As we all know, dogs love to chase cars.  But as several wise people have observed, nobody’s quite sure what a dog would actually DO with a car should it ever manage to successfully catch one!

This reminds me, in many ways, of a networking scenario that comes up frequently during the job search process.  While most people realize the importance of asking for personal referrals to help get a foot in the door with various organizations, and manage to successfully do so using LinkedIn and other sources, I’ve noticed that many such folks suddenly realize that they’re utterly stumped in terms of what to ask the other person when the time comes, aside from a blunt/clumsy statement like “Um, hi, can you help me get a job over there?”

So whenever a friend or acquaintance is able to tee you up with somebody who works at one of your target companies — be it the HR manager, janitor, or CEO of the organization — here are five general “areas of inquiry” that usually work well in terms of getting the ball rolling and steering the discussion in a useful direction:

1) Can you tell me a bit about the culture of the company?  Do people enjoy working there?  What kinds of people tend to fit best and which don’t?  Would you recommend the company to others as a good place to work?  Can you confirm or deny (be careful with this one) whether some of the comments I saw on sites like Glassdoor.com about XYZ ISSUE at the company are relatively accurate?

2) Does the organization anticipate any growth or new hiring in the coming months, to your knowledge?  Are there any major changes or restructuring initiatives taking place?  Any specific trends, developments, or challenges the company is dealing with that might surface new needs or call for the recruitment of some additional talent?

3) Any tips you can share on the hiring process?  Are all jobs published on the company’s website or do some get filled under the radar?  Are there certain departments, recruiters, or hiring managers that you feel somebody with my background should particularly focus on targeting?  Does the company use outside recruiters or staffing companies at all that I should approach?

4) Do you have any insights into the interviewing process within the organization?  Does the company follow a specific interviewing methodology or ask certain questions that I should anticipate and prepare to address?  Any other qualities that your management teams tend to look for in the candidates they hire, besides skill sets alone?

5) While I’m not expecting any special treatment, are there any other creative ways you’d suggest to help me get noticed by the right people over there and not get lost in the resume shuffle?  Would it be appropriate for me to reach out to a suitable hiring manager to pitch myself directly by phone/email or would that be considered too aggressive?  Does the company host job fairs, open houses, maintain an internal referral system, or engage in anything along those lines that might boost my chances of gaining consideration?

(note: you wouldn’t typically ask ALL of the questions above, just the handful that seem most appropriate…)

And lastly, if you’re contacting an individual to network regarding a specific opportunity that’s currently open or being advertised, you can also ask whether the individual in question knows anything about the history of the particular role, why it’s open, and how many people have held it to date — or whether they can share anything about the personality/reputation of the boss or the culture of the department.

So there you have it.  Tons of ammunition for “picking the brain” (in a good way) of any helpful soul willing to chat with you a bit about their organization and the opportunities there.  These types of questions should generally get the ball rolling, lead to some valuable insights about the hiring process, and help you demonstrate the focus and professionalism that might even compel the Good Samaritan you’re dealing with to go the extra mile and hand-carry your resume to an appropriate hiring manager!