My friend Alison recently joined a job club that was about as beneficial as showing up to an interview in bunny slippers and a bathrobe.
"At first, everyone was really enthusiastic about meeting up," she said of the half-dozen Portland, Ore., job seekers who agreed to meet in a cafe to swap job hunting tips.
"But after our first awkward meeting -- where no one wanted to take the lead and everyone seemed afraid to offer any constructive criticism -- things quickly fell apart. Everyone kept canceling, and we wound up never meeting again."
Done right, a job seekers' support group can be a lifeline for the unemployed. Besides giving you a reason to leave the house each week and some much-needed camaraderie, job clubs can provide free feedback on your resume, advice on interviewing, tips on salary negotiation and, if you're lucky, leads for job openings.
Done wrong, however, a job club can be as agonizing as trying to get through to your state's unemployment benefits hotline.
So how can you tell whether a job club is really a job dud? And if you do start or join a group that sounds promising, how can you ensure that you'll get the most from it?
Whiners and Slackers Need Not Apply
Nothing can take the wind out the sails of a job club faster than a member who hogs the floor or tries to turn the meeting into a "We're all doomed!" pessimist-fest. That's why you need a clear-cut agenda and a group leader to keep your meetings on track, on topic and upbeat.
"Appoint a facilitator and a time-keeper every week and rotate the responsibilities so that everyone in the group gets an equal opportunity to participate," suggested Hilary Romanoff, a career counselor who leads a job club at the Bay Area Career Center in San Francisco.
Susan Melchert, a technical trainer in Seattle who started a job club in February, attributes the success of her group to the fact that it's peer driven, with each member taking a turn in the driver's seat.
"I treat everyone's individual skill set as the services of a small business," said Melchert, whose group includes programmers, Web designers, technical writers, a couple of vocalists and even a woodworker. "We've already had several members give presentations to the group. It gives each person the limelight."
In other words, the six to 10 weekly attendees don't just swap unemployment war stories and proofread each others' resumes. They take turns educating each other on topics such as researching market rates, negotiating salary and building a Web site. And they make sure that everyone leaves each meeting with a job hunting to-do list for the upcoming week.
The Beauty of Seasoned Facilitators
Of course, starting or leading a job hunting group isn't for everyone. And there's real merit to joining a group led by an HR professional or a career coach with valuable insider information on the hiring process.
"I can give them the professional spin," said career coach Deborah Gallant, who has been facilitating a free job seeker's support group at a temple in Thousand Oaks, Calif., since February.
For example, she said, a seasoned HR pro or job coach will tell you point-blank that your AOL e-mail account makes you look low tech or that naming your resume Resume.doc increases your odds of a hiring manager misplacing it -- details that your laid-off peers might not know or notice.
As an added bonus, Gallant is able to recruit experts from her vast network to speak to group members -- free of charge -- on everything from using LinkedIn to look for work, to understanding the recent changes to COBRA insurance.
That's not to say all career experts make great job club facilitators. You don't want some Billy Mays wannabe whose sole agenda is to sell you their products and services -- not when so many no-strings, free job clubs are available.
"Good and credible facilitation is critical," said David Lewis, president of Operations Inc., a human resources consulting firm based in Stamford, Conn. "It's not just, 'Get 40 people in the room and something will happen.' It's not just an opportunity for someone to get out of the house for two hours and hear a mildly interesting speaker."
Instead, Lewis, who has set up and spoken at several job seekers' groups this year, is a fan of making sure no resources in the room go untapped. At an event attended by dozens of job seekers, he'll have everyone who knows of a job lead write it on a whiteboard at the start of the meeting. That way, when the networking segment of the meeting rolls around, attendees have that much more to talk about.
Where the Job Clubs Are
So where do you find the golden job clubs that turn rusty job seekers into lean, mean interviewing machines?
Although they meet in person, many are easy to locate on the Web. Groups like the Virginia Career Network, Milwaukee JobCamp and NYC JobSeekers make their online home on Meetup.com. Indeed, there are more than 100 U.S. groups for the unemployed on Meetup.
Searching on "job club," "job hunters" or "networking" for your geographic region turns up many more options on Meetup, as does searching the Groups on LinkedIn. If you come up empty though, check with your local One-Stop Resource Center, your newspaper's business calendar, the regional chapter of your favorite professional association or some local places of worship to see if they're sponsoring or know of any job support groups.
You'll find that some job clubs have less than a dozen members, while some with professional facilitators draw 25, 50, even 75 attendees. Some groups, like the Virginia Career Network, mainly draw mid- to senior-level business professionals, while others draw administrative assistants and CEOs alike. Still other groups, like the Long Island Marketing Job Seekers Group, cater to workers in one field specific field.
Moral of the story: One job club does not fit all. You may have to sample a couple to find one that's a fit for you.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" -- offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog, Anti9to5Guide.com.