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Networking Lunch Rules

By Liz Ryan

The networking lunch is a time-honored tradition, but that doesn't mean that the protocols surrounding it are well-understood.

For job-search networkers, understanding and practicing networking etiquette is, if anything, even more critical than for other types of networkers. That's because job-search networkers rely so heavily on favors from the people they're meeting along the way.

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Here are five lunchtime networking protocols to keep in mind as you make your way through the local networking ecosystem. For our examples, we're using the fictional character Carlo as a stand-in for all the networkers you may encounter on your travels:

  1. The Happy-Life Rule. One of the very most important notions to keep in mind about networking is that when you're the one making the overture, it's your obligation to bend over backwards to accomodate your target contact.

    This is because the person you're reaching out to is almost certainly leading a happy and productive life, even without benefit of knowing you! We have to keep in mind that even though Sally and Jack think you and Carlo should meet one another, and even though you've heard incredible things about Carlo and imagine that he'll be happy to have met you once the two of you connect, your initial phone call or email message to Carlo is an intrusion.

    If you're suggesting lunch, you can't say to Carlo "Let's split the driving distance."  You have to go where he is, within a half-mile or so - or a shorter distance if Carlo lives and/or works downtown and will be walking to your lunch spot.

  2. The Entree Rule. It is tempting, as a job-seeker on the hunt, to sit down at lunch with Carlo and spill your guts - sharing all the details of your job search, your career history, and the perfect role for you right now. But you can't do that. Networking is conversation, and conversation is all about reciprocity. 

    You've got to give Carlo at least equal time in the conversation, if not more. You do that by asking Carlo about himself, his background, his professional needs and interests - sharing your own story only as the conversation permits.

    The Entree Rule will help you balance the conversation. If you begin talking by answering Carlo's question "So, please tell me about yourself" when the two of you sit down at lunch, you've got to stop talking when your entrees arrive - period. That time interval gives you more than enough time to tell your story.

    Once the entree hits the table, you are done - other than to answer specific questions Carlo may ask you. Remember, the point of the networking lunch is not to give Carlo every imaginable factoid about yourself and your job search - he won't remember those in any case - but to establish a rapport that may lead to further conversation.

  3. The Don't-Push-It Rule. If you and Carlo establish the 'glue' during lunch that will elicit from Carlo an offer of help in your quest, that's fantastic.

    But if Carlo doesn't offer to pass along your resume, make an introduction, or otherwise advise you, you can't ask for his help.

    Here's why not: a networking overture, including a lunch invitation, is the kind of social gesture that says "I would like to know you." You cannot demonstrate, imply or suggest that the only reason you want to know Carlo is because he knows people who could hire you, or because he could help you in some other way. Doing so is the height of crass behavior - it says to Carlo "You are the means to an end for me."

    So if your lunch doesn't result in an offer of assistance, at least you know one more person - you can't push the envelope to say "On top of giving me an hour of your time, can you please help me in another way, too?" Your mom (and others) didn't raise you that way.

  4. The Who-Pays Rule. If you've written to or called a complete stranger to ask him or her to lunch, you pay for lunch - that is a simple one. The Who-Pays Rule is related to the Happy-Life rule.

    It is a favor for Carlo to be spending time with you, however charming and well-connected you may be. The fact that you're job-seeking doesn't alter the Who-Pays Rule, but if Carlo insists that you and he split the bill, split it.

  5. The Follow-Up Rule. However your lunch unfolds and whatever topics you and Carlo cover over your manicotti, you must follow up with a friendly thank-you email message to Carlo. In your message, thank Carlo for his time and his great ideas on your job-search.

    Don't include your resume in your follow-up email unless Carlo asked you for it, and (harking back to the Don't Push It Rule) don't ask for any more favors - rather, remind Carlo that you're at his service if there's anything he needs from you.

    People don't help people because they're pushed and prodded to do so; they help people they genuinely like and respect. Keeping that in mind should help navigate your job-search networking lunches with aplomb.

About the author...

Liz Ryan is Job-Hunt's Networking Contributor. Liz is a former Fortune 500 VP and 25-year veteran of corporate human resources departments. In addition, Liz is the author of Happy About Online Networking and an internationally recognized expert on careers and the 21st century workplace. Find Liz on LinkedIn and on .


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Guide to Job Search Networking:

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Finding Your Network:

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