Predatory networkers have given the art of making connections a bad name. Here are some ways to handle predatory networkers—and avoid being one yourself
If you want to impress your friends with a fancy new word you've learned, here's a good one: retronym.
Dictionary.com defines it as "a term, as acoustic guitar, coined in modification of the original referent that was used alone, as guitar, to distinguish it from a later contrastive development, as electric guitar."
I bring this up in a workplace-advice column only because I've got a new retronym to add to our vocabulary, and it's this: "non-disgusting networking." Yes, back in the old days we could talk about plain old networking, referring to business events after hours and industry galas where businesspeople would mingle. We could use the word networking to refer to our LinkedIn activities and other kinds of outreach that happened among professional types online. Those days are pretty much gone. Now, if we don't want to alarm people when we talk about our networking endeavors, we have to be quick to note that we're talking about the non-disgusting kind.
It's sad that we have to qualify our networking as non-disgusting, but it's not surprising. Predatory networkers have all but taken over the networking ecosystem, grabbing up business cards by the dozen and accumulating LinkedIn contacts as though they were notches on a Dodge City sheriff's belt. It's depressing. But there are still plenty of non-disgusting, non-predatory, genuinely happy-to-know-you networkers out there, and they're fighting back.
If you want to create business relationships and meet people to learn more about them (rather than to add them to your newsletter subscriber list), you're not alone. We don't have to give in and allow disgusting, me-first networkers to take over the world. Here are my 10 tips for how to network in a courteous, professional way—and how to deal with those who don't.
Spare Me the Speech
Nothing signals "gimme" like a networker who can't stop talking about his business. If you're being elevator-speeched to death, just say "No." Or, to be polite about it, say: "I wish I could stay to hear more about your business, but I spot a person I've got to catch up with tonight. Nice chatting with you!" Then dash off.
Shall I Take Your Order Now?
Run away from networkers whose purpose is to sign you up on the spot—for a newsletter, a free hour of coaching, or a fascinating teleseminar about their products. Networking should be about people. Business can follow at its own speed. If you're being sold, get out of Dodge.
Can You Introduce Me?
It's rude for a new acquaintance to ask for an introduction to your boss, the purchasing manager in your company, or anyone at all. You haven't established the relationship yet that would make that kind of request appropriate. If you're asked to be a turtle whose back your new contact can step on, push back. "I wish I could make that introduction," you'll say warmly, "but it's impossible." Then scoot.
Why, Spam for Me? You Shouldn't Have!
The day after a networking event, when the unsolicited newsletters start rolling in, write to the senders. "Something is wrong with your newsletter mailer!" you say. "My address was added to the distribution list without my permission. I knew you would want to know." Unsolicited LinkedIn invitations, ditto. Same for Facebook, Plaxo, Xing, and all the other venues where people to try to convince you that you're great friends. A two-minute conversation does not a friendship make.
I'd Love to Meet You So You Can Help Me
Outreach to strangers—oops, I meant to say "people we haven't been introduced to yet"—is perfectly fine as long as basic rules of courtesy stay in place. It's the height of bad manners to write to a person you don't know to say: "I saw your profile/heard your podcast/read your article/saw your quote in the paper. Let's meet so you can help me find a job!" You can't swoop in out of the blue with a major imposition on a person's time. If you're really interested in meeting Joe Lofty, invest the time to cultivate a second-degree relationship where a friend of yours introduces you to a friend of Joe's. There's a reason those trusted-colleague connections are so powerful. The time investment they require has already happened before the request for the favor is made.
If You Get What You Want, Say Thanks
When you call on your network—or just one member of it—for help, and you get it, say "thank you." Countless helpful business leaders have spent countless hours poring over the résumés of countless job-seekers who've asked for a bit of guidance and gotten it—only to disappear into the fog, never thanking the advice-giver or acknowledging his or her contribution to the cause. A heartfelt thank-you e-mail works wonders. If you skip that step, you're asking for bad career karma for years on end and burning a bridge you can ill afford to set ablaze.
Don't Dis a Favor
One of my favorite disgusting-networking stories concerns a young lady who asked me for help with her HR résumé. The résumé was a mess, and it took me two hours to rewrite it, stem to stern. I sent back the revised version, and she wrote me, saying: "I had no idea you'd take my résumé apart and rewrite it. It'll take me a long time to type this up again. In the meantime, can you please send my old résumé to all your contacts?" Sure, no problem. Is it O.K. if I include a note saying: "I rewrote this person's résumé for her since, as you can see, this version reeks, but she's too busy to type it up. In the meantime, can you please hire her?" That should get a lot of interviews.
Take No for an Answer
The networker who follows up every contact with a marketing message, and then another, and another, doesn't understand the concept of networking. If all the world's a mass of prospective customers only waiting to hear your pitch, then you should be a gazillionaire by now. So if you're not, perhaps you're unclear on the concept of networking, especially as contrasted with the concept of selling. If you send out a marketing overture and get "No thanks" as a reply, that means don't sell me next month, or the month after, or the month after that. Don't call me, I'll call you. Or I'll call my ISP and report you as a spammer.
Since We're Friends Now…
The hallmark of a disgusting networker is to seek you out for the purpose of getting a favor from you and then asking you for that favor—often your services at a reduced rate or for free—on the basis of your friendship. The circular nature of the relationship does not occur to the predatory networker, so you have to help her see it. Say: "It is odd that you're asking me for a favor on the basis of our friendship. My friends want to see me succeed in business, as I do them. They don't ask me for freebies, because they're invested in my professional success. But I can give you a free business tip. It costs money to make money. If you are serious about your business, pay for the services you need."
My Name in Vain
Perhaps the slimiest behavior of the disgusting networker is the habit of throwing your name around and passing himself off as a dear friend in situations where invoking your name would matter. You'll hear from your confused boss's boss a month later: "Gee, that Charles Jackson, quite an aggressive salesperson. You and he are very close, I take it? He really buttonholed me at the chairman's dinner last night. Sounds like you're great friends. Isn't he a bit of a schmoozer, though? Doesn't seem like your type of person." You're seething as you listen. You're horrified to be associated with Charlie Name-Dropper, but now you know. The only cure for disgusting networkers is to just say "No."