In this new era of remote work and physical distancing, large group, in-person professional networking events have been put on hold. The same is true for in-person, internal, in-company interactions that foster the development of meaningful connections and relationships. While some people are desperately pining away for the return of happy hours, coffee breaks, and professional conferences, many others are relieved that they are no longer pressured to network. In fact, it’s fair to say that many hate instrumental networking — they are uncomfortable with its seemingly self-promoting, transactional nature, and research finds that some people quite literally find it icky.
In remote work situations, where people cannot rely on impromptu elevator conversations or water cooler chats with coworkers, the answer isn’t to turn inward. In fact, the need for networking is even more important. During challenging economic times, both external and internal networking can provide energizing social connections, firm and industry insight, personal affirmation, social support, and access to career opportunities. In particular, our interactions with people whose backgrounds and perspectives differ from our own helps us to become smarter, more creative, and better equipped to solve difficult problems.
Building relationships across differences does not come naturally or automatically, however. According to our research, networking can be especially challenging for professionals of color, who may not only experience general discomfort, but also face unique challenges from not being perceived as powerful, credible, or resourceful — this deficit-based assessment often results in less outreach and relationship-building. Professionals of color are also at higher risk of becoming isolated, struggling to navigate the racial boundaries at social events — in particular, they hesitate to share information about themselves, which limits their ability to be authentic at work and to build deep relationships.
The common mantra about working “twice as hard to get half as much” unfortunately rings true in economic data, which suggests that Black men and women must outwork and outperform their white counterparts to be seen as comparably skilled. Our research shows that this extends to activities like networking, where workers who differ from their counterparts report feeling excluded and marginalized, which makes it harder for them to believe that their social capital is valued.
At the same time, the pandemic may offer new opportunities for professionals of color to network in ways that are more comfortable and authentic. By identifying these strategies, professionals of color can build new relationships that can elevate their careers over the short- and long-term. One big hurdle, however, to capitalizing on these possibilities is confronting the ways in which internal and external networking is perceived by professionals of color.
Before the start of Covid-19, and in collaboration with The Partnership, Inc., we surveyed 300 mid-to-senior level professionals of color in the U.S. about their perceptions of networking and how frequently they engaged in it. More than half reported they were “too busy” to participate in networking events, 30% cited work-related conflicts, 17% reported they preferred to focus on work, and 17% associate networking with “playing politics.”
One professional stated, “My personal cost/benefit analysis suggests that networking events do not reap as much benefit as other professional and personal activities.” A Black executive in the financial services sector noted, “I definitely am not a natural networker per se. My relationship building has primarily been through the lens of my work and using that as the basis to build relationships. I’m not comfortable with inorganic interaction. I’m not the ‘Let’s go to a cocktail reception and strike up a conversation’ type person.”
Broadly, networking was not a top priority for the majority of professionals in our study; fewer than half felt it was essential for their careers, and senior executives were even less likely to consider networking essential compared to early career professionals. (Compare this to a 2017 global LinkedIn survey where 80% of professionals said networking was important for career success — though, interestingly, half of the respondents said they were too busy to network, which is similar to our findings.) This head-down approach results in a startling statistic: 82% participated in networking activities less than once per month.
This lack of networking clearly has a cost, one that is often larger for marginalized individuals in the organization. Ultimately, this low frequency is not nearly enough for people who are serious about investing in high-quality connections that are essential for well-being and career success.
As a Black venture capitalist stated, “We’re just too heads down on our work, and we’re not doing the networking, which is hurting us. We’re not spending the time to build rapport with the people that are making the decisions about who gets the next job, who gets the next big opportunity. They don’t know us. They don’t have a rapport with us. They haven’t heard us talk about what we’ve accomplished. Then we’re not going to come up in the conversation when they decide who’s going to get the next high-level job.”
In fact, the Covid-19 crisis may create new, more attractive opportunities for building relationships with people who can share valuable information about opportunities, provide honest assessments of strengths and weaknesses, and advocate for promotions.
First, many of the obstacles that our study participants identified can be removed in this time of physical distancing. For example, several reported that the event locations were often too inconvenient for travel, or designated “networking opportunities” conflicted with other work obligations. Other barriers included the cost of events. And while in-person professional conferences may be on hold, less expensive virtual events, community volunteering, and social media interactions are likely to increase in the near future.
Here are some other ways in which professionals of color can leverage networking strategies to stay connected and visible while working remotely, though these actions would likely benefit anyone in the current work arrangement.
Reach out through social media or direct message to individuals you’ve known for a while but haven’t connected within some time. When everyone is busy coming and going, these relationships can fall off the radar. But they are especially valuable in helping you to feel more connected and authentic during crises, reminding you of your core values, goals, and dreams. They may also be aware of new job opportunities, which can be valuable information as companies shift to meet new economic pressures.
Despite these findings, our research also revealed several networking activities that professionals of color are likely to engage in:
The top response in our networking survey to people of color was participating in professional conferences, most of which have been canceled or postponed until large gatherings are safe. But a host of virtual learning opportunities have launched in their place, providing opportunities to meet new people through workshops and discussion groups. Most colleges and universities are offering a variety of virtual seminars and other learning opportunities that support education and community building. Social media channels also offer interest-based groups where people can share resources and suggestions for dealing with work-related challenges.
A common thread in the success stories of professionals of color is the support of a champion or sponsor — someone in the organization that not only provides advice but helps to create the conditions for new opportunities and increased visibility. It is critical to sustaining these connections, especially in light of greater uncertainty in the economic landscape.
Our survey showed that people are more enthusiastic about networking opportunities that are coupled with organized outreach events. Through these activities, they are more likely to meet people with common intellectual, business, and/or values-based interests. For professionals of color in our studies, these community service activities often include targeted outreach toward underserved and marginalized communities, such as mentoring youth of color and serving on not-for-profit boards. Community-based networking events are attractive because they tap into a sense of collective identity and higher purpose. They also help to counteract the belief that networking is purely motivated by self-interest.
We also discovered, through follow-up interviews and case studies of Black executives, that those most likely to invest in networking were able to reframe their perceptions of these activities from self-focused to other-focused. Conversations about networking became livelier when professionals talked about networks to which they belonged, rather than networks that they possessed. A discussion of “my” network can be off-putting, casting one as an instrumentally-focused power broker who may put personal advancement ahead of relationship strength. On the contrary, practices that build shared networks, e.g., “our” [alumni/community group/professional association] networks, were evident in examples of people who were willing to make time in their busy schedule to field phone calls from strangers, answer informational questions from acquaintances, and help position other people for personal and professional success. As one professional of the color stated, “Networking is essential to the soul. It is not about me.”
Black alumni associations are useful exemplars of shared networks, which meet regularly in regional groups, facilitate formal service and fundraising events, while also functioning as an insider channel for looping people typically in the margins into promising developmental opportunities. These unique forms of shared networks also provide rich contexts of cultural familiarity, which helps workers and their families to create a sense of community in companies and cities where they may be demographically underrepresented. For instance, one Black executive said, “We can speak in shorthand to one another and say, how are you going to deal with this issue, we’re all trying to accomplish similar things. … There’s an inspirational level to it.”
The value of Employee Resource Groups has been called into question recently, under the rationale that they fail to promote inclusion. However, our findings suggest that ERGs provide an important vehicle for building and sustaining relationships — an especially challenging task for professionals of color, which should be systematically supported for the benefit of the workers and their companies. Now, more than ever, firms should invest in initiatives that support the strategic aims of ERGs to build community and strengthen business leadership.
The networking activities that we highlight provide the sustenance needed to withstand this period of dislocation and disorientation. However, the burden of contact should not be borne solely by professionals of color alone. A lack of physical presence can exacerbate the “invisibility conundrum” that many professionals of color experience as bein
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