How to find a job online: Forget Monster, try Facebook.

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March 17 2009 5:54 PM

How To Find a Job Online

Forget Monster. Try Facebook.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

Of the hundreds of people who've written to Michael Stearns, the husband who stars in myhusbandneedsajob.com, some haven't been very nice. They've mocked him for subjecting himself to public emasculation —the site's front page features a picture of Stearns' wife, Robin, holding up a sign that reads, "Hire my husband." But Stearns says he's OK with the jokes. He graduated from Georgetown's business school last May, and he's been looking for a position in corporate marketing ever since. Stearns tried everything—answering dozens of listings, cold-calling, relentless networking. Nothing panned out.

So Stearns and his wife decided to take their search online. Over the last few weeks, the couple snapped cute pictures of themselves frolicking around San Francisco, recorded a video introduction with Mike, and wrote up some heartwarming marketing copy. Robin designed the site on her MacBook (she says she paid for the computer with a tax refund) and launched it last week. Myhusbandneedsajob.com now seems on track to go viral; CNN had a small piece on it over the weekend. "We never in our wildest dreams anticipated that it would blow up like this," Stearns told me. He says he's found a few promising leads in the torrent of e-mail. So far, though, no job.

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Is Stearns' gambit tacky, or brilliant? (You could ask the same thing about this video in which a teenager holds up signs touting his laid-off dad's work history.) The site certainly smacks of desperation, though given the circumstances, it's hard to fault him. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an unemployed person in this recession will remain jobless for about five months. Competition for the few available jobs is rough; every position is met with hundreds or thousands of applications. Stearns is just an extreme example of what's become a mantra for employment consultants these days: When you're looking for a job, do whatever you can to make yourself stand out.

Over the last few days, I've spoken to a half-dozen people who've been searching for work during the downturn. I also talked to recruiters, job search coaches, and folks who are building new online tools to help the unemployed find work. They all report the same thing: The key to finding work in this economy is to look beyond job-listings sites like Monster.com; if your search consists mainly of scouring available jobs and sending in your résumé and cover letter, you're on the wrong path.

That's because companies will often look to fill positions before paying for a listing. If they do post something online, it's often a perfunctory listing designed to comply with HR policy, even though they actually plan to fill the job in some other way. What other way? Every year, the employment consulting firm CareerXRoads conducts a survey of HR managers at large companies. The 2009 survey shows that just 12 percent of recent new hires were found through job boards, while 27 percent were found through referrals—that is, people who work at the company or who have connections to the company recommend the largest share of new people. There's a word for this sort of job-seeking: networking.

The word networking can seem a bit slimy, conjuring up images of finger-gun-shooting frat guys who are talking to you only to get something in return. But networking need not be so wretched. Now you can use the Web to find people who'll help you find work. The most forward-looking job seekers I spoke to said they'd all but abandoned job-listing sites in favor of social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. For a few people, job-hunting on these sites paid off; for others, the social networks showed some promise—at least more promise than sending in résumés. For a couple of others, social networking proved useless.

Here are some of their stories, with pointers on what to do and what to avoid when going online to look for work.

Facebook: In early February, Evan Sornstein, a designer who lives in San Francisco, got laid off from his job at the advertising firm Razorfish. He began looking for work by searching job sites that list creative design positions. He also asked a couple of creative agencies to look for work on his behalf. Two weeks passed with no prospects. Then, on a lark, he posted a Facebook status update, worded carefully to avoid any hint of desperation: "Does anybody know of anybody who's looking for a Website?"

Within 10 minutes, he says, he got four replies. Two of his friends promised to ask around for him. One reply was from Sornstein's mortgage broker, who needed a new site designed; Sornstein will likely begin working on that soon. He also got a message from his friend Jenn Shreve, a writer (and sometime Slate contributor) who lives in New York. Shreve knew of an agency that was looking to redesign a Web site, and she introduced Sornstein to someone at the firm over Facebook. The introduction worked; Sornstein landed the gig, getting back to work within three weeks of his layoff.

Shreve herself recently had a similar experience on Facebook. Over Thanksgiving, she was let go from her job at an ad agency (her boss sent her the layoff message over Facebook), and she began calling a recruiter who represented a firm that she really wanted to work for. But he kept giving her the brushoff. So she turned to her network, asking a friend in the firm's San Francisco office to introduce her over Facebook to someone in the New York office. She and the guy in New York became friends; when a position suddenly opened up, he asked the recruiter to give Shreve a call. She got the job.

There are a couple of things to note about Shreve's and Sornstein's experiences. Neither of their gigs had been advertised; the firms were only looking to hire through referrals, so Facebook gave them a leg-up over job boards. Notice, too, that they weren't shy about letting their friends know about their unemployment. "I don't think there's any shame in being laid off right now," Shreve says. "You can only gain by reaching out to everyone you know."

Still, both Shreve and Sornstein are special cases. They work in an industry that's acclimated to doing business online, and Sornstein can design Web sites from home, so he's open to employment from firms all over the world. Other industries don't work that way. Thomas Gladysz, who was laid off from his job at the San Francisco bookstore the Booksmith in January, posted this message last week: "Thomas Gladysz is job hunting. Got work?" He got some leads but no solid work as of yet. John Hart, a young lawyer in Northern California who's been looking for a job since last year, recently posted a status update saying he's looking for work—"and I only got a few condolences," he told me.

LinkedIn: If you're unemployed, jump on this social network for networkers. David Hahn, LinkedIn's director of product management, advises users to begin their job search by typing in the companies they want to work for—the site then lists friends, friends-of-friends, and even friends-of-friends-of-friends who work there. Now you can ask for a buddy-to-buddy introduction at your dream company. "This changes the application process," Hahn says. "You're no longer dropping a résumé into a black hole. You've got a warm connection at a company you love."

Though Hahn's method sounds promising, none of the people I spoke to had any luck landing jobs through LinkedIn. Michael Stearns, of myhusbandneedsajob.com, did tell me that he'd used the site to set up a lot of "informational" interviews with companies—interviews to get to know people at a firm, even though no specific job was being offered.

There's another way to use LinkedIn—to investigate the organizational structure of any firm before you go to interview there. "You can see the résumé of the person in the job that you want or where the person who was in the job that you want has gone," says Willy Franzen, who runs the entry-level jobs blog One Day, One Job. Many job listings don't include a position's full description. By looking at the bios of others who've filled the job, you can get a better idea of what's required from you.

Twitter: A couple of weeks ago, I explained why Twitter isn't a great Web search engine, so I was naturally wary when people began calling it a great job-search engine. Boosters say that people looking for work can use it just like they'd use Facebook or LinkedIn—to connect with people and companies they find interesting and to engage them in conversation in the hopes that they'll get noticed. Last year, for instance, a software developer named Kevin Smith began following several Ruby programmers over Twitter. He became friends with a guy who worked at a small company called Gnoso. He sent them a résumé and told the friend about it over Twitter. The friend pushed for Smith to get the job—and he was hired.

TheJobMagnet, a Canadian startup, recently launched tweetCruit, a service to let firms streamline the process of posting job listings on their Twitter feeds. Divesh Sisodraker, the company's CEO, told me that this lets companies push their listings to a far wider group of people—he told me that one recent posting for a social-media strategist reached 15,000 views within a few hours. But such successes seem rare. Twitter is a niche product; it may work well for you if you're looking for a software development job on the Web, but if you want work as a doctor or a fireman, you probably won't find it as helpful.

General guidelines: Social networks demand careful etiquette. The experts I spoke to offered these tips: Don't spam people. Don't put on like you're best friends with people you don't really know; if you're contacting an old friend for the first time in years only to ask for a job, at least be up front about it. Don't ask your friends to recommend you for positions you're not qualified to do. And don't sound like a sad sack—whining about not working isn't going to convince people to help you. It's also easy to get carried away when selling yourself. Sure, you can make a funny video as your cover letter, or take out ads on Facebook targeted to people in your industry, or ask your wife to hold up a sign begging for a job on your behalf—but to a lot of people, such efforts could signal that you're not taking the process seriously.

Many of the people I contacted for this story work in tech or media (my circles run geeky), but even beyond those fields, people reported feeling that old ways of looking for work no longer pay off. Gladysz, the guy who's looking for a job at a bookstore, told me, "I've been feeling that creating a kind of brand or persona online is going to be important."

There's also some advice for people who are currently employed: Maintain your presence online. Some people believe Facebook is destroying America. But if you lose your job, you'll probably lose e-mail addresses for all of your colleagues, and you'll need some way to stay in touch. As Kay Luo, a spokeswoman for LinkedIn advises, "Build your network before you need it."

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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