Name-dropping can open doors on your job search. After all, it’s one way to instantly have something in common with a person you’ve never met. It’s like a de facto reference that you can use to establish your credibility long before you get to that stage.
But because it can be so beneficial, some people will try and find a way to use this strategy, even when the odds are it’ll backfire. And while I don’t want to scare you, the truth is: If you’re about to make one of the three missteps below, you’re better off avoiding it altogether.
1. Forgetting to Ask First
Most often, name-dropping is premeditated. Meaning, you see that someone you already know is connected to your dream company or career role model, and so you make up your mind in advance to use your contact’s name to get your email read.
However, the next part of the process can be confusing, especially if you know your mutual contact well—and maybe they’ve even offered to help you on your search. You may just assume that this is what they meant, and plan to forward the email you mention them in, afterwards, with an FYI.
But, the next steps needs to be asking your connection if you can use their name. This protects you on the off-chance that there’s something you wouldn’t have known (like if they actually aren’t that familiar or burned a bridge with the person you’re targeting.) Or, it could be there’s nothing fishy—but because you informed them, they can help you get ahead even more—like suggesting you direct your email to someone else, or offering to take it a step further and make the introduction for you!
Regardless, if you reach out proactively, you save your contact from being blindsided when the new person reaches out to see if they really know you. Speaking of, that’s almost always their next move, which brings me to…
2. Naming Someone You Don’t Know
This just might be the most embarrassing name-dropping mistake you can make. It can make you look confused or, yes, dishonest—even if you’re just exaggerating.
That’s because to you, leading with “I learned of this position from [Company CEO]” is a way to get the hiring manager to actually read your note. And if you saw it mentioned on the CEO’s Twitter feed, it’s not an untrue statement.
But, upon receieving your note, the hiring manager will most likely forward it to the CEO, either to ask how well they know you, or as an FYI. And when the CEO responds that she has no idea who you are, it makes you look really bad.
The good news is: There are two better options for this situation. One is to be very clear on your relationship to the person you list (e.g., “I saw [CEO name] speak at [Event], and I remember her saying...So, when I saw this position in a Twitter update she posted...”). This way, you’ll still grab the reader's attention, but you’re being 100% transparent. Bonus: This makes for a more engaging lead-in!
Your second option is to use social media to reach out to someone at the company, so you can list a person you've genuinely been in touch with. (It’s really not that hard! Here’s a guide to using LinkedIn’s alumni tool to search for and connect with new people.)
3. Assuming It’ll Be Downhill From There
So, you’ve found an impressive contact who said you could go ahead and use their name—and it worked. It got the attention of whomever you wanted a meeting with, or maybe even helped you land an interview.
And yes, sitting across from the other person, the first few minutes of your small talk will often be about the connection you share.
But then: It’s game time. It’s your turn to wow the other person with who you are.
Which means, if it’s an informational interview, you’ll want to be armed with questions for the person (like these!). And if it’s a job interview, you’ll want to prepare just as diligently as you would for any other.
If you skip this step, you’ll come off like you think knowing the right people means you can coast—and that’s not the impression you want to make.
Fact: You’re 15 times more likely to be hired if you’re referred. So, don’t let this article scare you away from looking for mutual connections. Instead, use it as reminder that putting your best foot forward means thinking through not just how a strategy can open the door, but then, what comes next.