how many times can I ask a networking contact for help?

A reader writes:

I was wondering how many times it is appropriate to reach out to networking contacts for informational interviews, referrals, connections, etc.? I have been searching on and off over the past two years due to being laid off and then moving to a new city for my spouse’s job opportunity. I don’t want to take advantage of my older networking contacts who have already helped me, and I would certainly return any favors if I could! But I’m trying to find an opportunity in a pretty small field and can use all the help I can get. Any ideas how to navigate this?

It depends on how well you know each contact. The closer you are to someone, the more often you can ask for help. If the contact is your best friend, she might be happy to help you multiple times per month. If the contact isn’t someone you know well, the limit is generally closer to once or twice a year. For someone in between — let’s say a former coworker who likes you — you’re probably safe with two or three requests in a year’s time, but you’d want to be really effusively appreciative that third time, and more than that risks feeling like too much.

It’s also important to pay attention to people’s cues. If someone responds to you right away and sounds enthusiastic about helping, those are good signs that you haven’t worn out your welcome. On the other hand, if someone takes a while to respond and is pretty brief and business-like when they do, that might not be someone to go back to again for a while.

You can also attempt to elicit some cues about how welcome additional contact would be. If this is the second or third time you’ve called on someone for help, you can say something like, “I know I’ve asked you for a lot of help lately, and I’m so grateful for favor X and favor Y.” If the person responds with genuine-sounding encouragement not to worry about it (“Don’t worry about that at all — I’m happy to help, and let me know what else I can do”), you can probably believe that. On the other hand, if the person doesn’t say much in response to that, that may be a sign that their welcome mat is not exactly out for more favors. (That doesn’t mean you’ve overstepped or they resent you — just that you might give them a rest as far as future requests.)

{ 18 comments… read them below }

  1. Lil Fidget*

    To me it’s also, how specific a request is it, and are you making it very easy for them to do the thing? That is less of an impact to me. If it is a vague request and involves a lot of the mental load on my part (“can you help me think of someone I could talk to about X or Y?”, versus “If you see Chaddington Chadwick III at the Teapots Meeting, can you ask him X”) I will get more worn out by someone who keeps coming back and dumping their needs in my lap to sort out.

    1. Legal Beagle*

      Yes, this is a really important point. If you want to ask a favor, be up front and specific about what it is. General asks to help out that don’t specify what you need are much more likely to wear out people’s goodwill (and not be as useful to you).

      Also, you can send a little (2-sentence) update on where you are in your work/search, if you want to stay in someone’s mind but don’t have a specific favor to ask. I’ve been in this position – a connection was forwarding me occasional job openings that were not widely publicized, so I just wanted to make sure she didn’t forget about me. Basically just popping up to say, “hi, thanks, I applied to x job you sent, and I’m still looking.” (In nicer words, obviously.)

  2. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

    I would say it’s ok to keep network contacts generally updated that you are looking for a Y position in X location, and please pass along any job openings they might know of, but I wouldn’t keep asking them for specific favors like introductions and informational interviews.

    1. Legal Beagle*

      I agree that one informational interview per connection is all you can ask, but if you have a connection you’d like to make, I wouldn’t mind fielding a few requests (over a period of time) to connect with specific people. The crucial thing is that the requester did their research, is asking for a relevant connection, knows what they want to ask of the connection, and is aiming for an appropriate level (ie, don’t ask to connect with a CEO if you’re looking for an entry level job). Basically if I trusted the person’s judgment to be appropriate and respect the connection’s time, I’d be happy to do it. (Caveat: I’m in the non-profit field, which I think has more generous norms for this kind of outreach.)

      1. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

        I guess I’m more of a connections lead to other connections kind of networker. I think that most professional network contacts are going to give their best assistance the first time, and after that it has diminishing returns for everyone. If a contact introduces me to someone, I might ask the new connection if they would be so kind as to give me a lead…and so on. That is different that acting as a reference. I’d be happy to continue being a reference for a few years depending on how well I knew them.

        1. Casuan*

          This was my thought, too.
          When I read the OP’s question my first thought was that connections might be limited in a smaller industry. Also that one never knows where a connection might lead.
          OP, what Alison said. The less burdensome you can make it for the contact the better. I never give out contact infos although I usually don’t mind forwarding another’s infos to that contact. After that, they can sort things out without me. That doesn’t mean I’m not to be contacted again, just not for that contact.

  3. LouiseM*

    OP, I’m glad you’re being mindful of this. I’m sorry to say that those of us who are high-profile in our fields find ourselves needing to beat back a lot of eager beavers who are keen to take advantage of our famous connections. Of course we’re happy to help people who are coming up in our profession, but there are limits. Showing you’re grateful for the help of a very busy person who probably gets hundreds of emails a day will go a long way. Best of luck!

    1. HRH the Emperor Kuzco*

      The fact that OP is actually worried about how they’re coming across shows they have a level of self-awareness. This probably comes across to her contacts as well. I also agree with others in this thread so far that have mentioned as long as the world isn’t being asked, and their contacts haven’t given them the impression that they’re annoying they shouldn’t be as worried.

  4. Meißner Porcelain Teapot*

    I would say about once a quarter should be okay, if it’s a reasonably easy request (e. g. “I recently started looking for work in your city and your field – could you please let me know if you hear anything about open positions?” or “Hey, I was thinking of applying to job X at your company, but I heard some pretty scary stuff. Are the managers really that bad?”). The reason I recommend doing it only once a quarter is because otherwise it comes across as if you weren’t even listening the first time, especially if you ask for the same thing again.

    If you ask about something that requires them to go out of their way for you, I’d say once a year, unless you are really good friends outside of work.

  5. xkd*

    Even with good friends it can turn into a stretch – because your good friends are privy to information colleagues will not have. I’m not going to connect one of my friends with a position as I know they are not staff to count on for X – and most of the people I know want that. So awkward!

  6. TassieTiger*

    As a person on the autistic spectrum, this advice is so practical and valuable! One million thanks Alison!!!!!

  7. RosieRoo*

    I’d also add that nothing grates more than someone who repeatedly expects favors, but shows no interest in me/my work. IMO It’s a great idea to touch base just to stay in touch if possible – so much easier in the social media age. It’s fine if you have nothing professional to offer in return, but a simple note asking how they are, or commenting on some recent work (a blog post, research, something in the news that made you think of them) or even a, “hey! your dog is so cute!” makes me feel much friendlier toward someone looking for multiple favors.

  8. Greg*

    I like to think of this question using the “social capital” metaphor. When you do something nice for someone — or even if you just have pleasant interactions with them where you’re not asking for anything — you earn social capital. When you ask a favor, you spend it. So just as you would with actual money, be conscious of what’s in your bank account and don’t spend it foolishly.

    Example: You know someone at a company you’d like to work for, though you’re not close friends. A job comes up that sounds really cool, but for which you are decidedly underqualified. Asking that contact to help you out is probably not the best use of your social capital.

    Approaching it with this mindset also reminds you to think of ways you can refill your account. Don’t take it too literally — it’s not a series of quid pro quos — but it’s a mindset where you’re looking for ways to be helpful.

Comments are closed.