How To Ask A Stranger For Help With Job Referrals And Connections

Networking during the coronavirus pandemic requires strategic tact and persistence.
Cultivate your work relationships with acquaintances and strangers before you make a big ask to make it less transactional.
Dimitri Otis via Getty Images
Cultivate your work relationships with acquaintances and strangers before you make a big ask to make it less transactional.

The person who helps you land your next job is likely to be someone you don’t know personally: an older alumnus of your college, the person who attends the same yoga class, the professional you admire from afar on social media, the friend of a friend.

Sociologist Mark Granovetter, who has researched the power of these low-stakes relationships, found that people are more likely to get new jobs through “weak ties” with people they see rarely and don’t know well than through relationships with people they see often and do know well.

These connections are powerful because they expand beyond those of your friends and family. “The more people that you are connected to, the more opportunities you are connected to,” said Ashley Watkins, a job search coach with corporate recruiting experience.

Career experts say they have seen the power of these weak ties firsthand during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I had two job seeker clients this week in the midst of the pandemic tell me that they got offers because of targeted, cold outreach to people in their industry,” said Sarah Johnston, a former corporate recruiter and founder of Briefcase Coach. She has benefited from this type of outreach herself: “It was the kindness of strangers who helped me land my last two professional jobs.”

But this doesn’t mean you should spam people with a demand for help; that makes networking transactional. To actually get a response from a stranger, you have to be thoughtful about what you say in your initial message and find a shared point of connection.

You need to make yourself less of a stranger, in other words. Here’s how:

1. Before reaching out, do your homework.

A good networking connection is someone who has access to the kind of career you want. They can be a recruiter, someone who works in the department you’re eyeing, or the direct hiring manager of your target company, Watkins said.

To find a shared point of connection, research what you may have in common that you can bring up as an icebreaker, Watkins said. That may include Googling their career story, the schools they attended, the organizations they’ve joined, posts they have written or initiatives they are passionate about.

It doesn’t have to be a person or activity in common; it can be a shared career experience. “What is it that you’ve experienced that they’ve gone through? Did they have an unusual shift in their career around the time that you did?” Watkins said you can ask. “Did they switch from accounting into marketing and you did the same? That’s a conversation opener.”

Keep in mind that people may do their homework on you while you are researching them. Lisa Orbé-Austin, a licensed psychologist who focuses on helping professionals through career transitions, recommends polishing up your social media presence before you reach out so that there are no gaps or inappropriate Google search results when people look you up online.

That way, “People feel like, ‘Oh yeah, they did this, they did that, this is what they do currently, I see why they are reaching out to me,’” she said.

2. Make it more about them initially.

When you first reach out, do ask a question to keep the conversation going, but don’t bombard someone with your life story. “It’s always about give to get,” Watkins said.

Cynthia Pong, the founder of Embrace Change, a coaching business that focuses on helping women of color transition in their careers, said when people approach her in cold emails and messages, the most successful are those who focus on her career journey with requests like, “I would love to hear how you got started or grew your business.”

These inquiries work because they don’t feel like the person is “going to leverage that into pitching me something,” she said.

If you’ve been supportive of the person’s work in the past, say it, and ask how you can do so in the future. Pong said messages like, “I would love to hear how I can support your work” are effective because they feel a lot less extractive.

Watkins said that it helps to make your job-related requests specific when you do finally ask. If you were recently laid off and want advice on how to pivot your career, you could ask the person, “Do you have any advice you could give me on x, y, z?” Or, if you really want to work at a company but you don’t see the right position yet, you can ask, “Do you know of any openings in the pipeline?” she said.

“It was the kindness of strangers who helped me land my last two professional jobs.”

- Sarah Johnston, former corporate recruiter

3. Engage with them on social media.

Once you identify the people you want to network with, another approach is to take it slow over social media.

See the potential connection as a relationship you want to build, instead of as a transaction in which you expect an immediate result like a job referral. Before you reach out directly, engage with them on social media by commenting and liking their posts, Pong recommended.

“People appreciate that as long as it’s not too much, too soon,” she said. “It feels more organic and natural, so by the time you actually message them individually, you have something to talk about.”

If your social media engagement is sharing your appreciation for their work, get specific. “Don’t just say, ‘Oh I loved your article.’ Be able to say what resonated with you,” Watkins said.

4. Leverage shared connections to broker an introduction.

If you have a mutual friend or acquaintance, ask that person if they would be willing to give you an introduction. Orbé-Austin said you may need to spend time warming up that mutual connection if it’s been a while since you talked before you spell out what you want them to do for you.

That can sound like “‘Hey, James it’s been a while since we talked. How are you doing?... I’m in the middle of a job search and I’ve noticed you are connected to so-and-so. I was wondering if you could make a connection,’” Orbé-Austin said.

You don’t have to include your request in the initial message. Orbé-Austin said that as you engage, you follow up with what you want, because you don’t want your first ask to come across like, “‘Hey, nice seeing you again, this is what I want.’”

5. To summon your courage, remember it’s low-risk.

It can be nerve-wracking to send a message to someone you admire or don’t know, but if fear is preventing you from networking with a stranger, put that anxiety in perspective.

“The worst-case scenario is that they’re not going to respond,” Orbé-Austin said. “Remind yourself that there is low risk in this.“

And if you do get silence or a rejection, don’t let that stop you from reaching out to someone else.

“Not everyone is going to get back to you and it’s not personal ... Maybe they’ve just done 10 of these, and they’re like, ‘I can’t do another one,’ maybe they’ve had people get sick and die,” Pong said. “A lot of times, you are not going to hear back. Don’t focus on that. Focus on reaching out politely with integrity, clearly and compassionately. And then move on to the next thing.”

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