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Manners can be lost in rush to network

(ran NP edition)

(Final edited version not provided for electronic library, please see microfilm.)

While attending a wedding reception in December in Great Neck, N.Y., Andrea Nierenberg, a corporate trainer from Manhattan, thought it was a little odd when the guest seated across from her began passing out business cards. At first, she went along with it, thinking that he was just outgoing.

But she was taken aback when this guest, a stockbroker, began asking everyone at the table about their investments, jotting down notes, then boasting that he could provide better returns. The next day he called her and some of the other guests; not only did he want to set up appointments, but he also asked for phone numbers of other people who might want his advice, she said.

"We were aghast because this had been a social event and this man had been so pushy," Nierenberg, 46, said. "Networking is all about establishing relationships and building trust, but he started working on us before we even got to the soup."

Nierenberg's experience is hardly uncommon. Pressed for time and worried about the skittish economy, many people have been networking at a frenzied pace, career and network consultants say, whether to find a job or drum up business.

But there is a right way and a wrong way to network. To help people learn networking etiquette, a growing number of courses and seminars are being offered across the country, and many of the organizers say they have been filling up as fast as they are offered.

Nierenberg said the number of networking etiquette courses she has offered through her company, the Nierenberg Group, has tripled in the past two years. Paul Bernard, a career management consultant and executive coach in Manhattan, estimates he is turning away about 25 percent of the people who want to attend his seminars on the topic. And Marsha Gordon, president of the Westchester County (N.Y.) Chamber of Commerce, said the best-attended networking roundtable sponsored by her group was the one last month about etiquette.

By many accounts, such sessions are needed. Career and etiquette consultants say the race to network has fostered an almost appalling deterioration in manners. They offer these examples: A frozen-faced photographer hands out business cards during a networking party, barely uttering a word, much less extending a handshake. A young lawyer drones on to her father's high-ranking friends, treating each like a personal career adviser. A financial services employee asks a friend of a friend if he can copy his electronic Rolodex.

Some networking consultants say the breakdown in manners is partly attributable to technology. E-mail, for example, makes it easier to fire off messages en masse.

"I've seen a lot of people networking like robots lately," said Donna Fisher, a corporate trainer in Houston and co-author of Power Networking: 59 Secrets for Personal and Professional Success and author of Professional Networking for Dummies.

Bernard said he began offering courses focusing on networking etiquette after hearing complaints about egregious behavior from colleagues and friends. One cosmetics executive, he said, told him she was going to stop being a networking source.

"She was tired of everyone being so rude, of networking being a one-way street, and no one ever, ever saying, "Thank you,' " Bernard said. "This executive was so angry that she had literally taken her name off of an alumni server list."

During a networking etiquette seminar last month, Bernard spent four hours offering etiquette tips to 16 enthusiastic members of a local Duke University alumni club. The group included an actor, an art dealer, a lawyer and a technology executive who, after 30 years in the work force, recently lost his job. While some were looking for advice that could help land them work, others were hoping that mannerly networking would make them more effective in their present jobs.

Networking etiquette also is important at the Katharine Gibbs Schools, which in their early days focused mostly on pumps-and-pearls training and etiquette for secretaries. The schools now offer training in areas such as computer technology, design and hospitality.

Patricia Martin, managing director of the Katharine Gibbs division of the Career Education Corp. in Hoffman Estates, Ill., said all nine Katharine Gibbs Schools soon would begin offering networking etiquette seminars to students and alumni. The schools want to offer the seminars to the public eventually, she said.

Lately, Martin said, she has noticed "a more assertive type of networking that is not always effective," usually taking the form of multiple phone calls, showing up without appointments and sometimes using the name of a referral or contact that the person barely knows. (All are no-no's.)

Often, she said, the assertiveness backfires, especially if the truth is stretched. At one social gathering, she said, a potential networker "ended up describing her job history to the human resources director of a company where the woman said she had once worked, but in fact, hadn't."

Networking consultants say many people simply do not realize that successful networking is reciprocal by definition. At the etiquette seminar for the Duke alumni, Bernard repeatedly told the group to "always be prepared to give back" to a networking contact, even if only by sending him or her a potentially interesting newspaper or magazine clipping.

Fisher agreed. "I tell people to ask, thank and offer, in every single conversation, even if it's just saying: "Thank you. Now, what can I do for you?' Most often, people will tell you that they don't need anything, but the point is that you offered, and that alone may set you apart."

Networkers also need to beware of questionable advice. When Brian Model, 35, now employed as a venture capitalist at Silicon Alley Venture Partners in New York, was interviewing for a job last year while finishing his MBA, a recruiter for a New York bank recommended that he not send thank-you notes afterward. Written notes, he recalled the recruiter saying, offer a chance to misspell an interviewer's name, and they usually arrive after an employment decision has been made about the writer.

Model doesn't buy that advice. "To me, a thank-you note is just common courtesy, and it may actually reinforce any positive impressions that I might have made earlier," he said. He said he suspects the thank-you note he sent to his current employer might have helped distinguish him on a short list of job candidates.

Most networking advisers also stand by thank-you notes. And they offer a few other suggestions on the proper ways to network:

At a company or industry event, don't stand in a corner, waiting to be introduced. Reach out to someone graciously, even if it means pointing them in the right direction of the appetizers.

Don't use voice-mail messages for networking. Have live conversations on the telephone, but keep them to no more than five to seven minutes.

Ask open-ended questions that cannot be answered with a simple "yes" or "no."

Keep note cards on hand so they can be dashed off quickly. If time is a problem, first send a thank-you message by e-mail, then follow up with a written note within a day. (For an extra-special thank you, a small book, flowers or chocolates may be appropriate.)

Always follow through. Don't ignore requests for more information about yourself.

People who are asked for help have found ways to deal with egregious behavior. Nierenberg, for example, said she received an e-mail message on New Year's Day from someone she hardly knew. This person had sent a resume and had asked for the names of everyone she knew in the area of direct marketing.

"I e-mailed this person back and told him that in order for me to do that I first needed to have a conversation with him, because it was my reputation that was on the line," she said. "I guess he really was just in this for himself, because I'm still waiting for him to call."

As for that boorish man at the wedding, Nierenberg says she essentially told him the same thing. She asked him, for example, to send her some information about himself and his company.

"I've never heard from him either," she said.