Monday, August 31, 2009

Pure Intentions, Or Why I Dislike Networking

When I say "networking" as in the title of this post, I am talking primarily about the way people in the professional world make and use acquaintances as part of their jobs.

Almost every job on the planet benefits from networking - making personal connections with people who can help you out in your work. Almost every job needs at least some degree of networking to function, and it can be very difficult to get a job in the first place without knowing at least some of the right people - a resumé and a good interview are usually trumped by a personal recommendation. All of this makes very good psychological sense as well, since we are a social species who evolved in relatively small, insular communities (in comparison with the modern world, that is).

But I don't like it.
I idealistically think that the person who gets the job should be the person who can best do the job, not the person who is being recommended by someone closest to the employer. As far as I can tell most people agree with this sentiment, at least superficially.

I am not a very socially capable person. I accept that social situations are not my natural environment, and I have put significant effort into gaining what little skill I have at present. I am never going to be a politician, or a talent agent, or a sales representative.

There are many jobs for which it makes good sense to require a high degree of social skill, and there are many jobs whose content largely is networking itself. In these cases it would be ludicrous to attempt to remove networking requirements to obtaining the job.

Even in academia, my chosen direction, a certain degree of networking is sensible to have should one desire recognition or a position with administrative duties.

But networking itself, when not in a job which explicitly involves it, seems disingenuous and distasteful to me.

When making a new friend, most people won't immediately consider how the friendship could benefit their career - that's considered a form of using the person.
There is clearly a difference between making a friend so that they will be useful, and making a friend who later happens to be useful. Right?

The ways in which a person could be useful in furtherance of one's own goals are usually fairly simple and easy to see. As such, we don't even have to consciously recognize potential uses in order for them to be considered in our decision-making process. These considerations are likely to result in biases through which people make friends with people who are likely to be useful in future, without the moral penalties associated with doing this consciously.

Here's where the problem comes in: reasonable expectations of knowledge, even in retrospect, should apply to present considerations.

In more detail, when considering whether or not asking a favour of a friend "counts as using them" in an inappropriate sense, we should take into account what we would reasonably have known throughout the prior relationship, even if we don't have a particular memory of recognizing that knowledge.

For example, if I ask a friend of mine to help me with my computer, I should take into account the fact that I knew he was a software engineer when we first met, even though I didn't specifically think at the time of him helping solve my computer problems.

Seen carefully, this results in my preference for paying a stranger to do a job over having a friend do it for free.

Oddly, none of this presents any barriers to my doing things to help the careers of my friends, but this is simply another situation where I find it morally unpleasant to accept reciprocation, for the simple reason that it is morally distasteful to expect it.

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