When friends and work just don't mix

January 30, 2012: 9:35 AM ET

An innocent attempt at networking could cost you your job, your friendship, or both. Here's how you can avoid disaster.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis, contributor

FORTUNE -- When David Bakke was looking to move from restaurant management into finance, he immediately thought to contact a friend who worked at a mortgage-lending firm in Tampa. Based on the friend's recommendation, Bakke was hired for a financial analyst position at the company.

Then things turned sour. The job turned out to be little more than a secretary position. Instead of learning about risk management and financial forecasting as Bakke's friend had promised, he was making photocopies, answering phones, and taking notes in meetings. When his friend learned of Bakke's dissatisfaction, he tried to guilt trip him, saying, "If you quit, that's going to damage my reputation around here. I got you hired on the spot."

Shortly thereafter, Bakke gave notice and left the firm. His friend hasn't spoken with him since. "Fortunately, with my restaurant management background, I was able to get back into the industry," says Bakke, 45, who now is working in financial services in Atlanta. "It wasn't like I suffered any financial hardships out of the situation, but I did lose the friendship, which is unfortunate."

As our personal and work lives lap into each other, it heightens the need for better communication and forethought to avoid an uncomfortable situation like Bakke's. The stakes are higher, because you don't want to lose your friendship -- or your job. Since we're more likely to drop our guard or assume our friend has the same perspective we do, it's important to bring hidden assumptions into the open. Give as much thought to due diligence and professional etiquette with your friend as you would with any work contact.

Career strategist Darrell W. Gurney calls it a "free trade networking agreement," in which you explicitly discuss the terms of an introduction, recommendation or other situation. You might say, "I'll make the introduction. I'll leave it to you to nurture and make the most of that connection," says Gurney, author of Never Apply for a Job Again: Break the Rules, Cut the Line, Beat the Rest. Or, in Bakke's case, his friend could have said, "I'll recommend you for the job. You need to determine that it's the right fit, or it could hurt my reputation."

See also: Internal competition at work: Worth the trouble?

In retrospect, Bakke would have questioned the hiring manager more closely to learn exactly what duties he'd be responsible for, and how soon he could advance to a substantive position in mortgage finance. He wouldn't have relied on his friend's representations before taking the job.

So is it worth it to try to use your friendships in your climb up the career ladder? Matt Whitteker wouldn't do it any other way. Whitteker, 27, met his business partner in the boxing ring.

"There's a huge white-collar following in boxing clubs," he says. "You'd be surprised how many executives and CEOs go. The executives want that competition, even in their off hours."

The club's coach told Whitteker to spar with Rob Imbeault, the chief executive of software firm 10Count. Before long, they were going out for drinks with other boxers. As they got to know each other, they naturally discussed Whitteker's career -- as he sought advice from the older, experienced executive -- and their shared interest in business and technology. Four years later, Imbeault's firm ended up acquiring the online transcription and call recording company that Whitteker founded, and giving Whitteker a job at 10Count.

When networking with friends, be specific about your needs and interests and straightforward about your intentions, advises Shawn O'Connor, founder and CEO of Stratus Careers, a career counseling and training firm based in New York. Rather than just saying "I need a job," let your friends know the job positions of individuals you want to meet, and the types of employers that interest you. Do your homework on the person and the firm. Don't waste your friend's time or the goodwill of your friend's contact.

"It's hard for friends to dig deep into their networks," O'Connor says. "If you're going to use friends to try to develop your career, you really need to talk about what your expectations are."

One of O'Connor's former clients asked her friends to help set up informational interviews, but in the meetings she pressed the contacts on whether they had any job openings or knew about any openings. "She lost a number of friends and soured her reputation in the industry as well," he says. "People really felt used, in the sense that she was saying she was looking for one thing and doing something totally different. It came back to her friends from these senior people who they need for their career development."

See also: When you apply for a job and hear...nothing

To protect himself from this kind of scenario, O'Connor always emails a connection some details about what the friend is looking for and why he felt it would be a good fit. It's better for all involved to take the time up-front to ensure a connection would be helpful. The connector should tell the friend and the connection a bit about the person they're going to meet and their goals.

If your friend can't help you network, don't take offense. "It's so much better for everyone involved to say, 'I don't have anyone to connect you with,' than to connect them to the wrong person,' " O'Connor says.

After the connection has been made, follow-up with your friend about how the meeting went and how your job search is going. You should send a thank-you note or e-mail to a friend just as you would to a professional contact.

And don't limit yourself to friends. Broadcast journalist Daniel Goldstein, 40, was waiting to buy food at Roy Rogers when his wife struck up a conversation with the woman seated at the next table. It turned out she was looking to hire a writer and Goldstein's background was a good fit. After a few conversations, an interview, and pay negotiation, he took the position.

"You never know when, you never know where, and you always have to keep your ears and your eyes open. Be willing to sell yourself to anyone, anywhere, any time, even when you're standing in line at Roy Rogers," he concludes.

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About This Author
Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Contributor, Fortune

Katherine Reynolds Lewis is an award-winning Washington D.C.-based journalist specializing in finance, work, and family issues. She has written for publications including the Fiscal Times, Money, MSN, the New York Times, Parade, Slate, USA Today magazines, and the Washington Post Magazine. Previously, she worked as a national correspondent for Newhouse News Service and reported for Bloomberg News in Washington. She began her career in New York at the Bond Buyer, after graduating from Harvard College with an A.B. in physics. She is active in the Asian American Journalists Association and serves as founding co-chair of the AAJA Digital Group.

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