to create an extensive network of contacts that can unearth interesting opportunities.

I am not on the job as your personal search firm. An important skill in looking for work is building on your leads. The sooner you develop this the better you will be at any time of job search no and in the future.

  1. Don’t forget that above all that they are doing you a favor.

If someone tells you they can’t help right now, or that they don’t have a connection in the area you’re looking to break into, it’s important to be able to hear that, because it’s probably true. (Or you scared them off with your behavior in Tip 3) Don’t read it as a personal rejection, and remember, because you’re out of work, you’re probably doubting yourself quite a lot. When the search for work is going poorly it can become a time where most people react badly to not getting what they want, because they may feel so powerless in other aspects of their lives. You should be careful about reacting so strongly to those who know you best. They tend to have long memories and may be triggered by your words so: Check yourself when you are reacting that way, and perhaps ask an outsider for perspective. Proceed carefully.

  1. Don’t place too much weight on anyone’s opinion

Remember the all-important distinction between respectfully listening to that helpful person’s opinion and taking it as though it is absolute truth. Very often I’ll talk to someone looking for work who’s heard a piece of advice from somewhere, and I’ll say, “that’s not been my experience, something I’ve heard from others is this…” or “how did you come to that conclusion?” and they’ll say “I spoke with someone who said…” and it’s really best to allow additional human experience to be part of the solution when you’re looking for work. It’s that issue of how we make sure our decisions are informed. Being informed is not one conversation, nor is it maximizing your opportunity to build a network.

If your friend or relative asks, you can say that you spoke with several people and you found their opinion useful, but a bit of an outlier. Reiterate, how important it is that you get a well-rounded set of opinions. Those who care about you respect a thorough process.

  1. Don’t forget to say “Thank You.”

When you ask someone for help, appreciate that it’s a big deal. Say

‘Thank you’, and tell them why you appreciated what they did. I always say that ‘thank you’ runs on a scale: It can be as quick as thanking the person for making the introductions, or they might be a bit more heartfelt. “This is a challenging process, it’s made that much easier by having people who’re able to do things like this.” And I think, clearly, the more you put into it, the better.  

There it is. The tips above represent the places where I typically see people struggling to engage those they know best in the quest for the right next job.

Remember sometimes you will be the jobseeker, and other times, you will be providing access to your network. Follow the rules, and you will have a good experience in either role. Good luck!

Russ Finkelstein is Managing Director of ClearlyNext, a guided online career program that helps people of all backgrounds and incomes figure out what to do next. Read more >