Asking an Old Friend for Job Help
February 21, 2014 8:04 AM   Subscribe

I'm out of work right now and am doing everything I can to network myself into employment. I recently noticed a job for which I'd be qualified at a large, prestigious company where an old friend is a major player. I haven't talked to him in six years. Can I approach him for an employee referral, and if so, how?

When I was a teenager, I had a fun, crazy friend with whom I traveled one summer. We were pretty close but lost touch soon after. He contacted me on Facebook to ask for a coffee date about six years ago, but never replied to my positive response. Since then he's become a nationally known figure at a major company. He writes books, influences foreign policy, all sort of impressive stuff. I'm sure he'd remember me, but he probably has a lot of more important things to think about.

A job recently opened at the company where he holds a position. I have the necessary experience and think I could be a good fit. I know someone else at the company who can offer me a referral and don't want to bother my old friend with whom I've had zero contact since 2008, especially to ask for something that could sound suspiciously like, "Use your importance to get me a job." On the other hand, that sort of spits in the face of all of the advice I've received about networking. I should use any connection I have, especially if it's big-time, right?

Networking makes me squeamish, and I'm worried my old friend (if he does even respond to me) would feel used or think I'm a dick for asking for a favor. I respect him and don't want to be a jerk to him. I could ask him for a drink and then casually mention I'm looking for work, but I'd rather be forthright. Should I contact this person, and if so, how would you recommend I do it? What on earth do I say? "Hi! Remember me? I'm applying to another division at your company and was wondering if you'd do me the favor of looking over my resume?" I am really shy about this sort of thing, so any advice anyone here can offer about this job networking stuff would be so helpful to me.
posted by pineappleheart to Work & Money (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I think your discomfort is the correct response here. It'd be one thing if you'd worked together, but asking for a referral from someone on the basis of having been good friends as teenagers feels kind of fraught to me. Asking about the resume is probably all right, but I'd steer clear of anything that'd get him involved in the formal hiring process.
posted by kagredon at 8:13 AM on February 21, 2014

Be honest about what you are doing. I get hit up by people for job referrals kind of a lot and I can see them coming from a mile away and it makes me want to strangle some people. The only people I refer are those I think are qualified that I either reached out to myself or that were honest about asking me for a referral and I think they are qualified. All others are ignored.

Wrong way: (via IM usually)
"Hey, How are you??? We haven't talked in so long! OMG I miss you we totes need to get together!" My response could really be ANYTHING here it doesn't matter. "Yeah, I'm doing pretty well too, lots going on with the kids/moving/band. So I heard you are working at ___ how is that?" I could again say ANYTHING, because they don't care what my responses are. "So I saw they had this job that I'm totally unqualified for could you make sure I get it? kthnxbai!"

Right way: (via email that I can ignore if I really want to or respond to in my own time)
Acknowledge that you haven't spoken in a long time. Explain that you are looking for a job and saw the opening, ask if there is something special you can do to apply. Ask if they would feel uncomfortable if you mentioned them. Explain why you think you are actually qualified for the job and include your resume so they can verify that they think you are qualified for the job. Mention that you know someone else there who is willing to give a reference but that you wanted to check in so they wouldn't be caught off guard if they saw you coming through.
posted by magnetsphere at 8:15 AM on February 21, 2014 [24 favorites]

"Hey ___, can I buy you a coffee next [Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday] and catch up? I'd like to chat about the ___ role in your company."

You don't need or want to overthink this. Asking once is not being a jerk. Not asking likely won't get you the job, so there's nothing to lose.

[Good luck. I start my new job on Monday. I asked a contact out for coffee through a text, and ...]
posted by scruss at 8:17 AM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

At my place of employment, I get a bonus if I refer someone who is then hired, so you may not be imposing as much as you fear.
posted by xingcat at 8:20 AM on February 21, 2014 [9 favorites]

Get in touch in your preferred manner and say something along these lines: "Hey, how's it been? Long time no see, huh? I'm planning on applying for X position and I think I have great and pertinent experience. I noticed that you work there. Is there anything you can share with me about the special requirements of this position?"

Friend can then decline to respond, can respond but not offer any suggestions, or can offer to put your name through. Depending on how it's received, you can follow up to arrange a face-to-face meeting.
posted by Liesl at 8:20 AM on February 21, 2014 [5 favorites]

I think there would be nothing wrong with asking him whether he thinks you would be a good fit for the job. It seems you have nothing to lose by doing that, and it's a more indirect way of asking for help.
posted by Dansaman at 8:23 AM on February 21, 2014

Response by poster: I should mention that this friend is kind of probably a figurehead at the company so he probably doesn't know much about the job I'd be applying for.

(We did meet on a human rights project as teenagers, not as wild drinking buddies or anything, and the work he does is still in human rights, so although we haven't worked together, this job is in line with what he already knows about me.)
posted by pineappleheart at 8:28 AM on February 21, 2014

It doesn't sound like you really have any connection with this person. At best it would be an awkward situation for you to ask this guy to vouch for you. At worst he'll be annoyed. Find another way into the company.

One possible route to securing a meeting with him is to figure out what he does, what he's known for, and provide him with some materials that you think would help him with his job. But a contact you last spoke with 6 years ago who never responded to a coffee invitation, is not a contact on whom you should be relying for your job search. Consider him as a potential contact if you guys are able to re-establish a relationship. But don't think he holds the keys to this company.
posted by dfriedman at 8:34 AM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think it is fine to reach out and network as long as you are clear about your intentions and as long as you are reasonable in setting your own expectations. There is nothing shameful about asking for a small favor like looking over your resume and giving you insight into the company. He may not respond or he may respond and say that's in another division and he can't offer any assistance. However, he could respond postively particularly if you really do seem to be well-suited for the position. If he is feeling particularly helpful, he might volunteer to do more. The last time I tried to do some networking, I found that people were suprisingly helpful. Many people have received networking help somewhere along the line and are willing to pay it forward, particularly if they like you. Some people just won't respond to your e-mails or make polite excuses, which is fine. We all have to decide where to draw lines and how to spend our time and political capital.
posted by Area Man at 8:37 AM on February 21, 2014

Absolutely get in touch with him.

"Hey, it's been awhile, and I'm in the job market. It turns out there's an open opportunity in your organization. I'm going to apply for it, and if you have any insight or guidance that you think would be useful to me, I'd really appreciate your feedback."

You can add any small talk to that message, but make the whole thing short and sweet.

Either you hear from him or you don't, but you can't put the kibosh on it just by asking.

We all expect our old friends and coworkers to contact us for jobs and networking. I had a friend reach out a couple of weeks ago. I helped her out and I feel perfectly okay about it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:37 AM on February 21, 2014 [19 favorites]

I get emails from people I haven't seen irl in decades, about work/show biz/how to get their kid's script read, and sometimes, I'm glad to help. Usually, if they haven't emailed me, connected on social media, I just reply that I'm not able to help. "Old friend" and "not contacted for 6 years" cancel each other out, I think. But it you want to find a job, I'd get over the queasiness about networking.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:39 AM on February 21, 2014

Another data point for the "he might get a referral bonus" team. This is how things work at my company, and I'd be so delighted if a blast from my past talked to me about a job they'd seen advertised - as long as they were someone I could recommend in good faith and didn't have any personal qualms about.
posted by terretu at 8:52 AM on February 21, 2014

I would not ask for a recommendation. I would ask, how do I make sure my resume gets past the computerized screening so that it gets seen by the right people.

If he doesn't want to help, he can just say be sure to use keywords from the job description.

If he does want to help, he can offer to hand a copy of your resume to the manager or HR director or whoever he knows that is relevant.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 10:50 AM on February 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

Yes, contact the guy, quickly: in this environment especially, this is how jobs are most efficiently found.

But a couple of suggestions:

Ruthless Bunny's approach is a good one:

"Hey, it's been awhile, and I'm in the job market. It turns out there's an open opportunity in your organization. I'm going to apply for it, and if you have any insight or guidance that you think would be useful to me, I'd really appreciate your feedback."

Another approach would be to say that you are applying for a job in his organization, and want to get a better sense of the culture than from what can be gleaned from the usual publicly available happy talk. (And by the way, this sort of information can be very useful in the interviewing process and vital if you want a career there.)

The way to phrase it could be:

"I'm in the job market and applying to the open Chief Cook and Bottle Washer / Whatever Position in your firm. I was hoping that I could buy you lunch / a drink / a cup of coffee to get your perspective on the firm's culture."

Something like that.

The beauty of this sort of approach is that, while you are asking him for assistance, you are not asking him to make much of an effort / go out of his way / spend precious political capital / or otherwise actively participate in your potential hiring. It also demonstrates social smarts: one of the most critical factors -- if not the most critical factor -- in a successful employment experience is an understanding of an employer's culture and one's willingness and ability to fit in with it and function within its norms.

Also, please bear in mind that, if he is such a Big Shot, he is busy, or thinks he is; he almost certainly thinks he's important. Consequently, he may also be, or have become, sensitive to formalities. So when you reach out to him, do NOT text him. Texting presumes a degree of familiarity on the part of the sender as well as a claim on the recipient's immediate time: for someone with whom you are not close and in regular contact, it is a bad choice and too easy to dismiss as unprofessional, amateurish or timid.

By the fact that you've lobbed an "ask-me" for advice on whether you should contact him at all, I am guessing that a cold call (as in, contacting him by telephone without prior warning) is an approach with which you would not be comfortable.

So, use email, and be as short and sweet as possible. Close the email with a promise to contact him by telephone in about a week's time plus something like:

"In the meantime, I can always be reached at phone number and email address. Thank you!"

And then, after the appropriate interval of time has passed, pick up the telephone and call him!

(And if he thinks well of you and isn't a dick, he'll take your resume, pick up his phone, jump your resume through the queue, and drop a hint that he thinks you'd be a great addition to the firm. This, my friend, is how the well connected experience the world: if you have an opportunity to work the system in this way to your advantage, goshdammit do it!)

Good luck!
posted by cool breeze at 2:11 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

At my company, we can indicate how well we know someone when passing along a referral/resume. So I've definitely put in some resumes from distant friends or acquaintances, and indicated as such when doing so. They are not treated the same as a "I worked with them and they are awesome!" kind of referral, but I'm pretty sure it was still a tiny bump in getting their resume noticed / acted upon.
posted by wildcrdj at 3:43 PM on February 21, 2014

Definitely nothing wrong with approaching him, but frame it as a request for his insight/guidance rather than a recommendation. Ruthless Bunny has a good script.
posted by rpfields at 2:25 AM on February 22, 2014

Response by poster: Thank you so much, everyone. I took several days to think on this and decided to write him, even though my own personal feelings on contacting him are best captured by what kagredon and dfriedman wrote. I'm too broke and unemployed to not mine every connection I have for potential assistance and advice. As suggested, I used Ruthless Bunny's script and am crossing my fingers. As always, I appreciate the thoughtful advice here on AskMe.
posted by pineappleheart at 12:12 PM on February 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: For anyone who wonders, I'd like to update this by stating that my friend was thrilled to hear form me, asked me to come to his office, said he would help me by not only looking at my resume but also recommending me for hire (which I balked at since I thought it was asking for too much), and then began calling me at 2 am every night to ask if I thought he was attractive. When I declined to sleep with him, he stopped speaking to me. So my lesson from this is that women should probably not approach any man in power, even if he's married, with a request like mine since he will try to use her dilemma to fuck her. Thanks, life!
posted by pineappleheart at 8:13 AM on July 17, 2014

Christ, what an asshole. Sorry it went that way, pineappleheart.
posted by kagredon at 9:03 AM on July 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

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