Name-dropping: poor taste or savvy strategy?

Mentioning your well-placed contacts in a tactful way can help you get ahead in the job search

Jeffrey Kudisch:

As you are aware, who you know can open doors for you. One of the reasons why MBA students come to business school is because they want the benefits of life-long membership in alumni communities, to network and seek career opportunities.

Why do people name-drop?

Who you know may also be more important in certain occupations. For example, in sales, politics, start-ups, the variety and level of your connections may be perceived as an enormous asset. By hiring you, an organisation may believe it can enhance its networks and clientele.

In addition, your ability to name-drop effectively may also depend on how seasoned you are professionally or what level you are at in a company. Individuals with longer tenures or who are high up on the corporate ladder may be expected to have cultivated broad professional networks.

How do I name-drop effectively?

Unfortunately, name-dropping can backfire if executed the wrong way. Instead of looking well-connected and credible, candidates who mention their well-placed associates to impress hiring managers can come across as superficial.

When done well, name-dropping can give you a competitive edge. I was inspired to write this article after observing a few MBAs who did this poorly and missed out on great job opportunities as a result. So here are some tips based on my experiences working with corporate recruiters and coaching my MBA students.

Timing and context matters

It is important to create rapport first and time your delivery. At a job interview, if you are questioned about your finance skills, this is not the time to mention your golf outing with a contact who works in the C-suite at the corporate headquarters. An interviewer perceives such attempts as a ploy and no one likes a braggart. You might also appear insecure or boorish, especially if you start topping the interviewer’s stories with your own VIP exploits.

Only use name-dropping opportunities in response to relevant questions. If asked how you heard about the job, then you might talk about your alumni contact and his or her willingness to share careers advice. Remember to use name-dropping sparingly as you want to be known for your contributions rather than your connections.

Display a tactful and subtle manner

I recall an MBA graduate who name-dropped with finesse when asked if she had any questions at the end of an on-campus job interview.

According to the recruiter, she mentioned that she was fortunate to meet the chief executive of the hiring company when he was a guest speaker at the business school she attended. During the exchange, he stressed the importance of demonstrating courageous leadership which involves keeping your ego in check and asking for help to address your weaknesses. Those comments resonated with her. She asked him to describe the HR practices the organisation has in place to help potential leaders receive honest feedback about their performance and enable them to achieve the company’s goals.

The recruiter noted that her question conveyed a strong interest in professional development and workplace learning – an attribute that is highly valued by the employer. The recruiter was also impressed that she spoke to the chief executive about the company since this showed she was serious about working for the organisation.

Consider what others think of your contacts

It is important to weigh up the risks as you have no clue how a hiring manager will perceive your mutual connection. If the interviewer thinks favourably of your contact, it could increase your chances of making a good impression. Otherwise you might do more harm than good.

Find out if your contact is well-regarded by asking alumni who work in the same company and investigate what they know about his or her reputation.

Conduct a LinkedIn search to see what others have to say about this mutual connection. If the consensus is that your contact is a good one, then mentioning this name may provide you with the desired competitive edge.

Also if you plan on mentioning a mutual connection – let the person know ahead of time in case the interviewer decides to contact the individual. Any name you mention becomes an easy reference check. This means that it is important to consider the depth of your relationship with your contact. Do you trust this individual and what will he or she say about you? Shaking the person’s hand at a conference is not the same as building a long-term connection with a trusted mentor or colleague.

Do your research

You should not view name-dropping as a substitute for basic interview preparation and job research. If you have an interview lined up with a company and you have connections there, use these people to gather information not available on Google. Demonstrating knowledge about a company’s latest earnings report or key strategic initiatives will do more for your image than broadcasting your connections.

Jeffrey Kudisch is assistant dean of corporate relations and managing director of the Office of Career Services at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business in the US.

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