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?
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.
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.