how to set boundaries when contacts get pushy

A reader writes:

I have a job overseas, and sometimes it feels like every week I have another person contacting me to help them get a job, an internship, etc. over here. I’d made myself available to the alumni community from the university I attended, and while I don’t typically mind when students, friends, or acquaintances, etc. get in touch (that’s why I’ve made myself available!), when they are demanding, I start to freak ever so slightly.

The most recent example that’s pushed me right up to the edge: A friend of a coworker of my sister (see the many levels of removal on that one) has decided she’d like to intern at an organization in the city I live in. It’s not where I work or even my field, but she’d had no luck getting ahold of someone directly. By that, I mean she’d emailed the general email on their website and has yet to receive a response. So when her friend told her that her coworker’s sister lived there. . . she dropped me an email to see if I knew anyone and could help her out. A few days later, another email (I was on holiday at the time of the first one and hadn’t replied). Then, my sister tells me her coworker has been asking her why I haven’t replied. Then, the friend herself starts turning up and bugging my sister directly, while she’s at work. Finally, another email arrives, this one stressing how it was VERY IMPORTANT that I provide the contact info soon, and help her set this up ASAP, as she had to have it all confirmed by the end of the month. Now, I don’t know this organization she’d like to work for. I do have one or two friends in that field, but connecting people always runs the risk of having my neck put on the line. Plus the entitled, demanding tone of the emails is rubbing me the wrong way; it’s like she thinks I owe her to give her my own personal contacts, and get her this internship. Besides, these are my personal contacts: why should I use up professional favours on a stranger?

All of this makes me feel like a bad, bad person.

This is an extreme example, but smaller things happen all the time: a friend who is moving here soon expects me to help her find an apartment, get a phone, get a bank account, and even advise her on the negotiations with her new boss, etc. An acquaintance wants me to circulate their resume. A student contacts me to hook them up with hiring managers in the city, and would I mind putting a good word in while I’m at it? I know I probably sound incredibly unhelpful but c’mon: I’m starting to feel like the babysitter. Sometimes I can help, but when I help once, say forwarding an email or directing someone to a job board, does that mean I’m obligated to keep helping? How can I politely set boundaries or even (gasp) say no to the Mad Emailer without seeming like a selfish, unhelpful bitch?

This is well timed, because I’m obsessed lately with the concept of setting boundaries and saying no to people who feel entitled to things from you that they’re not entitled to. In fact, this topic may become an entirely separate post at some point, because NO, random Internet stranger who has never interacted with me before, ever, I will not let you place an ad-disguised-as-a-guest-post on my blog, and I will not let you “pick my brain” over the phone for free, and it’s bizarre when you act put off by that.

Oh, whoops. Tangent. Back to you.

Okay, so. To some extent you signed up for this when you volunteered to help alumni from your university. The reality is that while everyone should be polite, non-pushy, and appreciative, they just aren’t. If that’s always going to bother you, you might be better off taking your name off that list … but an alternative is to simply develop more assertive strategies for fielding demanding people.

Start by figuring out some boundaries that will allow you to be a nice, helpful person without becoming a gopher for virtual strangers. For instance, if you get a lot of queries about the same topics, like housing and jobs, you could create an email that you can copy and paste from as needed, with some general info about neighborhoods and links to helpful job sites, useful networking groups for your industry, and so forth.

Then, once you’re clear on reasonable boundaries, you need to have a series of phrases ready to help you say no in a way that’s firm but still something you’re comfortable saying.

For instance:

“I love to answer questions about XYZ field, but I don’t have expertise in yours, unfortunately.”

“I can’t really hook you up with hiring managers, but if you have questions about work culture here, I’m glad to help!”

“I wouldn’t have time to do much on the apartment front, but here’s a great website with info about local housing. If you start looking and run into specific questions, feel free to check back with me because I might be able to answer stuff about what a particular neighborhood is like, etc.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know anyone at that organization. Good luck!”

“I wouldn’t feel right telling you I could help set up your phone, because I’m swamped at work and not sure when I could get to it.”

And when someone starts getting inappropriately pushy — like your sister’s coworker’s friend — make your stance clear:  “Hey, I got your email. I haven’t been online very much but I will get back to you when I’m able. If you need an immediate response, I’m probably not the best person for you.” And if she’s pushy after that, then default to: “I’m sorry, I don’t think I can be helpful here.”

Oh, and your sister needs to learn all this too, if she’s letting someone show up at her workplace (!) and nag her about why you haven’t responded to her.

By the way, at the same time that you’re setting boundaries, make sure that your irritation about the general situation doesn’t cause you to go overboard in the other extreme and start saying no to people who you’d probably want to help if this weren’t happening against a backdrop of you being bombarded with requests. (For instance, you might help your best friend out with apartment-hunting whereas you wouldn’t do that for someone else.)

So in sum, the basics: Be clear on what you’re willing to do, help out to an extent that feels reasonable, communicate assertively when you aren’t able to help, be nice to people who deserve it, and lay down the law with anyone who’s pushy or demanding. Ta-da — boundaries!

{ 90 comments… read them below }

  1. Ellen M.*

    “Finally, another email arrives, this one stressing how it was VERY IMPORTANT that I provide the contact info soon, and ***help her set this up ASAP, as she had to have it all confirmed by the end of the month.*** ” (emphasis mine)

    And this after enlisting others to join in the harrassment? WHAT THE FORK?

    If someone sent me a message like this, I would send a message back telling him/her NEVER to contact me again. I don’t care what anyone’s cousin’s co-worker’s best friend’s aunt might think, fer crying out loud! She is trying to get the OP to take over what is HER responsibility to do. Highly inappropriate. I wouldn’t offer any consolation prize, I would just say “NO.”

    I advise people re: job hunting, teach resume writing classes, interview-prep classes and I cannot tell you how many people, some of them whom I have never met, think they can bully me into taking over their job hunt. It has never worked with me, not once. If I am in a good mood I might give them a final bit of advice, to drop the pushy behavior with everyone, if they ever want to get hired, but most of the time anything besides “NO” means they *will* continue the inappropriate contact, again and again.


    1. Anonymous*

      Agreed! I would be quite livid to receive an email like that. And harassing her sister at her workplace? That’s inappropriate on a whole other level.

    2. Dave*

      Completely agree. One rule of thumb I have is that I don’t help people network if I wouldn’t want them in my organization. How can I push them on another organization if I don’t believe in their abilities? OP should not feel bad about shrugging off inappropriate, entitled people… they all need a big wake up call.

      1. Anonymous*

        That’s a great thing to point out, Dave. By associating herself with the entitled emailer, OP is putting her own young professional reputation on the line. I would question whether it is wise to be part of the alumni network at all; these people are strangers and they could potentially do some real damage. The school is essentially using her to offer a no cost perk to attract new students.

  2. Lisa*

    Great, great post. I need to do this in all areas of my personal and work life! I legitimately love helping people, so I end up saying yes to too many things — but at least, compared to the OP’s pests, the asks I get are so polite that they could be from a turn of the century gentleman to a member of the British royal family. I don’t think I’ve ever had someone harass me to anywhere NEAR that degree.

    Maybe the letter writer should pretend she’s been overseas so long she’s forgotten how to speak English… or start a job placement agency and charge for her services… Or she could just do exactly what you said. Great post!

    Oh, I do have a friend’s story to share to make OP feel better: My friend agreed to help a couple she knew who were going into business together with their website, free of charge, as a sort of congrats to them on taking that step. She set them up with a lovely website that was fairly basic, but included beautiful custom graphics and was ready for them to update or hire someone to update when needed. Cue the barrage of “…can you change?” “…can you add?” requests. A few weeks later, the male half of the couple angrily emailed a few hundred of their mutual professional acquaintances (via mailing list) to notify them that my friend was “unreliable, a flake, someone I can no longer support” because she had failed to update the website, which she built for him for free, to which he had all backend login information, which she had NEVER promised to maintain forever and ever for free, within a few days of a request.

      1. Jamie*

        I don’t know why people think websites are like babies…just because you create one doesn’t mean you’re going to support it for the next 21 years.

    1. Rana*

      If it’s any comfort for your friend, I suspect that most of the people he emailed have received similar emails before from this guy about other people, and most likely shrug it off as “Oh, great, So-and-so is on one of his tirades again.”

      1. Anonymous*

        No, I bet they think the web developer is unreliable. People, and this includes many computer people, think websites are totally simple to maintain, take no time, and really it should be done gratis.

        I had someone rant to me about how much it cost him for his biz website. Like, almost FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS! lol. I asked him if he worked for free. No? Then why should your web guy? [silence and deep thoughts]

        Your friendly neighborhood webdev

        1. Seattle Writer Girl*

          I once worked for a large company where the CEO asked us, repeatedly, why couldn’t we just “buy a website out of a box?”

      1. Lisa*

        She ended up leaving the hobby that the list related to, for reasons that were related but not a direct result of the email. There was a LOT of drama, and after having near-strangers contact her with opinions on her breakup with another member of the hobby community, she was done. Wise decision, she feels much less like she’s taking “crazy pills” now ;)

    2. Long Time Admin*

      “No good deed shall go unpunished.”
      -Alan Alda on M*A*S*H*

      I have trouble establishing boundaries, too.

    3. Richard*

      A fantastic example of why I refuse to do websites for anyone for free any more.

      I made this mistake once; it wasn’t even a basic site. It was a customised WordPress (so that they could update it themselves) that I made for a friend, as a learning experience for myself when I was out of work, and as a favour to them. I made the graphics, customised code, everything. And after a few changes they asked for, it was done.

      A few years (!) down the line, they come back to me asking for changes to be made. I’m in university at this point, I’m snowed under with work, and I tell them that I’m really busy at the moment, but the changes that they were asking for were no mean feat, since I didn’t have the source images any more, and it would take time to do.

      Admittedly, this went on for a few months, until eventually I got a passive aggressive email back saying ‘maybe I should just pay somebody else to do it then.’

      Then I realised what the correct response was: ‘Yes, you probably should. I’m sorry, but I don’t have the time to work on projects outside of university at the moment.’

      Honestly, I should have given a firm ‘No.’ much earlier, and told them to ask elsewhere. It would have been a little less polite, but it would have been better than letting them think that I would have the time to do what they were after for months on end, and would have taken the problem firmly off my plate. They moaned about not having the money to pay for someone to do it after the above response, but I really didn’t have the time to play webmaster for somebody else, and let’s be honest, just because I did them a favour for free years back, it didn’t make me free tech support for life.

  3. jmkenrick*

    The gall of that girl is just baffling to me. Doesn’t she recognize that she’s asking for a favor?

  4. Anonymous*

    I love this post and am finding it quite timely, as my husband is in a similar situation. He is working for a well-known, desirable employer in our city and has made it known that he is happy to refer QUALIFIED potential employees to his company’s HR department. People seem to think that if they know my husband (on any level), that is good enough to get their foot in the door, regardless of whether or not their educational and professional accomplishments meet the written job description. My husband does not have the time to write a recommendation for every single person who wants to work at his company, nor does he want to risk his professional reputation by doing so indiscriminately.

    When he tactfully points out why he can’t automatically get someone an interview or a job when they want one, or explains what someone might be able to do (in terms of training, experience, etc.) to better put themselves in the running for a job at the company, people get incredibly offended. My friend’s husband is no longer speaking to me after I pointed out that his skill set didn’t match any available positions at the company; he just thought my husband owed it to him to write a recommendation for him anyway. We’ve all heard that it’s “not what you know, it’s who you know,” but still…what you know factors into it!

    1. KellyK*

      Good for your husband. I find it pretty awful that people will hold it against him for not recommending them for a job they aren’t qualified for. If by some miracle they did get it, they’d hate it, or suck, or both.

  5. anonymous*

    As irritated as I often get with my company and my job, I will forever be grateful that it taught me how to say “no” with confidence and tact.

    “Why, no sir, I’m afraid I can’t allow you the access to both write the multi-million dollar check and approve it.”, “I’m sorry Ma’am, but you don’t work in HR, so you won’t receive access to view other employees’ salary grades. Have a nice day!”

    I’ve gained so much confidence in this job, and have become very good at setting boundaries, both at work and in my personal life.

    1. The gold digger*

      That’s the Southern No! I learned it when I lived in Memphis. I would ask people to volunteer to do things for the neighborhood association or Junior League or whatever and I would hear a very polite, very dismayed, “Oh Ah wish Ah could! Ah just can’t! But thank you so much for asking me! Bye now!”

      I would be left holding the phone, wondering what had happened.

      And then I learned to use the Southern No myself and life got a lot easier.

  6. JT*

    When you ask strangers for help, it has to be done in a non-pushy way, making it obvious you know their help is 100% optional and, if provided, is done on their own time frame.

    When I get respectful requests like this I’m frankly more likely to respond positively than one that assumes I will help right away.

    And for recipients of requests like this, if you can’t or don’t want to help, be willing to simply say “no” politely – “I’m sorry, but I can’t help with that.” That’s enough. Or more detail if you like. Just say no.

    1. Ellen M.*

      I wouldn’t include the words “I’m sorry” – that implies that you are saying no to something you *should* be saying yes to, and does not communicate that their request is out of line. It makes it seem like *you* are doing something wrong by saying “no”. Even the “I can’t” part implies it is your choice, and they’ll continue to try to change your mind. For pushy people, they will not see that as a final answer, and will continue to push.

      Politeness dies not work with people who make such demands.

      A useful sentence: “I said ‘NO’. I can’t make it any clearer than that.” This works well with insistent salespeople too, especially if you walk right out the door right after saying it, or make a complaint to their boss!

      1. Ellen M.*

        *please forgive spelling above*

        PLEASE do it ASAP, I have to get your forgiveness by the end of the month!!!! It’s VERY IMPORTANT!! lol

      2. JT*

        Ellen – what’s the bluntest email you’ve written to someone’s first request where you wanted to say no?

        1. Anonymous*

          I have said/written: “I am not [reviewing your resume, writing your resume, giving you career counseling, etc.]”

          Blunt and short & sweet is best, and I don’t give a reason, because for those people, they will see any reason as an invitation to debate whether or not I will do what they want me to do.

          Another thing to consider with these folks is if you say yes to ANYTHING, they will haunt you forevermore. The demands will never stop, and will escalate, and they’ll refer their friend, their brother, their cousin to you…

          Once a scammer finds a sucker, they’re like a squirrel with a nut. Just say no.

          1. Ellen M.*

            ^^oops! the posting above was written by me (Ellen M.), I must have forgotten to add that.

            And FWIW, I also wrote the posting below, about the guy who wanted me to be his website/blog’s “mentor”.

            Carry on, ladies and gentlemen.

      3. Jaime*

        The one thing I remember from a conference call about assertiveness and saying “no” more often is to not say “I’m sorry” so often. The guest speaker said if you were tempted to say “I’m sorry”, then try replacing it with “I apologize” first. If it still fits then continue but if it doesn’t then cut it out. I never realized how much I used “I’m sorry” until I started doing this in my head.

        1. JT*

          I am extremely assertive when necessary. But in a first communication with a stranger, “I’m sorry” is an appropriate preface to “no” in the same way we use the word “Dear” when we write to strangers. It’s normal etiquette. I do not use it a second time when someone is being pushy.

          If you have a problem being assertive in difficult situations, then perhaps you should be more circumspect about using the phrase. But in general, it is an entirely appropriate term to use in many situations.

          1. fposte*

            With you on this. The problem isn’t phrasing, it’s lack of being firm, and there’s no reason you can’t be both gracious *and* firm.

          2. KellyK*

            I think “I’m sorry” should be used really sparingly. People who aren’t assertive tend to use it a lot, and it therefore can peg you as wishy-washy. I think your use of it only once is about right.

            I am sorry that I can’t help everyone who ever asks me for help. Not sorry enough to promise more than I can do though.

            1. Emily*

              Last year I discovered the power of “I’m afraid.” I think you can say “I’m sorry” in many cases without loading the phrase with undue contrition, but for cases where you really do want to express regret and also avoid implying you’re at fault, “I’m afraid” is a graceful substitute.

  7. Suzanne*

    Not to be crabby here, but this site and many others discuss the need to contact someone within a company to get your resume seen. If we all knew someone personally, this wouldn’t be a problem, but obviously, we don’t. So we contact friends, and friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends, which is ok, unless too many people are contacting, so then what? Job seekers are being told constantly to network within a company, contact people in that company to get their resume seen, but the message here seems to be that any job seeker needs to understand that this might annoy the people within that company so maybe not. It’s the snowball effect on the person being asked, but if I contacted her, how would I know that?
    I realize your point is the need to set boundaries, but the underlying message I take is that contacting someone within a company that you want to work in might just not be a great idea and could very well get you nowhere because it could well be that he or she has simply been asked once too often.

    1. Anonymous*

      The girl’s first email was probably fine and dandy, but because she couldn’t wait a few days for a reply, she decided to become very pushy, demanding, and entitled.

      My only thing is that perhaps OP’s sister could have said the OP was on vacation.

      1. Suzanne*

        I guess I didn’t really see the girl as being that rude; she had a deadline, this was her only possible contact, she was only a couple degrees removed from the woman, and, from what I can gather, the OP did not respond to her email, even to just say she had been on vacation and didn’t have time to help.
        Stopping in at the sister’s workplace was a bit much, granted, but we don’t know how much time had gone by or how desperate the girl was to make contact or what she had been told by whomever gave her the OP’s name in the first place.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          But she was asking for a favor. She’s not entitled to the OP’s help, or an answer on her preferred timeline. It doesn’t matter how desperate she felt; she’s still asking for a favor.

        2. fposte*

          And it also doesn’t matter what she was told about the OP, because she wasn’t told it by the OP. Even if somebody was crazy enough to say “My co-worker’s sister lives in London and works in a completely different field but can totally get you a job,” you’re never entitled to hold people to promises others made on their behalf.

        3. ThomasT*

          Also, she was taking a bit of a flyer – she was asking a contact who happened to be in the same city as the company she was trying to contact. Hey AAM – you live in Washington DC – can you get me a White House internship, please?

          “Only possible contact” is a little extreme, too, since per the OP, the only request was one to a general email. If it’s so important, spring a couple bucks for a few minutes of international phone time.

        4. Adam V*

          Just like you don’t stop your job search until you hear back from the company you just applied to, you need to keep looking for additional avenues to help yourself and not be waiting on one person (especially if they aren’t responding).

          If a few days go by and you haven’t heard anything, the answer isn’t to write a more insistent email, it’s to say “just wanted to follow up, not sure you saw my first email!” if you feel the need to say anything at all.

          I understand feeling desperate – but that doesn’t make it the OP’s responsibility to drop everything and help someone who left things until the last minute.

        5. NDR*

          If you are on a deadline, then you say “I am working with a deadline of X; I understand if the time restraint makes it difficult or impossible for you to help me with this. I appreciate your willingness to be contacted for this favor regardless.”

  8. Ellen M.*

    Suzanne, also it is one thing to ask a favor of *someone you know*, but demanding help from a stranger, and being rude and pushy and entitled while doing it, is another.

  9. Morgane*

    Wow. Great response to a crazy post.

    On another much less annoying but more frequent note, I dislike it when someone emails you a asking for advice (that you spent at least five minutes answering) and then never responds. No thank you, no I got it. Nothing.

      1. Unmana*

        Thank you! I once wrote a long email full of advice from a friend’s friend who wondered if she should work in my field and asked for help. And never heard back except for a Facebook friend request which I of course, refused. I mean, I could get it if she thought I was Crazy Lady because I wrote such a long thoughtful response to a stranger, but then to not say anything in response but want to be friends with me on Facebook? Weird.

        Okay, good I got that off my chest. Now maybe I can sleep at night.

      2. Anonymous*

        To be fair, many people who write in for advice will use a disposable or “junk” email address in case they end up on a mailing list, same as they would if signing up for a newsletter or creating a login for NYT or something. If it’s an account they access only when specifically waiting for a response, they might stop checking after a few days. Or if it’s a disposable email address, those often expire quickly.

        Having missed some communications of this nature myself, I try to acknowledge that if I’m too busy to respond to someone for a while, it increases the likelihood of my reply being lost.

    1. Lindsay H.*

      Or, lists you as a reference without checking with you first. I once had a call for a reference check without realizing I had been listed as a contact. Lame.

      1. Anonymous*

        A woman I interviewed a few years ago gave us her former supervisor’s name as a reference, but didn’t tell the woman that she had done so. The former supervisor blasted the woman and essentially told us not to hire her. It was a bit of a surprise, given that the interviewee had a good cover letter and resume and otherwise stood out in a very strong field of candidates. A cautionary tale about choosing your references wisely.

        1. Lindsay H.*

          Right?? The people I’ve worked with in the past tend to have an overinflated view of their work performance history. Then they get upset when places, like Target, don’t allow references past employment verifications. I just want to say to them, “Be thankful we can’t give more info on you!! If we said what we really thought . . . .”

    2. Anonymous*

      I’m an American working in a popular overseas city and I often deal with these requests. The difference is they are usually so polite that I feel like I want to help, if I am able. But, like you said, Morgane, when there’s no thank you or no follow up it really becomes discouraging. The most recent example is when I called in a favor by asking someone I know to meet with a student for an informational interview. Although my contact is very busy, he readily agreed and emailed the student with a nice message and his availability. But the student never reached out to him. So then, I ended up having to apologize for the flakiness of the student and now I have cashed in a favor for no reason. It was a time waster for everyone involved — including the student who made the original request. I learned my lesson from that one, but I don’t want to stop helping people across the board. It’s just hard to tell whether they are worth the trouble.

        1. Anonymous*

          Thank you! Yes, I did try but he didn’t respond, so I’m not sure if he gets it or not. But, after reading these comments, I was thinking that it would help to offer this specific case as an example to future students who contact me.

  10. GeekChic*

    Here’s the thing OP, do you *really* care if someone as entitled and pushy as this thinks you’re a “selfish, unhelpful biotch”? Particularly when they are so far removed from your regular life?

    Once I realized that I honestly didn’t care what many people thought of me, it became SO much easier to say no. And to be as blunt as necessary.

  11. Tim C.*

    What is it I have heard? No one can take advantage of you without your permission. Excellent advice from AAM. I would also add back to those who have received help: Express your thanks and gratitude! This means at the very least an e-mail for trying. A gift card or offer to return favors also goes along way. This is called networking and can be crucial in getting your next job offer.

  12. Liz*

    This site makes me feel like a nicer person than I probably am – I can always feel a lot more normal than some of the people in these letters. “Can you set up my phone?” Just. Wow.

    1. JT*

      I want to add one comment – about language skills and culture. Sometimes people who are not so good in the English language can seem much blunter and entitled than they really are when they are writing in English. It’s worth keeping this in mind when you get a very blunt request that sounds like a demand: the writer might not know how to phrase it right.

  13. Emily*

    I fully admit to ignoring entirely emails that come through my alma mater’s “alumnetwork” website that a) make demands, including deadlines; b) show that the writer didn’t actually read my professional bio (e.g. it clearly states I work in apples and she asks for tips about getting a job in oranges); or are written so informally they could be mistaken for an IM or text message. Though I was able to advise a few new grads, the negative interactions, the ones that made me feel used or rude or both, cancelled out that good karma. Like the OP, I started feeling like a bad, bad person!

    Going forward, I’ll recommit to at least responding to these messages using one or more of Alison’s lines above, just for the sake of good manners, but sometimes it’s difficult to restrain myself from pointing out what a poor impression these interested parties are making! Once, someone asked me to tell her, based on her major and minor, what area of my industry I thought she’d excel in and why. Oh, brother.

  14. just another hiring manager...*

    OP, it is very important, especially because this nutball doesn’t seem to understand boundaries, that you back up your boundaries with actions. I think when AAM says “lay down the law with anyone who’s pushy or demanding” that backing up your boundaries with actions is how you maintain those boundaries. If the nutball contacts you after you’ve laid law, you must stick to your guns.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes! Including potentially saying, “I understand you’ve been following up with my sister about this while she’s at work. Please don’t bug my sister about this. I’m the one you want to talk with, and I’ve told you that I can’t help (or will get back to you when I’m able to, or whatever).”

  15. Anonymous*

    A couple of suggestions:

    1. Go back to your university and set boundaries with them as to who can contact you. Can you just have those in your major contact you?

    2. If you are out of the office for a day or two or for a vacation, put an “away” message on your email so it sends out immediately to those who email you.

    Of course, these go under the category “If Possible” since we do not know your entire situation.

    1. Long Time Admin*

      “If you are out of the office for a day or two or for a vacation, put an “away” message on your email so it sends out immediately to those who email you. ”

      Oh, no kidding, and update your voicemail greeting, too. You probably get all annoyed because people later ask you why you didn’t respond to their call/email. We’re not mind readers. Make it easier for people who are trying to contact you.

      1. Anonymous*

        Re: the away msg. Believe it or not, some companies have email clients that don’t do that! I only ever worked with groupwise or similar so I was always able to, but I know some can’t. I’ve also heard that some companies, as odd as this is to me, discourage this practice. I heard of one where they claimed it was a security matter- they didn’t want people to know that certain areas/offices were sparsely staffed. Who knows, the OP could be at a place like that.

    2. Ellie B*

      Agreed on #1. I was thinking it may be worthwhile for the OP to offer some feedback to the university career center. I’m sure he/she’s not the only one experiencing this kind of behavior from their students. And while I imagine the career center provides these contacts with some sort of general reminder to be appreciative and respectful of boundaries, they may want to know that the message needs to be stronger. Otherwise they’ll inevitably see fewer and fewer alums willing to participate in that program.

  16. Anonymous*

    Why didn’t the OP just say “Sorry, I can’t help you”, at any point?

    Is being direct so bad? If someone is pushing you around, put them in their place. She’s the one that needs the favor, not you.

    1. Suzanne*

      I think that was my point, but I was not so succinct. It is such common career advice that you need to get your name into a company’s hiring manager by contacting someone in that company, even if it isn’t someone you know well, or only know someone who knows them. I don’t understand why the OP didn’t just send a brief email saying, “Sorry. I don’t have any contacts at Company X” or “I am swamped and would love to help you, but simply can’t right now”, or “Give me a few weeks, and I’ll see if I can find out anything, but can’t do it in your time frame.” Surely would have solved the problem quickly.

  17. Community Chica*

    I was the OP 5 years back. My dad’s colleague’s nephew called me up at work ( I was working in the HQ at the time), and demanded that I find him a job in a different international location within the company, in a different field – just because I was in HR. I tried to tell him that I do not work in recruiting but in OD & Change Management and asked him to check out the job listings on the company website. He said he will send me his resume. I said I will help by giving him some suggestions – no, he wanted me to redo his resume and send it to others. I asked him if he has any role in the location he wanted to apply – he said “No, you should find it for me.”

    I said “No. I don’t. Check out the website yourself. Do not call me again.”

    I then called up my parents and told them to never ever give out my telephone or email ID to anyone. I also told them that I will not be putting my neck out to help strangers.

    May be rude, but very effective in the long run.

    1. Anonymous*

      I was at a professional seminar (in the audiencem, not as a speaker) and someone (I’ll call him “A”) who knew me slightly brought his resume (!) and tried to scam me for a free resume review right there and then. I said, “I am not here to review resumes.” Blunt.

      Then, I sent an email to my co-worker (I’ll call him “T”; I review resumes *for a fee* for an organization) saying that A was very interested in a resume review and would likely be contacting him (T) to set up payment. I never heard a peep from A after that.

      Oh, and I disconnected with A on LinkedIn – another outcome of this kind of behavior.

      There was another person (“G”) who announced to me that I was the “mentor” of his new website/blog and that he would be using my name and picture on the site. He didn’t *ask*, he informed me he was doing this. And then whipped out a camera and took my picture, for his site!! He then told me I would be welcome to be a guest writer on the site anytime I wanted to.

      I told him (verbally and in writing) I would not be doing anything on his site and he did not have my permission to use my name or picture for anything, ever. Disconnected with HIM on LinkedIn too. And to this day, every time I see him at some networking event, he tries to talk with me. As if that bridge hasn’t already been thoroughly burned.


  18. Anonymous*

    Also, letting the alumni association know that people are being generally rude and inconsiderate might be helpful for them to set up guidelines/workshops on etiquette and networking. These associations do not want to piss off older alumni who can potentially give money and they want you to keep in touch for that same reason.

  19. Catherine*

    This is a great post, and a great lesson for anyone out there trying to “network.” I use quotes, because I don’t consider asking random strangers (no matter how remotely connected) for favours and then making demands to be a recognizable form of networking. It is simply in poor taste.

    Informational interviews, asking for advice, and building relationships (all followed by a well-timed thank you) are much more appropriate and beneficial.

  20. Elizabeth*

    These people sound annoying, for sure. That said, I think this is really about you. It sounds like you are really uncomfortable saying NO. You can say no (or help in some of the ways AAM suggested) and ignore emails after you have politely responded, or block that person’s email. If a lot of these folks are coming from your old university or family/friends, clarify with them how you can help and NOT. Do you have a friend who you can practice this with? I’m not kidding. Get someone to make requests of you and practice responding with no. Then you can stop wasting energy on feeling bad for things that you are not at fault for.

  21. kristinyc*

    I get a lot of people asking me about moving to/working in my city, and I really like giving advice about it. I haven’t had any horrible experiences yet, but everyone who’s contacted me has been either a friend (or a friend of a friend), or someone from my journalism program from college (and they have to go through a professional development class).

    For friends/family, I happily give notes/edits (and sometimes re-writes in extreme cases) to resumes and cover letters. But it’s something I really like doing. For people I don’t know as well (or people in industries that are wildly different from mine), I give very general suggestions and send them over here. :)

  22. Sheri*

    Great post on boundaries and I appreciate your examples of appropriate responses.

    I vote for banning “I’d like to pick your brain…” from vocabulary. When someone says that to me, I picture a crow picking at something alongside the road. Ugh.

    1. Ellen M.*

      Yes! What they really want is free unlimited advice and they will give nothing in return. Vultures.

      1. Anonymous*

        Some people legitimately need guidance, though.

        If you have someone asking you a few questions, and is genuinely thankful for your time, this should be encouraged, right?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Absolutely. I think the OP is talking about inappropriately pushy people. And in my example of the brain-picking requests, I was talking about strangers who want to get me on the phone to give them free consulting advice for their for-profit businesses, which is something I only do for free for friends and certain nonprofits.

  23. anth*

    I’ve had a couple requests from people who were a few degrees removed about meeting to talk about my company/role. Generally, they phrase it as “I’m a connection via (school/so-and-so) and am interested in (company). Would you have time to talk with me about it.” I try to set something up with them, also because if there is someone good out there, I want to give them a heads up if we have a position open that would suit them in the future, etc. Maybe I’m too nice to not say no, but if they are in my industry, I also figure that they could be good connections in the future.

    I know this is relatively unrelated to the OP post, but this has been a really good comment section about how to ask and how to say yes/no.

  24. Kathleen*

    This was really really helful. I am having a guilty, hard time setting boundaries for a couple of friends (??are they really??), whom I feel are turning our relationship rather toxic for me. Trying how to figure out how to let go of them.

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