If you are like many people, the network you've slowly built over the years sat dormant while you were employed. Now, you find yourself in an awkward position: you've been laid off and you need your professional network more than ever.
But how do you reconnect with people you haven't spoken to in years?
For networks to be most effective, they should be tended to during good times and bad, according to Marilyn Feldstein, a career counselor who started Career Choices Unlimited. She says, however, that most people only start showing up at networking events after they lose their job.
"That can feel kind of weird, but it happens," she said.
The important thing is to get over the weirdness, and fast. The truth is that people often find new jobs through networking. Some surveys estimate that up to 85 percent of job seekers find their next role through some form of networking.
Fedstein thinks the reason for this is simple: "People want to help other people," she says. "I think everybody going through the recession helped people be more sensitive. Everybody was affected somehow or know someone who was affected."
So, even if you have let your network wither on the vine while you've been employed, it isn't too late to bring those relationships – and some new ones – back to life. Here are five tips for getting started.
1. Get out of the house
While it can feel weird meeting with people when you're jobless—and you certainly don't want to come off as desperate—it's also a fine time to begin rekindling your network. After all, you have more time to devote to it.
"If you haven't been networking, if you haven't gotten involved in professional associations related to what you're interested in, this is a great time," Feldstein says. "You want to be in a room with like-minded people. If you're interested in environmental issues, get involved in an environmental group."
For Feldstein, a career counselor, it was the Association for Talent Development where she found the most connections.
2. Don't be ashamed
Sometimes networking after a layoff can be intimidating, as feelings of shame stop people from reaching out.
"Laid-off workers may attribute the job loss to their own shortcomings, leading to compromised self-esteem, anxiety, and depression," according to the research paper "Effects of Layoffs and Plant Closings on Depression Among Older Workers."
Career coach Mary C. Lamia says there are four typical responses to shame: withdrawal, attacking oneself, attacking others, and avoidance. In withdrawal, a laid-off worker may not socialize because exposing their shame to others is more than they can tolerate. Some people will attack themselves, believing they aren't good enough, while others attack an external source, such as blaming an incompetent boss or co-workers. Those avoiding feelings of shame may drink or take drugs in excess.
However, don't let the negative emotions overtake you. "When you're losing your job, people want to help, so let them help you," Mary Feldstein says. Don't be ashamed. This is not something you have to take personally."
If you spend a certain number of hours meeting with people every week, you will feel more comfortable in those situations and your network will expand naturally.
"Every time you talk to somebody and you have a positive interaction with that person, they become an advocate for you," she says. "Your name gets passed around."
3. Look near and far
Christine O'Neill, a career coach who focuses on transformational change, says as soon as you hear about a layoff, you should begin working your connections within the company you're about to get laid off from. It's much easier to network with your co-workers while you're still seeing them every day.
"You definitely want to leverage your network within your organization as well as reach out and create new network contacts," she says.
This will set the stage for you to keep in contact with your colleagues in the future. You never know where they'll end up.
Meanwhile, other career counselors suggest reaching out to the fringes of your network. Whether it's an old friend or family better or your college advisor, you never know who might know someone who's hiring. When you reach out to someone from the distant past, such as the aforementioned advisor, you'll need to fill them in on what you've been doing since college. In your email, make sure to include a bullet-point list of relevant career highlights.
4. Educate your network
Your network must be informed to be effective.
"If you're not on their radar screen, people probably still think you work where you've been working," Feldstein says. It's important to reach out to let them know you are back on the job market. Shooting such a message to everyone in your network is a good first step.
Additionally, you should educate your network on what it is you want to do. We tend to place the people we know into boxes, Feldstein says. "For the people who don't know you, you have to educate them on who you are, what you're doing and where you're going."
When you reach out to your network, consider including copy along these lines:
"Since the last time we spoke, I've worked on several exciting projects that helped strengthen my skills. My favorites include: [insert short bullet-point list here]."
Now, I'm looking to shift in a different direction. I'm interested in working in ABC industry, where I think my skills of XYZ will be useful.
"What have you been working on?"
Stop short of asking for work. You don't want to be presumptuous. Instead, you're offering a career update. Ideally, people respond by sharing their updates in return.
"Think of it as you're painting a picture and you have a blank canvas," Feldstein says. "You can paint that picture any way you want. Once you get laid off, you have that opportunity."
5. Staying in touch and following up
Let others tell you how to stay in touch with them, Feldstein says.
There's nothing wrong with asking your network if they'd prefer you follow up with them by email or phone. Tell them you'll follow up after a certain amount of time, and it's very important you stick to your timeline.
Your follow-up is an opportunity to show your consistency. If you don't stick to it, you may be seen as flaky or non-committal. A regular follow up may lead to a lasting professional connection.
That said, there's a fine line between being consistent and being a pest. if someone in your network doesn't seem particularly interested in staying in touch, don't push it. Two networking emails with no response likely means that sending a third is a waste of time.
While there will be ups and downs, never lose sight of the fact that your connections to other people are the single greatest asset in your job search.
"The bottom line is people hire people," Feldstein says.
"They aren't hiring resumes."