Is Social Networking a Career Safety Net?

There are endless reasons to build a strong network of professional contacts. But perhaps none is more compelling in 2009 than the goal of establishing a career safety net.

In a recession jobs are last to get hit, yet are the slowest part of business spending to recover. This is the time to develop or revise an escape plan to insulate you from possible downturns or unforeseen changes at work.

“I don’t know if I would go so far as to call social networking a safety net,” says Kelly Krebs, Senior Account Executive at Horn Group, “but it can help if you if you are looking to move into a new career or if you are looking to expand your customer or partner base.”

Even though the economy is slumping that doesn’t mean you should stop expanding your web of contacts. While ultimately you will find & add contacts one at a time, the truth is you can better leverage your resources by joining social network-based communities.

Most social networks are the sum of many groups, specialized around regions, companies, alumni networks, plus personal and professional interests. How do you tap into these communities? It’s fairly easy on Facebook and LinkedIn (and now too) – you can search by topic area; see network “newsfeeds” listing which groups your contacts have joined; often groups are listed in your contacts’ profiles too.

While identifying and joining a community is fairly easy, the reality is that one generally needs to invest a bit of time and energy building a community presence. In other words, before you tap a community (unless yours is a particularly touching story) the best strategy is to “pay it forward” – help others first.

We’re not talking about Karma – in the sense of what comes around goes around. Rather we’re talking about building your presence (also called your brand) in an online community. This requires an investment of time, usually two or three months, before your comments in discussion boards become familiar and respected by the group.

“For the network to be of value it needs to be cultivated through selfless acts of service and mutual benefit,” says Alan Farhi, Staffing Manager at Epiq Systems, whom I met on LinkedIn. “Trying to cultivate a network in order to find a career opportunity when you’re desperate or have lost your job is generally a little too late and a little too transparent.”

How will you know? Other members of the group will want to connect with you, even if you have never met offline and wouldn’t recognize them at the corner store.

“I often see new salespeople attend one or two networking events and say ‘networking doesn’t work’, says Cathy Jo Morris, Regional Sales Manager at AAA Washington. “Of course it doesn’t work after one or two handshakes – you need to give something to the group first before you can expect anything back. Networking is a marathon, not a sprint.”

Farhi agrees. “Social and Professional Networks work best when you don’t really need them,” he says. “A safety net seems like a last-resort measure.”  In other words, don’t wait until you need your social network, start deepening it now.