For several months I've been asked almost weekly to help someone who's just lost a paycheck to find their next one.

(I don't say "lost their job" because that's like saying "stay-at-home mom"—they're still working, often very hard. When unemployed, people must work to get re-employed... only now there's no employer-sponsored paycheck.)

Unemployment is the new social disrupter. Never do I recall so many friends of friends losing their jobs at the same time. So, naturally, one can understand the scarcity mentality that kicks in. It is frightening not to know how you're going to feed the family and pay the bills.

As a result, most people have a fight (urgency or desperation) or flight (denial or flash-frozen) reaction. Both are apt to lead to dead ends.

I can't help but compare some smart, unemployed former executives to what I call the "new-waiter phenomenon." Have you ever noticed how bad the service can be from a new waiter or waitress? They'll ask, "What would you like to drink?" and then bring nothing. Or they hover and drive you crazy in the beginning of the meal, and then are MIA when you're ready for more coffee and the check. It's as if they've never eaten at a restaurant before in their lives!

Everything these waiters ever knew when they were diners went right out of their heads once they became servers. They're missing a sensitivity chip (to quote Jennifer Aniston, commenting on a different behavioral change); they're oblivious to connecting what they liked and what drove them crazy when they were being served to how to take care of their customers.

Forget more training: They're just too focused on themselves and their own discomfort level.

Here's my point: Contacting everyone you've ever known in your life and requesting they rally everyone they know to help you find your next job is the equivalent of recruitment spam. You never cared about me while you were employed; why do you care about me now that you're not?

"Networking" like this may have worked last year or last century, but it's not going to work in our current environment. There are just too many of you... and I have a business to run.

So here's my advice before you ask for my help.

Build yourself an online reputation (aka brand)

If you can't be personally "googled," you might as well not exist. Open a free account and spend time on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, and give of yourself to the community. Even if you don't know how or why yet, just do it.

Open accounts on all the bookmarking and RSS sites

I'm referring to Digg, Stumbleupon, FriendFeed, Feedburner, etc. Doing so will not "get you a job." But it will help you to be visible within your field when you comment on other people's posts.

Create a personal Web site for yourself

The intent is to show off your expertise and professional accomplishments, testimonials, recommendations. No pictures of friends, family, cats and dogs. Business only. You can use your LinkedIn profile as a "Web site," but a standalone Web site that ties back to your LinkedIn page is more impressive.

Blog regularly

As a prospective employer, I'll learn a lot more about who you are via your Web site and blog than I'll ever know reading your resume and interviewing you. That helps me reduce the risk factor in hiring you—or interviewing you.

Offer to volunteer

Volunteer for social media projects, copywriting assignments, or project management with respected employers in your field. In the old days, we called this "working on spec."

There are only so many jobs to go around right now. What are you willing to do to stand out from your out-of-work competitors? Volunteering your expertise puts you on the hiring radar and gets you visibility on great projects. (I just referred one of my volunteer copywriters to a paid position with a client because I knew and trusted her work.)

When you contact me, show me that you know who I am, and respect my time

Why do I get asked for help so often? Because I am known. I've earned an online (and offline) reputation as a business connector. I already do all the things I'm suggesting you do. I've invested many unpaid hours of my own to research, understand, and master personal branding. When you call to "pick my brain," I take offense. This brain is not free. Offer to do something for me. Money may be tight for you, and I don't have time to "go to breakfast" (plus, if you read my blog you'd know I'm not a morning person). But I'd be impressed if you read my blog, then commented or submitted one of my posts to a social media site.

* * *

Before you ask me to go to work for you, go to work for yourself. When you've implemented the suggestions above, I'm more receptive to helping you connect with your next job opportunity. But I don't have time or inclination to work with job-seeking networking spammers.

Heed the lesson of the online social networkers: "It's the relationship, stupid." You won't stay unemployed forever. But the work you put into documenting your accomplishments online and taking an interest in others in your field is a long-term investment in yourself.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lori Feldman is known as The Database Diva (www.TheDatabaseDiva.com). She works with business leaders and sales professionals to squeeze every drop of profit out of their customer database.