a recruiter I met at career expo asked me on a date — what should I do?

This was originally posted in October 2009, but I’m reposting it today as part of our Valentine’s Day extravaganza. Plus, I have some different advice this time. The updated portion of my advice is in bold below.

A reader writes wrote:

A Big 5 recruiter I met at a career expo asked me out on a date.

We met at a career expo in New York. I was looking for a job and networking, he was there as a speaker. He approached me 3 times throughout the daylong conference, once to say hello, the next to say we should talk more, and then the third to tell me I was beautiful, that I made a memorable impression, and asked if he could take me out to lunch. I was caught way off guard, was in super networking mode and said “sure,” not wanting to say no because I didn’t want to eliminate the possibility of a business/networking meeting.

I’m feeling it was inappropriate and that he took advantage. Bottom line though is that he works at a Big 5 consulting firm and I need a job.

I’m not even sure what question to ask here because I have so many. I guess the most important would be:

1) How do I approach him via email to say that I would like to meet to discuss potential opportunities at his firm? Do I pretend as if he never asked me out? What if he brings it up? How do I address it?

Or should I be asking 2) Should I email him to meet and discuss professional opportunities?

or 3) I’m feeling it was highly inappropriate for him to be representing his company in such a way. Should I write the company a letter?

Disclaimer: It’s possible there’s more to this story than what’s here, but I can only answer it based on the details presented. But I have a feeling it’s going to be controversial.

In my opinion, from what you’ve said, it sounds like this guy wasn’t approaching you as a professional in a networking way, but rather was simply asking you out on a date — like any other guy who might approach you in the course of your day who you don’t work with. He just happened to meet you at a career expo.

He doesn’t seem to have mixed his messages at all, such as combining romantic interest with business overtures or insinuations of professional help. It sounds like he was pretty clearly making a social overture only.

Now, is a career expo the wisest place to do this? No, because most people there are in a business mindset — which, as your experience clearly demonstrates, can lead to confusion and crossed signals. He can think you clearly understand he’s asking you on a date, and you can think that because of the venue in which it occurred, there’s a networking possibility.

But aside from not choosing his venue very cautiously, the fact remains that this guy wasn’t approaching you for professional reasons and he didn’t pretend to be. Assuming that he approached you for a date and just a date — not a business meeting — you should handle him like you’d handle any other guy who approached you for a date. If you’re interested in getting to know him socially, go. If you’re not, decline.

You should not go out with him just in the hopes that you can spin his romantic interest into a professional opening for you, because that’s kind of gross and unfair. However, you could be straightforward with him about the nature of your interest — in other words, tell him candidly that you’re not interested in a date but that you’re really interested in his firm and would love to talk to him about business. (Of course, be aware that he may tell you he’s fine with that when he really just intends to try to persuade you to change the nature of your interest.) Update: How naive I was three years ago! This guy wants to date you, not network with you. If you say this and this allegedly all-business lunch happens, you’re likely to end up fending off attempts at flirtation anyway.

But without that conversation to get aligned on terms, you would be naive to accept his invitation in the hopes of keeping it strictly business, because that’s not the invitation he has extended you. If you want to try to network with him, you can invite him to do so. But the invitation he’s issued isn’t for networking. 

And no, you should not report him to his employer. Unless he was mixing business with a come-on, this is none of his employer’s business, and it doesn’t sound like he was. He’s not a coworker or your manager, he wasn’t interviewing you, he wasn’t approaching you about business, and it doesn’t sound like he exploited his job to influence you. He’s just a guy coming on to a woman, like a million other guys every day.

What do others think? I’m bracing for someone to say that because he was a speaker at a career expo, he was obligated to be in “all business” mode, but in my experience, those events often have a substantial social component to them.

{ 35 comments… read them below }

  1. twentymilehike*

    I have mixed feelings, but I’m biased: A high school friend of mine was a recruiter and ended up happily marrying one of her recruitees. And they are freakin’ adorable together.

    Sometimes you have to seize the opportunity! But I agree with the not trying to turn a “date” into a networking opportunity. But, unless he’s a royal ass, then it probably wouldn’t be completely awful to just go on the date.

    I kind of want to know how the date went!

  2. KellyK*

    I totally agree with the (updated) advice. Nothing wrong with asking someone out at a career expo unless there’s some conflict of interest that makes it skeevy (e.g., you already approached him about job possibilities and now he wants a date).

    Plus, when people are up front about what they’re interested in, that’s a *good* thing. Way better to straight-up ask you out than to pretend he wanted to “network.”

    1. Another Ellie*

      And, actually, being in a relationship with a Big-5 consultant is a pretty good networking move, long term. ;)

  3. Jamie*

    If the OP is reading today I hope she chimes in with an update – I’m kind of dying to hear if she went and how this turned out.

    I personally don’t think the guy did anything wrong. Taking the letter at face value and that he wasn’t conflating business interest with personal then I don’t see how this is different than asking someone out he met at in line at the DMV, or on the train, or in the supermarket.

    I see no conflict here at all.

  4. COT*

    Alison, I’d love to see a column about other answers you would change in hindsight… or the worst career advice you’ve ever given someone else!

  5. Just a Reader*

    I actually do think it’s weird to approach someone at a career expo, if you’re someone in a power position (recruiter). It’s not a bar. People are there to network, not date.

    It’s not wrong, per se, but I can see where a job hunter would find it a) confusing, b) intimidating and c) a roadblock to expressing interest in the company the recruiter represents.

    1. Jamie*

      True people aren’t there to date – but people meet each other all kind of places and end up dating and even falling in love.

      I met my first husband at college, my second husband when he was fixing a friend’s car in the parking lot of SuperDawg. I’ve had more than my share of relationships back in the day and I never hooked up with anyone long term when I met them at a place where the intent was to “meet someone.”

      People also meet others all kinds of places and ask them out and get shot down…I think if we restrict that kind of interaction to only places where people go to hook up there would be a lot of lonely people out there.

      I think as long as one is polite and takes no for an answer there is nothing wrong with taking a shot at getting to know someone a little better.

        1. Jamie*

          This might make me look like a bit of a hussy – but it’s Valentine’s Day so what the heck.

          It was in the late 80’s and I was in college and had just broken up with my college boyfriend – which I did on a fairly regular basis – I was a master at ignoring red flags back then.

          So I was with a girlfriend on a Friday night and we’re all done up in full 80’s Aquanet trying to decide if we’re going to try to get into this bar that didn’t always card or just get some wine coolers at a liquor store that didn’t card (did I mention I was underage?) Her bf was working but his buddies were over at SuperDawg so we stopped by, because she knew them, and there was this guy leaning over into the open hood of this car doing mechanic-y things – and periodically telling someone in the car to try to start it. He had a brown leather jacket carefully folded on the top of the car. He was so cute with his sleeves all rolled up and he just looked so capable.

          So I realized I was out of cigarettes (no lectures – I quit!) and I was bitching to my friend that hers sucked because they were Marlboro Lights and I hate those because I smoked menthol. And I was kind of whining because I didn’t know any of these people and I was bored – the only thing interesting was working guy under the hood, but he was busy.

          I was kind of a high maintenance PITA back then – not the easy going and laid back scamp I am today.

          So this guy – whose name I didn’t even know and whose face I hadn’t even seen – without a word walks over to his jacket, pulls out a pack of Newports and hands one to me. As I’m fumbling for my lighter in my purse he pulls out a Zippo and puts his hands over mine and lit it for me. Then went back to fixing his car. Still hasn’t said a word – but I realized he had the bluest eyes I’d ever seen on anyone ever. I didn’t think they came in that shade of blue.

          So my friend and I leave and get in the car and I asked her who that guy was – because I wanted to be Mrs. Whoeverheis. I wasn’t totally sober so I thought that was hi-larious. It actually was prophetic. So she tells me his name and I ask if he’s seeing anyone and she says no – but that he’s not for me. Off limits. Stay away! She said he was a genuinely nice guy and really a decent person and she didn’t want me to mess with his head and break his heart.

          I had quite the reputation.

          So the next night I badger her to call him to meet us at this bar and against her better judgment she does and then she pretended she couldn’t drive me home so he had to and we started dating that night.

          Skipping over the part where I’m really a bitch – we break up a couple of months later and I end up marrying boyfriend A from earlier in this story.

          We were married for almost 11 years and then once we were divorced I ran into that friend she told me (soon to be) husband 2 was also divorced and so I shot him an email not to hook up – but apologizing for the way I left things because it was really bad and he totally didn’t deserve it and I really hurt him. So we got to talking and voila – married 9 years next month. He is very forgiving and I’m much nicer now.

          Wow that was long – sorry!

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I love this story. I could totally see that parking lot scene in my mind.

            Also, “we started dating that night” might be the funniest euphemism I’ve ever heard (even though I realize you might not have meant it that way).

              1. Another Ellie*

                I love this story, too. Also, it totally changes my vision of Jamie. Mostly for the better. :)

          2. businesslady*

            oh my god that is the best story EVER! I’m going to smile whenever I drive past the SuperDawg now (or, I guess, smile more than usual…it’s hard to be morose around giant anthropomorphic hot dogs in the first place).

          3. VintageLydia*

            This story is ridiculously cute! And I hope we can all be forgiven for our adolescent indiscretions or everyone will be screwed!

      1. Just a Reader*

        Sure, people meet all kinds of places. I met my husband through work. But unless I’m misunderstanding, the LW felt that the recruiter’s interest was actually an obstacle to expressing interest in, or being considered for, a role within that company. That’s not okay.

        Ideally he would have addressed professional questions and concerns, let that relationship resolve itself and then expressed romantic interest.

        Also I’m fully aware that I can come across like a robot–my writing style just happens to be pretty formal.

        1. twentymilehike*

          But unless I’m misunderstanding, the LW felt that the recruiter’s interest was actually an obstacle to expressing interest in, or being considered for, a role within that company. That’s not okay.

          Well, in his defense he may not have known she was specifically interested in his company (though perhaps he probably should have), or maybe the company wasn’t interested in her so thought, “oh what he hell, why not.”

          Or maybe now they are happily married … which is really what I’m hoping since it’s Valentine’s day and all :)

        1. Just a Reader*

          I missed all of the dating backstory!! Sorry! I drafted my post, wandered off for a bit, hit submit and missed all the action.

    2. Kou*

      I agree. It’s not grossly unprofessional or anything, but it’s kind of like asking someone out when you’re a customer at their job. It can work out fine or it can work out horribly because your roles are the time make it difficult for one person to reject comfortably without fear of some kind of trouble brewing with their job, and that’s a bad situation.

      In this case, she met him in the context of him being a Big 5 recruiter. She can completely decline, but not without the fear of potential career issues coming up if he’s upset and the type to let that influence him inappropriately. And since she doesn’t know him, she has no way of knowing if that’s a valid fear or not. Big 5 guy should’ve thought of this and shouldn’t have asked her out in this context, especially after she had reached out to him professionally before that. But at the same time, it’s not a huge boundary– just kind of a common sense one.

  6. Liz T*

    Maybe THIS is controversial, but I think it’s weird to tell a stranger she’s beautiful in any setting outside a party or bar. Even if it were a guy I was attracted to (and, to be honest, even in a bar, but that’s me) it would come off as cheesy/overly slick at best.

    I suppose at a business function you need to lay it on thick to make clear you don’t mean business, but it feels weird to realize, suddenly, that your appearance is being scrutinized at a professional event. If I were his friend, I would’ve told him to ask her to drinks rather than lunch, and to specify that it was purely social. That’s me, though.

    I’m not saying he’s a bad guy or even a creepy guy, but I think it wasn’t the best move, or the best way to pick someone up.

    1. businesslady*

      I agree; anyone saying “you’re beautiful” before actually getting to know you is just saying, “I’m more interested in how you look than who you are.” (& yes, I know attraction is often the motivation for starting getting-to-know-you conversations in the first place–but my feeling is, if you can’t even bother *pretending* to see me as a fully realized person, my guess is that you won’t actually be compatible with the brain behind the face.)

    2. Lydia*

      lol that makes me giggle as the most valentine’s action I got yesterday (my hubby and I don’t ‘do’ valentine’s day) was from the binman! I went outside to put the lunch boxes in the car just when the bin men were there. The guy calls over ‘hey beautiful’ – I said ‘er hi’ – he followed it up with ‘are you married’ wtf holy inappropriate comment batman – I just said ‘er yes with 2 kids just doing the school run bye’ and scuttled back inside, hubby hadn’t left at that point and really got why I was freaked – I’d never met the guy before, the second comment was whether I was married, and he knew where I lived!
      My friends on facebook were all saying ‘you should be flattered’ but when attention is unsought and unwarranted, it is totally creepy/freaky (or maybe I’m still just a prude!) :)

  7. Katrina*

    Re: Liz T

    I’ve been known to have a minute or two of conversation with a guy, then say something along the lines of, “You’re pretty attractive and seem pretty cool. We should try to get together for lunch sometime.” And I ALWAYS said lunch, because lunch is a timed commitment. If he’s creepy, I just say I’ve gotta get back to work.

    Maybe I’m the female creeper….

    I’ve also never said that to anyone I work with, because I personally have very strict rules along those lines. :) But that’s exactly how I met my current boyfriend! And we’re spending V-Day lunch at our first date place (here in about twenty minutes)!

  8. Sascha*

    At the conferences I have been to, I’ve seen/heard lots of people hooking up, getting asked out, etc. (Never me, though, I am strong in the Bitch Face.) Not totally professional (especially if you get smashed), but what this guy did seems normal to me. I would probably be taken aback a little like the OP was, since I would also be in a networking mindset, but I just follow Alison’s advice.

    1. Lulu*

      Are there lessons in this BF technique? I really need to find a way to indicate “Yes, I would be happy to have a conversation with you about work, but no, you will not somehow convince me to be your date.” So far I seem to unintentionally communicate the reverse to whichever I intend!

      1. Sascha*

        Just let your face relax and it will come. Also when I talk to people I tend to do a lot of pointing and that gets the message across that I’m all business. :)

  9. Lulu*

    Ugh, this is tough – on the one hand, I don’t think he did anything really WRONG per se… Except that as Just a Reader pointed out, he was in a “position of power” at an event where it would be reasonable to expect that people would see him that way, and not just as Random Guy Who Might Ask Someone Out. By asking her out, he put her in kind of an awkward position re: her networking activities.

    This could definitely be me and my own issues with this stuff (& difficulty directly-but-nicely disabusing guys of their notions) but it’s one reason why I have a hard time casually networking with men: I feel like it’s too easy for them to get the wrong impression. But when you’re unemployed, you don’t want to blow potentially useful networking opportunities either – and honestly, I like to be able to help other people in the same boat if I can. So now I’m in the uncomfortable position of having guy I talked to in a “casual networking” tone contacting me very over-zealously in a non-businesslike way for coffee/lunch/drinks and making me never want to check my email or messages again. Since we interacted in a social environment, I suppose that’s somewhat forgivable (though no less annoying), and also not very damaging if I blow him off. But if he were a significant business contact that I met in a business-networking environment, I’d feel really stuck! I don’t think you can turn the date request around and make it just business – I’d assume he was thinking I would just warm up to him over coffee or something. Or maybe I’ve just encountered too many crazy people ;) In any case, I’d probably end up just disappointedly writing off the potential business contact and resolving to be less friendly to strangers in the future… Kind of unfair for someone in the position to help someone gain employment to put a job seeker in that kind of quandry.

  10. Lana*

    People meet at kinds of places, not just out in bars and the party scene. It does sound like the guy approached the OP socially and made it clear that he liked her. I’m not sure why the OP got so confused about it. But it also sounds like she was very much in the business mode and didn’t like the Top-5 guy, this is where her deliberation is coming from. Just say no to the date if you’re not interested, but if you are, say yes and treat it like a date. Maybe he will help you find a great job after all but don’t take advantage of him.

  11. Elizabeth West*

    Ugh. I was exploring a career in the sheriff’s department when I lived in CA and the officer in charge of the ride-along program asked me to go on a ski trip with him. I barely knew him. He was 50 and I was maybe 24 at the time. Had he been a hot 50, or closer to my age, I might have done it. Otherwise, my reaction was polite, but when I got away I told my friends WTF??

    It’s always the wrong one. *fume*

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