May 26, 2023

For Networking Success, "Embrace the Discomfort"

By Kay Bechtold

Are you an introvert or do you otherwise find networking uncomfortable? You’re not the only OEHS professional who feels this way, according to the presenters of a session held on Monday at AIHce EXP 2023 in Phoenix that gathered professionals from diverse backgrounds to share what they have learned about building a network in the profession. The advice of Maggie Murphy, CIH, CSP; Joe Dartt, CIH; and Melanie Nembhard, CIH, MSPH—all 2022 alumni of AIHA’s Future Leaders Institute—is that it’s okay to be nervous but to embrace discomfort when it comes to making connections. Each presenter described their own experiences, outlining for attendees what they have found to be some of the key principles of networking in the field of OEHS.

“Discomfort means you’re growing,” said Murphy, an industrial hygienist with the University of Arizona who has seven years of experience in industry and academia. It’s not a bad thing, she explained—rather, it’s your body’s way of telling you, “hey, this is something new.”

Murphy encouraged the audience, especially early career professionals and students, to say yes to volunteer opportunities “early and often.” These opportunities can put professionals in positions to make connections and can also help individuals learn their limitations. For example, Murphy said, she found balance for herself after she became involved in too many things and realized she needed to scale back her activities.

While networking is naturally transactional, Murphy emphasized a focus on authentic relationships. She urged attendees to get to know people and what drives them, taking extra time to have conversations rather than only calling them when a question comes up.

“And most importantly, pay it forward,” she said. “None of us gets here alone. Somebody that you might help can help you later. It creates this really crazy branching system that ultimately helps everybody.”

Dartt, the Region VII industrial hygienist for federal OSHA, took the stage next to discuss how to build relationships with managers, supervisors, and directors—another important level of one’s OEHS network. For Dartt, these connections all stem from establishing trust. One way to do this might be to suggest creative ways to effectively address a problem or issue in the workplace. Dartt cautioned that this approach comes with some risk: you might upset some colleagues by calling attention to the fact that a report or process may need updating, for example. But there are ways to minimize the risk that comes with bringing forth new solutions.

“Recognize the risk [and] position yourself when you’re approaching these [situations] to let everybody know, ‘We’re not out here to point fingers that someone’s doing it wrong, we’re out here to try to make it better,’” Dartt explained.

Follow-through is another important aspect of building relationships with supervisors and other leaders in the workplace. Dartt stressed that when your supervisor allows you to do something that deviates from the norm, it means they trust you.

Nembhard, a supervising health scientist with the consulting firm Stantec ChemRisk, focused on the differences between what she described as internal and external networking. Like networking in general, Nembhard explained that internal networking is somewhat transactional, but each person is getting something beneficial out of the relationship. One of the best ways to build an internal network within an organization is to ensure that your work is of good quality, she said.

“This way, my colleague can feel happy about the end result and I have someone I can call for various things that I may need and vice versa,” Nembhard added.

But connections don’t happen overnight. They build over time, Nembhard said, and can be based on any number of things colleagues may have in common. For example, a jumping-off point for a connection might be that you went to the same school as one of your coworkers.

Clients can also be a part of an OEHS professional’s network. As with internal networking, professionals can build their external network among clients by making sure they’re producing quality work, Nembhard said. Other external connections may be made through some of the professional communities within AIHA or even at the conference while standing in line for lunch or coffee. As Nembhard explained, these possibly awkward encounters have great potential: “The worst that could happen is the conversation is extremely short, but of course you could also have the opportunity to make a connection that lasts years.”

Nembhard closed her part of the presentation by reminding attendees that networking is a “two-way street”—each person is part of the connection and should gain something from the relationship. She encouraged the audience to strive to be proactive, genuine, and approachable, qualities that can help make and maintain a connection. And those who are building their networks should prioritize quality connections—a few meaningful relationships can create a strong foundation for a network.

This session was organized by members of AIHA’s Mentoring and Professional Development and Student and Early Career Professionals Committees. More information about getting involved in AIHA volunteer opportunities can be found on the association’s website.

Kay Bechtold is managing editor of The Synergist.

For Further Reading

The Synergist: “The IH Route Planner: Navigating a New Career” (September 2015).

The Synergist: “The Newcomer’s Perspective: Building Relationships with Experienced Professionals” (March 2016).

The Synergist: “Taking on Imposter Syndrome” (December 2021).