are my mentors taking advantage of me?

A reader writes:

I have two people from undergrad that I would consider sponsor/mentors and, today, friends. They were not professors but were employed in my department and I got to know both of them very well throughout my four years. I volunteered for every open house and outreach event for the school, was hired for competitive paid jobs thanks to them, and I have met their families, attended many awards banquets and university events with them, and basically expanded my network thanks to their influence. I am grateful for our relationship, as it helped me grow and stand out in a very large and competitive program.

Fast forward five years: I have been working at a very large (>10,000 employees worldwide) company that hires graduates from my program, as well as similar programs at other colleges. I’ve been promoted within my department, but I am still basically a nobody. These mentors frequently reach out to me with resumes from students looking for internships, which I am happy to pass along if they look like a good fit but I ultimately have no say in whether they receive an offer. They have also asked me to come back and speak at different panels and forums and volunteer events as “a successful graduate,” but all of these events are during work hours and I can’t commit to attending.

When I missed one of these email requests, the mentor wrote on my Facebook wall “are you getting my emails?” rather than calling, texting, or private messaging me. I feel like he was subtly calling me out, but I am not sure if that was his intent. The other mentor has asked me to give him the contact info of a VP in an entirely different department than I work in, which is not allowed per company policy and I told him so. He then asked me to reach out to her directly and ask if she would be a keynote speaker at an upcoming banquet. I have no connection to this VP other than working at the same company and no political weight that would make the request not weird. The mentor has since followed up with me asking if the VP is available, and I really don’t want to but can’t think of a good way to say that other than “this is weird”. If it were a peer I could say no much more easily, but because of their roles as mentors and sponsors I am afraid to appear ungrateful for their sponsorship and mentorship in the past.

I don’t think that either of them is malicious with these requests, but they are asking me to support things that either I logistically cannot, or to do so would put me in a very awkward position. Are they taking advantage of their mentor relationship with me? Or am I taking these requests too personally?

A little too personally, I think, yes!

I think you’re reading these requests as having more pressure attached to them than they really do.

Most of this reads like pretty normal networking, but you’re not obligated to agree to any of it if you don’t want to. It’s okay to say that you can’t attend events during the work day, and it’s okay to say that you don’t have much influence in hiring (it’s also okay to say that a particular resume doesn’t look like the right fit and decline to pass it along at all), and it’s okay to say that you’re not connected enough with that VP to make a request of her. But it’s also okay for your contacts to ask you these things — these are all pretty standard requests that people might make of former mentees/professional contacts/friends.

Generally people make these sorts of requests already knowing that it’s possible that the answer will be no. You won’t be delivering a devastating blow when you decline! But they’re asking because they think you might be interested or willing; they can’t know ahead of time that the logistics won’t work for you. You just need to explain that no, sorry, you can’t do that.

I suspect you were already feeling pressured in an unwelcome way, and so your mentor’s “are you getting my emails?” post on Facebook felt like additional pressure … but I’d read that more as someone just taking the path of least resistance in trying to contact you (or possibly just not being very technically savvy). Unless you know other things about this person that make it likely that it was an attempt to shame you, that probably wasn’t the intent. Mildly annoying, yes, but not more than that.

If the requests are really frequent, then it might make sense to say something like, “Hey, I wanted to let you know that my schedule is crazy right now, so it’s hard for me to say yes to this kind of thing — but I’ll let you know if that changes at some point.” Or, depending on the context, “I can forward along a few resumes a year, but generally not more than that. So will you send me just the top few students who you think are the strongest matches with what we hire for?”

But often you can set your boundaries in the moment, case by case, by matter-of-factly saying no to the things you can’t or don’t want to do, and trusting that your contacts will be okay with that.

{ 113 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. ContentWrangler

    I could definitely see my grandma posting on my Facebook page if I hadn’t responded to an email. If you don’t have any other reasons to think they’d try to make you look bad, I would definitely just see that as an amusing generational difference when using social media.

    It’s totally reasonable to step back and set limits on the type of help you can offer them. And if they really would react negatively to you doing that (which I really don’t think would happen), then they aren’t good mentors for you anyway.

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    1. The Person from the Resume

      Ugh! My mom kind of does this on FaceBook and so far I haven’t asked her to stop because I love her and don’t want to hurt her feelings.

      I’d definitely assume the FB wall post was not malicious intent but rather someone who doesn’t know and understand your FB norms.

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    2. Sara

      I have similar issues with both my own parents and my mother-in-law about Facebook comments. They just don’t quite get it that if you post on someone’s wall other people can see it. It used to drive me nuts until I realized they just think it’s another way to communicate and that most of the time the comments that seem a little shaming to me don’t really have any ill intent. (Well, with the occasional exception of my mother-in-law, but that’s a whole different issue I hope you don’t have with your mentors!)

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        1. Pine cones huddle

          Or they are just less concerned about public versus non-public conversations. My MIL will do this. It’s like my wall to her is the same as texting. So she’ll use it in the same way. Like asking me about dates, times, plans, etc. posting on my wall asking where I’m planning to go for dinner and what time I’m leaving and do I mean the restaurant on this street or the other one on that street and would I mind bringing her the sweater she left at my house. Stuff that I’d really see as more of a back and forth where texting would be preferred. I mean maybe this is how some people use FB, but while it’s not private, it’s still not an exchange I like having publicly.

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      1. DeeMona

        I had an older co-worker post on my facebook wall in very explicit detail on why she would not be coming into work that day. That was fun to wake up to.

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    3. Kathleen_A

      My mother and one of my sisters don’t seem to entirely understand the difference between a text, a Facebook post and a Messenger post. Heck, they even send me messages via Words with Friends. With my mother, there’s quite a bit of excuse since although she’s extremely smart and savvy, she’s in her 80s and doesn’t have a text-compatible phone. What my sister’s deal is, I have no idea.

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      1. SusanIvanova

        My mom will reply to a text message *on her phone* by going into Facebook chat. My brothers and I rarely use Facebook chat. But she’s in her 70s and had a stroke, so we cut her a lot of slack.

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    4. Betty

      My response to anyone contacting me with another form of communication to ask “Did you get my [first form of communication]?” is just to check the first form of communication and reply there. For example, in this case I would NOT reply to the Facebook post (at all! not even to say “no”) but instead would email them in response. I think it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do given that they clearly wanted an email response in the first place or they wouldn’t have emailed me, and it reinforces the message that we communicate via email not Facebook. If they kept Facebooking me I might say something, but usually being firm about only replying via the original medium (not the new ‘checking in’) one is enough.

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    5. Another Human

      My mother literally responded to a picture of my new car on Facebook with her email address, thinking she could email herself the picture that way. Tech savviness is definitely a spectrum.

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  2. London Bookworm

    I think you’re wanting to be accommodating and responsive, which has prevented you from setting clearer boundaries. It’s never rude to tell people what you can and can’t do, or to say no. Sit down and your computer and practice a few ways of saying “Sorry, I can’t help with this request”. Maybe save one or two as templates.

    Assuming these are reasonable people, you should be able to maintain the relationship without having to feel so pressured!

    Also remember that they’re probably reaching out to lots of people and communicating on behalf of lots of students. It’s possible that they’re not realising how often they’ve been contacting you.

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    1. Fern

      I agree with the lots of students aspect. I am involved in my college’s alumni network, and they send out group emails to lots of people in the hope of a handful being able to attend/participate. They may also be sending individual emails to make it more personalized, but 10-15 other people are getting that same email with some details swapped out. I admit that if I’m trying to reach out to a handful of people with a similar request I do this to save time. (ex: Jane has an interest in teapot research after she graduates, I’m going to send basically the same email to 5 people who are in teapot research with a similar request to see if they can help her out)

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    2. Sam

      I work in university administration, so I get plenty of requests from departments or offices saying, “We’re looking for alums that fit X profile for a panel. Who can you recommend?” We always give way more names than they could possibly use, because it’s assumed that most won’t be available. It’s really not super shocking if you say that you can’t do it! If, in the future, you have more control over your own schedule and would be willing to spend some time helping them out, you should ask if skyping in or something along those lines would be an option so you don’t have to miss a ton of work.

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  3. Observer

    One other thing. You are MUCH better off giving a clear no than not responding to an email.

    Also, do try to do what you can. Let’s face it, your mentors probably used the same tactics for you. Obviously, you can’t do what you can’t do, and it’s not reasonable or realistic to do things that will make you look bad or weird. But, I’m sure your mentors will understand, as long as you DO do whatever it is that you CAN do. And if there are a lot of things that you cannot do, you might want to say no, but provide a possible alternative if that’s practical. So, if you could to an engagement on a week end, you could say “I can’t take the day off to speak for the group, but I could do it on a weekend if I have enough notice.”

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    1. Mr. Rogers

      I came to say this too! Of course the OP has to pass on what they can’t do, but I think they have a bit of a responsibility to pay it forward here. Maybe give an informational interview to someone they connect you with, do weekend events once in a while, etc. It doesn’t have to be for forever either, but if they gave you a step up or a way in to your industry, it would be right thing to do.

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    1. Kathleen_A

      I thought of that, too. To be fair, you do have to use Messenger these days, and it’s certainly possible for someone to be a pretty regular Facebook user and just not realize that you now have to use it if you want to send private messages.

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      1. Specialk9

        On your phone, you can open Facebook in “desktop” mode to do Facebook messaging without the app (which like most, takes a lot more personal data than I’m comfortable with).

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  4. Triple Anon

    I think they’re being a little too demanding. I’d have a conversation with them about it. Next time something like this happens, give the person a call. Be warm and friendly. “It’s great that you’re opening doors for new grads the way you did for me.” Then tell them what you can and cannot do. Let them know that you’re really busy and that you’re working hard to succeed in your field (which will put you in a better position to help people). Focus on the positive – your appreciation and the ways in which you can help – but be clear about your limits too.

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    1. Hello...ello...ello..ello..llo..llo..lo

      Honestly I’m not sure if they are being overly demanding or not the OP didn’t give the time frame of the requests. Has the mentioned requests come in over the span of last 5 years or 5 months.

      I think some of it has to do with the feeling that the OP can’t say yes to all the requests that is making them feel the pressure. Nobody likes to say no to requests, especially from friends who have helped the OP in the past. I think that is placing some urgency and pressure on the OP to want to help and probably some frustration when they can’t.

      I agree with you that the OP should say, what’s possible and not possible for them to do. That might help the mentors to target the OP for things that has a high likelihood of results.

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      1. Lily Rowan

        Yeah, I don’t know that they are being demanding at all. They are used to the OP saying yes to everything they ask, so it’s not offensive for the OP to say no sometimes, but it is a change that might take some time for the mentors to adjust to.

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        1. anon for this

          I don’t think they’re being demanding in the slightest. And yes, they will be offended if OP treats them as such. They went out of their way to help OP, and yes, OP should — within reason — “pay it forward.”

          I once had a mentee for whom I spent a lot of time writing recommendations and making introductions. A few years later someone asked for an introduction to this mentee, which I sent. The mentee was upset that I didn’t “check with him” first. Yes, I was offended and thought less of the mentee going forward.

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  5. Delta Delta

    The first thing that popped to mind is that these folks may have always been in academia and have only a passing understanding of the non-academia work world. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – they’re just different realms of existence.

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    1. Hey Karma, Over here.

      That is true, particularly with the request to speak to the VP. They may consider this equal to speaking to the chair of another department. Perfectly reasonable for Biology lecturer to contact chair of Geology department about a potential student/lecturer (who will have an admin to screen/field the call) and then get a response.

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      1. Anony

        They might also be assuming that everyone who works at the company has met each other at least a few times. That is true at some smaller companies.

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      2. Antilles

        Especially given that OP’s initial response doesn’t seem to have clearly indicated just how (corporately) far apart she is from the VP. “Company policy says we shouldn’t give out other employees’ cell phone numbers” is miles different from “um, we’ve never actually met”.
        In fact, if someone told me that the reason they couldn’t give out the number was ‘corporate policy’, I probably would have reacted the exact same way as these professors – oh, yeah, I get that, I don’t love giving out my cell phone number either, etc, etc, but would you be willing to pass along my contact information?

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      3. Tuxedo Cat

        If they’re in the liberal arts college environment, it might seem even less of a big deal. Students at my undergrad alma mater could talk to the college president pretty easily.

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    2. Trig

      Yep yep yep. I had this feeling. Academia, in my experience, is much more ‘connected’ than the corporate world. It’s probably just a mismatch, and being a bit more blunt in a “sorry, can’t do stuff during the work day” and “I have never met the VP and in my company it would be super presumptuous of me to contact her” way might help.

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    3. Snark

      This is a very valid point. Academia is a much flatter, more casual hierarchy, a lot smaller of a group, and a lot more of a meritocracy. It’d be pretty normal for an academic to introduce a colleague to the chair of a department or a dean. It would be really, really weird for OP to reach up three, four, maybe five levels on the org chart to a VP of a 10,000 employee multinational.

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    4. Amber T

      As someone who’s never worked in academia, how would this work? If Professor A works in in at Small College and wants to get in touch with Professor B, who works at Huge University, can he go through Jane, who’s a TA at HU, who may or may not know Prof B? What if Jane works at HU, but in a non-academic role?

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      1. MK

        I don’t know about the U.S., but here university have publicly available contact information, sometimes emails for every member of the faculty, but always each department’s phone and general email. And it would totally acceptable for A to cold-contact B (either directrly or through the department admin) without any prior connection to say “Hi, reknowned colleague! I am your humble counterpart at college X, I admire your work, blah, blah, blah, ….would you like to do this for us/ with us/together?” Often B will not want to do it and offer a polite brush-off, but they wouldn’t think the request weird or presumptuous; they might even offer alternatives as in “I am devestated to refuse due to prior commitments, but may I suggest you ask my former student and brilliant lecturer C?”. Of course, it’s better if A can secure a personal email introduction, but it’s not necessary.

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        1. Julia

          Yeah, some of my professors even tell us grad students to reach out to different professors at different universities if we’re interested in one of their articles, but can’t access it.

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      2. Clorinda

        Pretty much yes, I think. Jane might say no if she’s too far removed from Prof B, but most people in Jane’s position would pass the message along to Prof B or to someone she knows in his department or a related department–especially if it’s a public university, where community relationship is part of the core mission.

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      3. curly sue

        As someone working in Academia (faculty), I’d probably just send an email. ‘Hi, I’m Curly Sue in the History of Teapots Department at Small College. I read your most recent paper in The Journal of Tea and Crumpets and I was wondering if I could ask you a quick question about your study.’

        If I didn’t have a specific question or reason, if I just wanted to network, I’d either see if anyone I know is in their department to pass on a ‘hello,’ or wait to run into them at a conference.

        Reaching out to a TA could work in some faculties, but not in others. I’d absolutely be receptive if one of mine mentioned that she knew someone who wanted to touch base, but we’re a small, close-knit department and I wouldn’t rely on that being equally welcome elsewhere. (Sometimes TAs are just markers who meet the prof to pick up and drop off assignments four times a semester, and really don’t have any more connection to a prof than a random undergrad.)

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      4. puzzld

        He could certainly ask Jane to ask her Department Chair to put B in touch with A. Or he could contact the library for contact information if that seemed easier. Or a colleague from a different department who attended HU, or… But in academia, it wouldn’t be weird at all to reach out directly to Professor B with an invitation to speak at a conference or for permission to use his paper in your presentation or…

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      5. Optimistic Prime

        I don’t even think they would do that – if Professor A wants to talk to Professor B she’d probably just email Professor B herself. If it’s hiring-related maybe A would find someone in her own network who knows Professor B, but if it’s related to research or teaching or something like that, A would likely just reach out on her own.

        Academia’s more casual like that.

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      6. Former Prof

        Absolutely–as a professor, you are essentially the “equal” of any other professor, no matter the size of the University (and “prestige” has nothing to do with size), and you would absolutely reach out yourself, via email, probably. If you’re in the same field you probably know each other anyway. I did this all the time as a young Prof. in my field. As a grad student, we were also encouraged to reach out directly to Professors and other major players in our field (I contacted the top editor of the major encyclopedia in our field (this was very pre-internet), who was in another country, had lunch with him when visiting his city, and ended up writing several articles in the encyclopedia in my particular specialty). It’s a very non-hierarchical field, and you are outright encouraged and directed to think of yourselves as equals. The main thing you’re encouraged to do as a grad student, esp. in the liberal arts, but I imagine also in the sciences, is to think for yourself, question everything, even the most feared and noted scholars in the field. So it wouldn’t be out of line. And you wouldn’t go through a TA, you’d contact the prof. yourself.
        As someone who then transitioned into an Extremely Corporate World, I can vouch that anyone in pure academia would simply not understand the situation. OP should simply, matter of factly, tell them “I can’t do that.” As others have said, I’m sure they’re reaching out to numerous alumni simultaneously.
        She should help where she can–and also “pay it forward” by speaking at an event or two (which, by the way, will have further networking advantages to her–it’s important to remember that the people coming up behind you can often surpass you!). Networking is networking!

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    5. MK

      I think this plays a part particularly regarding the keynote speaker. The people in academia that I know at least would consider being asked to do something like this flattering, even if they couldn’t/wouldn’t accept. The request alone would hardly register as an imposition; and I don’t think it would cross their minds that the OP would need “political weight” to do this. For what it’s worth, I think the OP is looking at this the wrong way: they are not asking her to ask the VP for a favor, they want her to pass on the information to her that they would like her to speak at this event.

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  6. Ms. Pear

    I know the OP has already said that they don’t feel comfortable doing so, so I’m asking for my own information, not add further pressure on the OP! Maybe it’s just different personalities, or maybe it’s a different kind of culture at the OP’s company than I’m used to, but would most VPs be bothered by being asked to be a speaker at an event? Personally, I wouldn’t be opposed to writing a short email to the VP explaining who I am, that I’ve really enjoyed being part of the team at Company. Maybe following saying something like, “Part of the reason I’m at Company today is because I was part of the Young Recruits program at University, and they’ve now reached out to me asking whether you might be available to be the keynote speaker at their upcoming banquet on date/time. Would you be interested? If so, I’d be happy to connect you; if not, I can certainly let them know that this won’t work out for you.”

    It seems to me that if nothing else, it would be an opportunity to connect with a VP you don’t know, and if they decline, no biggie. But are there places where this simply is Not. Done.?

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    1. Hey Karma, Over here.

      I’m in a 2,000 person company, spread over states and countries. I’m going to say, no. It’s not really done. Academia’s goal is to share knowledge. Business is not. I could go to the head of my 200 person division (three steps up from my manager) with whom I have a relationship and ask him. And I could use that relationship to have him contact a different VP. But you really need to have a personal introduction because it seems out of touch to start contacting people outside the chain of command. That’s bad phrasing on my part. It’s not any type of martial law or caste system, it’s just that time is money and you don’t want to look like you are using both of them at work for non work things, especially if it brings others into it.

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      1. Former Prof

        I think this is really well put. There are definite social structures and customs in every group–academia has its own byzantine ones as well.

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    2. Antilles

      In most big companies, yes, it would be a faux pas. It’s a pretty weird thing to cold-email someone with absolutely no shared connection – they don’t even work in the same department, they’ve never met and (I’m guessing) the VP was not an alum of the university.
      It shouldn’t be the sort of thing that caused major long-term repercussions for OP, but it would definitely come off as strange and a complete misunderstanding of her role in the company.

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    3. Kaybee

      A lot of companies/organizations have a formalized system for requesting speakers, particularly if big names work there. In many, it can be fine to circumvent the system if you have a close relationship with the speaker in question. But if you’ve never met the person, or if that person outranks you by several degrees, then yeah, it is something that is not. done. My friends with entry –level jobs at Amazon can’t just shoot an email to Jeff Bezos to come speak at an alumni association event.

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      1. DaniCalifornia

        This is what I was thinking. Perhaps OP can direct their mentors to whatever system the company has in place to request speakers. Cold-emailing a VP seems out of touch.

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      2. MK

        Well, bearing in mind that the OP’s mentor did not initially ask her to make the request herself, but to give them the VP’s contact information, I think it would have been perfectly fine for the OP to pass on how the request process works at their company, if it exists. Or simply to give the more public contact infromation for this VP’s department? I mean, most companies at least have a “contact us” page on their site that provide a way for anyone to contact various people. (And, yes, the mentor could probably figure this out himself, but it will make the OP seem helpfull without doing anything that makes her uncomfortable)

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        1. Femme d'Afrique

          I had the same thought. Would it be possible to pass along this request to the VP’s PA? Or, in the case of a really large organisation, the Corporate Communications department, or its equivalent?

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      3. anon for this

        I organize investment conferences. You don’t land big-name speakers without circumventing the system to some extent.

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    4. ZNerd

      I suspect that type of approach would be fine at some companies and not at others, depending on the culture, how collaborative they are, how strictly they regard the office hierarchy, etc. so as usual, knowing your company culture is key.

      However, most large businesses have a PR function. It’s pretty common for that group to vet/arrange speaking engagements for principals in the company. Perhaps you can reach out through them.

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    5. Amber T

      I work at a small ~50 person firm and personally know (and have pretty positive relationships with) everyone, and even I’d feel weird asking this. I think this heavily depends on individual office culture, but I would assume this is probably Not Done in general, and doing this would be the exception.

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      1. Julia

        Same. At my last job, I was good friends with the top guy’s secretary, though, so I may have asked her what she thought of it and if she could test the waters with him.

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    6. Alicew

      Well I work at a 25,000+ global company and a cold email might be out of the ordinary but not at all offensive. I’m a high level exec and if I received such a request from someone I don’t know, I wouldn’t think much of it. I would respond. I wouldn’t think the person who sent the email was speaking out of turn.

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    7. KR

      I’m in a large company where my grandboss is the director of our division and his boss is the VP.. of one of multiple facets of the company. Who reports to the president who reports to the CEO. Definitely would be not okay to contact the VP and in general I try not to email even the director directly unless I have to – and I’ve met the Director and VP and they’re both very nice and like hearing from lower level employees. So IMO just Not Done.

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    8. Kimberlee, Esq.

      FWIW I work at an international company of about 1000 full-time and I would think nothing of sending such an email to a VP. And I’m basically an admin. Ya’ll have really unfriendly companies.

      That’s mostly a joke (ok, not really), but I get that different companies run in different ways. But it’s worth noting that most people don’t do those sorts of speaking engagements as a favor to a colleague; they do it because it’s good press for the company, and it increases the prestige of their employees. If OP emailed the request in that spirit, I can’t imagine a reasonable person being upset about it.

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    9. mf

      I would send an email like this but not directly to VP–send it to the VP’s assistant, a director/manager who reports to the VP, or someone in PR. It’s their job to screen requests like for the VP.

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    10. Hello...ello...ello..ello..llo..llo..lo

      I was going to post this as a separate line… but I think it fits in here just as well.

      One thing that stuck out of your letter is that the OP’s company does hire grads from your alma mater. Maybe a quick word with someone in the recruiting department to see if the they have a relationship with the school or other recruiting efforts that would include sending speakers to. It might be a simple email to your HR contact that says,

      “Hi, I have some contacts at Teapot U, who have asked me to speak to some of their future grads/put them in contact with executives who would speak, I don’t know if there we here at Teapots Inc have any formal recruiting relationship, but I have passed on a few resumes that have come my way for grads who look like they might fit. I wanted to ask if there was something more formal already in place, or if I should be bringing these requests to speak to someone’s attention in case it might help us with our recruiting efforts at Teapot U.
      Please let me know if I can help in any way or if you have any questions that I can answer”

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    11. Caboodle

      I absolutely love this. However, maybe the VP isn’t the right audience for it. Usually large companies like this have some sort of new recruits branch whose function is to stay in touch with universities. Maybe OP can get in touch with them instead.

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      1. Optimistic Prime

        Yeah, this is the way to do it. At sufficiently large businesses there’s university recruiting, and they probably help arrange all this kind of stuff.

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    12. Fiddlesticks

      Coming from the point of view of someone who works in communications for a massive corp (200K+ internationally), depending on how junior you are and how unrelated the senior you’re reaching out to is, this can be read as inoffensively tone deaf or insultingly ignorant on the part of the requester. There are also a few stories about new joiners who decided to translate previously encouraged gusto into our corporate setting and getting shot down HARD.

      There are obviously exceptions depending on the relationships at play (is the person you’re being asked to reach out to someone you know and work with a lot, someone who you know would be up for such a request? someone who you feel comfortable speaking with on this topic, etc?), but in general if it’s someone you wouldn’t have any business talking to anyway at work, it’s not someone you need to be asking any favors — especially for people who aren’t even within the company. This also goes to something a lot of people correctly pointed out in this thread, the different perception of the ask, where in academia it might be viewed as an opportunity and a feather in the cap, whereas generally at our org it’s more of an imposition on time.

      Finally, and I haven’t been exhaustive about reading through the comments so apologies if someone else has already articulated this, but I think it’s probably important also to be mindful of your own political capital at work. Exposure at events is oftentimes viewed as an unquestioned positive in academia, whereas I know from telling people “no” at work that from a corporate point of view, that’s by no means the commonly accepted point of view. So that request isn’t really flattering generally, and unfortunately can sometimes be viewed as a pain in the neck. Also from my experience, people are usually nice enough about a casual ask if it’s someone they know already and it’s well intentioned, but if someone with two years of experience at our organization got bounced to me by our regional CEO’s EA who knows to forward these kinds of requests through comms, I’d be giving you a call and a “nope,” but I’d probably be judging you for not reading the corporate tea leaves very well.

      Reply
    13. Optimistic Prime

      I work for a very large MegaCorp, a large multinational company with well over 20,000 employees. VPs are at a level in my company that they are many steps removed from me in the reporting structure, and yes, at my company it would be weird to ask a VP that you don’t have a personal connection with to be a speaker at an event. It wouldn’t be weird if the college reached out to them directly, but it would be weird coming from me. (Now, if you have a personal connection or relationship with an executive, that can be different.)

      Reply
  7. MegPie

    I would be flattered to receive the types of requests that you’re getting – not that it means you should do anything that you feel is too much or that makes you uncomfortable. But networking, especially in certain industries, can really benefit you in the future. Maybe they think they are being helpful by presenting you with these types of opportunities. Maybe looking at it from that perspective will help you feel less put-upon.

    Reply
    1. DCompliance

      I do agree that a lot of people would like the opportunity to be able to speak on these panels. It is great for networking and looks good on your resume. I completely understand some people do not have the ability to take time off to do take these opportunities, but some people have the ability to do so and would enjoy it. I don’t think they are wrong in asking you.

      Reply
    2. OP

      I didn’t mean to come across as ungrateful, it’s just really hard to justify taking a personal day during the work week when our team is swamped. I’ve been on a demanding project for the last 2 years and while I would really love to go back and talk about how awesome the program is and all the opportunities available through it, I would be putting extra work on others by doing so. These requests have come at really bad times, like right before a big presentation or a few days before the end of the quarter.

      Reply
      1. Judy (since 2010)

        I wouldn’t assume you would need to take a personal day. Many corporations allow time for “goodwill to the profession” or something like that. I went several times back to my university to speak to students when I lived 1.5 hours away, my company at the time considered it a good use of my time.

        Reply
        1. Jerry Vandesic

          Exactly. I have been on many professional panels, and all were “on the clock” work time for my employer. Employers encouraged professional activities outside the office.

          Reply
      2. Hello...ello...ello..ello..llo..llo..lo

        Agreed with Judy, I posted up thread a little bit along the same lines, but perhaps send a quick note to your recruiting department. They may already have something in place with your university, it could mean that you are asked to go to some of these events on the clock.

        Reply
      3. Lily Rowan

        Just to reiterate — it’s 100% fine to say no! You can say you can never do things during the work day, or you can just say yes to one request a year, or you can say no to each one of them. I’m sure the mentors will be fine with it. It just sounds like they have a lot of slots to fill, and feel like you would be great.

        Reply
      4. Observer

        A few things here. Firstly, as others have pointed out, you may not even have to take a personal day – this is something that could be something that is beneficial to the company.

        Also, please don’t feel like you can’t take a personal day until this project is over. It sounds like you have avoided taking any personal time for 2 years already. That’s enough. I’m not saying that you should just start calling out, but most definitely can justify taking some personal time for yourself. It’s one thing when there is a high impact and high pressure project that takes a couple of months. You simply cannot keep that up for years at a time.

        You don’t necessarily take the personal time if you don’t want to. But you do NOT have to “justify” taking personal time occasionally. Good companies give PTO for a reason. And they make it their business to properly staff high impact projects.

        Reply
        1. OP

          I mistyped above – I definitely DO take all of my PTO during the year, it’s a use-it-or-lose-it policy and I definitely do not lose it! My managers have been awesome and when these requests come up, there is a bank of time that’s separate from my vacation time that I can use and my managers have allowed me to use that in the past for these types of events. They just sometimes come at very bad times (though there haven’t been many “good times” in the past 2 years), like I mentioned at the end of the quarter or before presentations, but also right before a business trip so I need to finish up other tasks and not drop things on the rest of my team. I work with great people that will cover for me if needed, and I will for them, but I don’t want that to be how I treat all of these requests when I really need to be in the office to do my job.

          Reply
      5. Genny

        OP, you can also always talk to your mentors about rescheduling the panel (assuming it was a panel you wanted to do). There may be a reason it has to be scheduled during the school day, but there may also be some flexibility on the timing.

        Reply
      6. MegPie

        Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply you are ungrateful. I just sometimes have an easier time approaching things like this if I change my mindset a little so I thought I would suggest a different point of view.

        Reply
        1. OP

          No no, you’re fine! I am definitely flattered that they think of me when these types of events come up, but it still feels like I can’t at times and I’m disappointing them because of it.

          Reply
  8. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

    This sounds like really normal networking to me. When you’re not in a position to help, it’s ok to respond in a fairly direct (albeit polite) way. It’s also ok to explain that you are supportive but cannot make events during work hours.

    I get hit up fairly frequently by my university (in part because they do not have a lot of women of color in my field who live geographically close), and I frequently reject them in a warm way that keeps the relationship open. My school has done a lot for me, and I’ve done a lot of service for them—I just can’t always do it at the exact times they’d prefer. None of the staff or my faculty mentors has taken this badly, and it hasn’t discouraged them from helping me or reaching out when they need it.

    Reply
  9. ExceptionToTheRule

    I still live in the same town as my alma mater & get many requests to talk to prospective students & their families, serve on search committees, help with event X or Y. I help where I can and I say no when I need to. This type of networking is part of being an engaged or active, local, alum.

    Reply
  10. DaniCalifornia

    I don’t know. On one hand yes normal networking is going on. Requests can be denied in a polite way and the OP may feel like they ‘owe something’ to their mentors for all the help they gave to OP while in college, but shouldn’t feel guilty if they can’t help. The part about asking for the VP’s info and then when OP said it’s against company policy, they asked the OP to do it on their behalf. That strikes me as odd (can’t quite put my finger on why though)

    I also can’t tell from the letter if OP has explained any of the things about their work that they shared with Alison (not in contact with VPs, still a “nobody”, doesn’t have the capital to ask for favors) to their mentors? Perhaps if they understood more about OP’s company? Or OP could say “I love it that you’re asking this of me since you helped me so much, but for events during the work day I will always have to say no, just wanted you to be aware of that.”

    Reply
  11. Dinosaur

    Hey OP, thanks for asking this! I’m going to be graduating soon and moving into a field that is much more networking-focused than I’ve encountered before and I wouldn’t have known that this is normal.

    Reply
  12. Lina

    I respectfully think you are a little off-base here, Alison. The advice you give the OP is great (setting boundaries, saying no, etc.). However, I do think they are taking advantage of their relationship with her.

    Reply
    1. Bene

      Can you explain why? This all sounds like very typical networking stuff. What is it that makes you think they’re “taking advantage”? (Also, what’s your own field/level of experience with this sort of things? Could be relevant.)

      Reply
      1. Lina

        I think I am basing it off personal experience. Reading it I envisioned similar types that exist at my alma mater, and if they were doing this to me I would take it the exact same way – just knowing how pushy they are. What struck a cord with me was the “can you email the VP?”. Maybe I’m biased.

        Reply
  13. Snark

    OP…I understand wanting to feel helpful and accommodating to people who’ve been helpful to you, but….yes, they were mentors and sponsors, but you don’t need to feel wrong about saying no. You don’t need to explain or justify yourself.

    “Thanks for your email. Unfortunately, I will not be able to pass along your request to VP, and I can’t pass along their contact information per company policy. Thanks for understanding.”

    “Thanks for your email. Unfortunately, I have no availability for speaking engagements during normal business hours. I’ll let you know if that changes. Thanks for understanding.”

    Reply
  14. animaniactoo

    I think the key phrase you’re looking for is “Unfortunately, I’m not in a position to do that.”

    They network. They’ll get it. But until they ask, they have no idea whether or not you are in a position to do something. Some things are an obvious overstep (like asking for the VP’s phone number for themselves), but as long as that’s not the usual and you handle it calmly and they don’t get pushy at rejections, there’s really no issue. It’s just about switching perspective from thinking they’re asking you to because they expect you to be able to do it, to thinking that they’re asking to find out if you’re able to do it.

    The person who posted on your wall, you might want to follow up with them to say “Hey, how come you posted on my wall instead of sending me a followup or calling?” – they may have been ending up in spam a lot or just a little awkward themselves. Asking gives you the opening to find out more and express your preference that they do it differently (many people don’t see a direct wall to wall message as a “public” thing and they may also land in that bucket and not realize that you don’t).

    Reply
    1. JustaTech

      This line exactly! I had someone from my undergrad’s “clinic” program contact me about setting up a project that 5 undergrads could work on remotely. Which is not possible for a lot of reasons: 1) I’m still quite junior, 2) it’s a lab-based company, so it’s very hard to do remote work, 3) we were in the middle of a bankruptcy.
      So I told the coordinator all those things and he was very understanding. Then the next year I got the same email but before I could even get annoyed I got a follow up email of “oh, you weren’t supposed to get that, you’re not supposed to be on that list any more, sorry!”

      We forget how much people we used to be close to *don’t* know about our lives/work situations now, so it’s a kindness to tell them.

      Reply
  15. OP

    Thanks Alison for your response, I needed to get out of my own head and get an outside perspective!

    I sent a follow-up email, but for everyone else: another layer of complexity to this is that when I was in school, I absolutely had a SuperHero complex. I said yes to every single request even if it meant being in multiple places in one day, and if I couldn’t be somewhere I offered to help with any prep work. This started a pattern of people always coming to me for things first because it looked like I juggled it all so well. Sometimes this meant I didn’t eat or sleep enough, or didn’t study when I needed to, because I didn’t want to let people down by saying I couldn’t help. I’m finally learning to say ‘no’ when I don’t have the time or energy to do something, but it took a toll on my mental and physical well-being before I finally learned to make that change in the past few years. I don’t blame my mentors or anybody else for this, it was my own doing and not acknowledging that I was exceeding my own limits. I think some of that desire to not let people down was driving some of my feelings about these requests because I never said ‘no’ back then.

    Reply
    1. Hello...ello...ello..ello..llo..llo..lo

      Thanks for the follow up, this confirms what I was thinking up thread. Just want to add a “Good for you!” for realizing that you were accommodating to the detriment of yourself. Seriously, that’s huge, and any toll it took on you now is so much better than if you hadn’t and the repercussions that would eventually come.

      You are a wise person for understanding this.

      Reply
      1. OP

        I can’t take full credit, my current manager and a very wise friend helped me realize this. I sat down with him after he first took over our team and he had me tell him about everything I had going on at the time, which beyond my actual job included part-time grad school, multiple volunteer groups within the department and company, and intermittent connections with volunteer groups and nonprofits outside of the office. He immediately said “we need to cut some of this back”, and he was right. I was so proud of myself in school for being able ‘to do it all’ that I tied a lot of my self-worth to that. My friend had me read “The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women” by Valerie Young and it was eye-opening. I’m still adjusting to not filling every minute of my day with extracurriculars, but just knowing that I can go home and cook myself a healthy dinner rather than getting fast food and scarfing it down during a late night phone call has done wonders for my well-being.

        Reply
    2. Wheezy Weasel

      Glad that you’re getting better at saying no, OP. I think we usually frame this in some sort of ‘favor bank’. For instance, I drive my friend to the airport, I won’t feel badly about asking him to help me move a few boxes out of my storage unit. Those are one-time transactions. He drives me to the airport once, he doesn’t have enough favors in the bank to ask me to drive him to work once a week for a month while his wife needs the car.

      What your mentors did for you at school was a professional transaction, though. Helping you land a job in your current company was, in a way, a bit within their job description. The University is getting just as much benefit from your company hiring graduates as you did from their introduction to your company. They’re likely leveraging that in their press releases, talks to new parents, increasing their rankings among their competing schools. The graciousness that they have shown in connecting you to your employer is not a personal favor, despite having such huge significance on your life. You don’t owe them the equivalent of 500 trips to the airport because they helped you get a job there. *You* got the job there, on your own merits :)

      Reply
      1. OP

        I love the analogy of a ‘favor bank’, it does hit home. And yes I know the university does get to brag about their placement rates and successful alumni, but because these individuals did have a direct impact in many ways, I do feel extra-bound to them. It’ll still take time to get out of that mindset!

        Reply
  16. MCMonkeyBean

    I think they are maybe being a little unusually pushy–but I want to note that being asked to speak to students as a successful grad is a pretty great opportunity and if you’ve never talked to your boss about it you should consider it next time! I did something like that last year and it was actually a great thing to put on my year-end evaluation. It’s a low-key recruiting opportunity so your company may be thrilled to have you go talk to students about what you do and why you love working at company X or whatever even if it is on company time.

    Reply
  17. Countess Boochie Flagrante

    It isn’t really that abnormal, OP, but I can definitely see how it feels like it on a gut level! Especially with what you said in the comments about wanting to be able to say yes to everything. It is most definitely okay — even necessary — to say no sometimes.

    Reply
  18. zapateria la bailarina

    it does feel pushy to me, but i think it will be easily fixed by setting proper boundaries. for example you state that you don’t have the standing to contact the VP directly, but did you tell your mentor that? just be upfront and honest about what you can and cannot do.

    Reply
  19. Em Too

    Is it worth checking your company policy on this, or speaking to your manager if you haven’t already? Many companies would be happy to release you for a day to speak at a graduate program which has given them good employees before, and if not you can tell your mentors that you’ve asked and sadly you can’t.

    FWIW, if I received a request to speak like these, I’d absolutely take it as a request to me-as-employee-representing-company, and not as a personal request to be done in my own time (I realise academia doesn’t really have these boundaries).

    Reply
    1. designbot

      yes, I was thinking along these lines too!
      This relationship may not feel balanced to OP right now because she’s not taking advantage of offers like these, which will continue to grow her network and make her look more important to her peers and superiors at work. I know norms are different in different industries and companies, but I did a speaking engagement like this in the fall and didn’t even ask anyone. I just make sure it didn’t conflict with any meetings or other duties, and made it happen. Companies promote this stuff all the time, why on earth wouldn’t they want you to do it?

      Reply
  20. Walter

    OP’s letter brought back a memory of a similar situation I was in after I graduated college—one of my professors kept in touch with me and I also didn’t have the experience to know whether these types of requests were normal. The situation came to a head when the professor wanted me to get some computer equipment for his lab at a discount through a matching donation program at my company. I was just out of college and didn’t have much money, so he said he would pay me back for my cost, which was strictly against the rules. When I responded saying no, he replied saying he had spent a lot of time and effort helping me while I was in college and he was upset I wasn’t returning the favor. I haven’t been in touch with him since that exchange.

    I find it interesting to think about this situation again in light of the discussion in the comments about the differences between academia and the corporate world.

    Reply
    1. cleo

      I’ve worked in higher ed a long time and it IS different from the corporate world, but your professor sounds manipulative by higher ed standards as well.

      Reply
    2. anonagain

      This sounds really messed up in any context.

      I’m not sure if I understand the situation fully, but that sounds like the request itself was inappropriate. Even if he wasn’t asking you to do something shady, I think it’s pretty gross for a professor to ask individual students or recent graduates for donations. It’s a really pronounced power relationship and that’s just not appropriate in my opinion.

      If he really didn’t realize it was against the rules, I think he would’ve been super apologetic and reassured you that he definitely wouldn’t want you to do anything that would jeopardize your employment and your future. The fact that he lashed out is telling, I think.

      I’m sorry that happened to you. You did the right thing not to give him the equipment.

      Reply
  21. I have seen it all, jk

    Hi OP, are you are POC? Sometimes I think we feel more pressure whether internalized or not, to “give back.” If you are, I feel you on so many levels especially if you also come from a lower socio-economic background. I’ve been there and I realized that I had to learn how to place limits or dead myself to multiple requests. It’s great that you have been a stellar student and dependable individual but there is a way to help yourself and pull someone up at the same time. The best way I have dealt with it is connecting my college group with an internal team at my company that specifically does outreach to local colleges and groups. At a 10,000+ company, there is a definitely a department out there. Or speak with your HR about giving a tour and what steps are needed for clearance. In your emails, be sure to clarify availability and say no if it doesn’t work out. Also if you are POC and you are not a part of a professional group, join one now. One, for mentorship at a higher level, two, there are a lot of things brown and black folks experience in the transition from community to the workplace, and three, the professional group may have programs geared towards college students. Whether you identify as POC or not, you do have the power to say no and not feel guilty. I wish you the best of luck and congratulations on graduating and job placement!

    Reply
    1. OP

      Not POC but an underrepresented group in the program/industry (definitely not the same level as POC/lower socio-economic background by any means!). You hit the nail on the head with the desire to pull someone up, I hate the idea of getting ahead and metaphorically closing the door behind me. For the last 2 years I have hosted a group of students on site that are primarily POC/underrepresented groups, it is a program that I greatly benefited from and love to give back to when I can. I can honestly attribute my summer internships and eventual full-time position to the group! I and another grad organized a facility tour, speakers, and an alum panel discussion, all of which take a LOT of behind the scenes work leading up to it but I have seen the students look around and have that “I can do this too!” moment that makes it all worth it. (I’m tearing up just thinking about it!) I will continue to host this group every year until I am no longer in a position to do so.

      I am part of a professional group but not consistently active – again, I give talks at local conferences and volunteer for hands-on activities when I can, but they consistently fall in the middle of the work day and some times I can’t leave tasks until I get back the next day. I downsized my extracurricular commitments to only those I can fully commit to without sacrificing my health again. And you’re right, there are teams within the company that focus on outreach, but they’re hurting for consistent volunteers which makes me feel guilty again.

      Reply
      1. anonagain

        I’m always being voluntold to do these things, even though I shouldn’t be the face of anything, ever. Honestly, after a certain point, this kind of thing just gets in the way of my participating in the professional development that’s meaningful for my own career.

        I believe in lifting others up. But I also believe that at some point we also have the right to just focus on our own careers, like anyone else. How high can I lift anyone else up if I’m never able to advance myself?

        There has to be a balance.

        Reply
      2. Observer

        It sounds to me like the issue is not your mentors but your unrealistic expectations of yourself. It’s good that you are beginning to draw some reasonable boundaries. I’m sure that your mentors will understand your limits if they are clearly and kindly stated. It’s not like you really are closing the door behind you – you ARE giving back.

        Reply
  22. I have seen it all, jk

    I feel you completely. At some point, you will need to affirm your boundaries with not only your mentors but yourself. If you can, take some time to master your calendar. Try reducing your community workload until you can work at a manageable pace. Also be honest, with your mentors, let them know that you are currently burning the candle at both ends. Sometimes honesty can remove any unresolved resentment or guilt. So many people have experienced feeling what you’re are feeling including myself. If you google burn out and LGBTQ or POC or Differently Abled activists and educators, alot of the sentiments expressed are echoed in the papers but it may be helpful to providing tools that managed the stress. All this to say, you are not alone in how you feel and I hope it will be on the upswing.

    Reply
  23. Massmatt

    Nothing wrong with setting clear boundaries on what you can and cannot do when networking.

    I would say no one can take advantage of you without your permission. You can always say no. But it sounds like you got a lot out of the networking so I hope you will pay it forward when and how you can. Maybe it would help to look as these requests as opportunities for you to build your network and influence?

    Reply
  24. Jenny

    I actually disagree with Alison here, this sounds pretty excessive to me. I think normal networking is sending occasional resumes or making one request to be connected to someone, but what you described is way beyond that. And given that these are people in what sounds like a university career services department who’ve been there at least 5 years, I don’t think they could be so tech un-savvy or so out of touch with professional norms to not realize that.

    At least at my most recent employer, sending an email out of the blue to a senior-level person I didn’t have a relationship with to ask them about speaking at an event would would be perceived as incredibly poor judgement and out of touch. And I think Alison has talked before about how forwarding resumes for people who aren’t really well qualified reflects poorly on you.

    While I absolutely agree that trying to give back to a group that’s helped you would be the right thing to do, you shouldn’t feel so guilted or obligated to them that it pushes you to do things that hurt you professionally.

    Reply
    1. Nita

      Yeah, me too… don’t know what the timeline is, but it sounds like an incessant barrage of every request they can come up with. It’s not even the request to speak to the VP, they might legitimately not know this would look odd at this specific company. It’s more the big picture of them trying to milk the relationship with the OP for all it’s worth, without much regard for the fact that the OP is trying to establish their career and has many other responsibilities.

      Reply

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