how to tell a pushy networker to back off

A reader writes:

I’m increasingly finding myself in a place where newer professionals are asking to talk about getting started after school, or asking for advice. I always jump at the chance to help however I can and I’m universally flattered when anyone asks to meet with me.

I’m struggling, however, with one person who does not seem to know where the line is between helpful networking, and pestering. I met with him briefly months ago after he asked one of my employees if I’d be willing to chat with him. I was happy to do so. In the following months, he sent me a few emails updating me on what he was doing and that he was looking for more permanent work. Then he started to pop up at programming events I’d put together, and recently sent another unsolicited email asking if we could met again. I told him I’d have to get back to him when I was less busy. A week after that, he was at another event at which I was presenting. He cornered me, asking again to meet, saying he wanted to tell me what he was working on. Again, I told him I would have to be in touch because I couldn’t schedule anything on the spot. That was last Friday. I got another email today, asking again to meet.

I don’t want to discourage someone who is new to a small field that is hard to break in to, but I also really no longer want to meet with him. I get the feeling that he thinks this kind of persistence is how you find work, but I would never consider hiring him even if I did have an open position purely because he has been so intrusive. What is the best way to make it clear that he needs to back off, without being too harsh about it?

I answer this question — and three others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • My employee was left out of a team thank-you
  • Meetings that run over our scheduled time
  • Shouldn’t a recruiter be … recruiting me?

{ 60 comments… read them below }

  1. Richard Hershberger*

    The whole notion of networking strikes me as awkward. It seems to have started life as the observation that the best way to get a job is to know someone. So if you are job hunting and there was this dude you went to college with in the field, contact him for an assist. But then the concept shifted from your networking being people you know outside the job hunting context to people you have “networked” with as a resource bank for future job searches, while still retaining a veneer of being a social thing. How could this be anything but awkward?

    1. Coverage Associate*

      It’s awkward but can be useful. Ten years ago, I cold emailed someone for an awkward informational interview whose only connection to me, besides industry, is that he attended the same university as my husband. He’s still trying to recruit me.

      Law is an industry where who you know is important, but junior lawyers don’t often get to meet other lawyers as part of their paid work. Thus networking.

    2. Mobius 1*

      And then if you’ve got ASD (I do) that’s a whole other level of awkward. In the end I just sort of declared networking bankruptcy a little while back and just…moved on. Not the most brilliant idea, perhaps, but it’s what I can live with and that’s the main thing.

      1. Mobius 1*

        (And that’s before I even breathe in to mention Greek life, nepotism, “boys’ clubs”, et cetera; i.e. the many MANY ways “networking” is all-but-explicitly weaponized against people who are not straight white men.)

        1. Schmooze or lose*

          I have never belonged to a fraternity. I have no c-level family members. I have never networked in a strip club.

          How about toning down the faux outrage a notch?

          1. Friendly Office Bisexual*

            Schmooze or lose, I’m not sure where you’re detecting this “faux outrage.” Mobius 1 is just describing the real life barriers to networking for people on the spectrum and people who don’t already have certain connections.

            Mobius, I definitely relate to everything you’re saying. I still found it helpful to reach out and meet people through mutual acquaintances and old bosses, but agree that it can be weird and awkward unless there’s a clarity of purpose for the meeting.

            1. Cyborg Llama Horde*

              For what it’s worth, I’ve found that my most useful “networking” is in the form of keeping in touch with friends and former coworkers I liked, and letting them know if I see a way that I might be able to do them a favor or grease wheels for them. (Friend is considering moving into bungee jumping analysis, and I’m friendly with the bungee jumping analyst at my company, and ask both if they’d be interested/willing to talk, and put them on an email thread together with enough info about each other that they know what questions to start asking. Or a friend-of-a-friend is looking for jobs in my field and I offer to do a mock interview. That kind of thing.)

              It doesn’t feel fake to me, it often actually helps people — people I would want to help even without “networking” — and making myself a resource means that other people are more likely to do the same for me. (Although being able to ask for that help when it would be useful is a whole different skill.)

            2. Me...Just Me*

              Ugh! Seriously. There’s no “faux outrage” (which is a weird condescending thing to say, btw) but is an actual truth. Networking is often very successful for a small percentage of folks who are 1. well established socially/monetarily 2. meet cultural norms — and at this point in time, that’s being a cis white male who’s educated 3. really only for the outgoing types who thrive on social interactions.

              Everyone else is definitely at a disadvantage.

    3. Well...*

      Eh, IDK, my professional network isn’t very awkward. I’ve met people at conferences, learned about their research and interests, gone out for dinners & conference outings and gotten to know them, visited their institutes. Once you know people, big events in your field feel less like a bunch of intimidating strangers and more like a nice chance to catch up with people’s work. It’s way easier to reach out to them with questions, ask for help & feedback, chase up leads for jobs or leads for people you’re looking to hire once you know them.

      It can be awkward at first to strike up conversation and get to know people, but it results in less awkwardness once you actually know them and can use the coffee breaks for enjoyable chats rather than forced ones. The real payoff is the view of the field, what everyone’s working on, what everyone’s dealing with, and where the talent is going to/coming from.

      1. MigraineMonth*

        I think the awkwardness comes from the view many seem to hold that you should use your social contacts as a professional network. I’ll reach out to old coworkers or classmates, but it feels so weird to me to try to get a job thanks to a cousin, or a friend’s husband, or anything like that.

        Then again, I do tend to keep pretty firm boundaries between my work-friends, my hobby-friends and my college-friends, so YMMV.

    4. I should really pick a name*

      My networking has never involved cold-calling people.

      It can be making connections through people you meet as part of your job.
      Customers, vendors, people you meet at conferences, past coworkers… Making warm connections can lead to them keeping you in the loop about opportunities.

      People might not be writing as many blog posts about that method, but it is definitely still in use and works.

      1. Lydia*

        I would never recommend cold calling or dropping in unannounced, but I think sending an unsolicited email asking to connect is very effective and less intrusive. The word networking is loaded, and people tend to think of it as something independent of what they already do, which is form connections and relationships either through work or personal activities. When I realized I was already “networking” through my volunteer work, it was an enormous relief and made starting conversations easier for me at actual work events.

    5. Boof*

      I used to have no idea what networking really meant and it sounded terrible and obnoxious.
      I now do what i think is catagorized as networking and it is both fun and helpful. It is, literally, establishing a network of people who have professional connections. For me, I’m an oncologist specializing in rare tumors, my “networking” usually involves knowing people who I can send patients to for a second opinion, or clinical trials, or just ask general advice. Maybe if I’m feeling ambitious some day, try to come up with a clinical trial design together. I try to say hello if we are at the same conference (I go to two major conferences a year). If they send me a journal article to review, I try to do it. Sometimes when I’m up for a contract review at my job getting an external peer to write a letter of support is required, and while I didn’t really know that it came in handy there too. Basically it’s finding people who aren’t direct coworkers who are interested in the same things (professionally) and try to be available if called on and help each other out.

      1. BatManDan*

        that, my friend is what “networking” is supposed to mean, but it has taken on a veneer of speed prospecting instead.
        My favorite book on the subject has a subtitle: stop networking and start building relationships that matter

        I use the phrase “building a network” to differentiate between the common, course meaning of “networking” and actually doing it right.

        1. Lizzo*

          Yes, it’s the relationships! Those are the valuable and enduring connections.
          Much of networking has become transactional (I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine), and that’s where the ick factor comes into play.

    6. Ominous Adversary*

      Networking is a thing humans, as a social species, naturally do. It helps if you mentally substitute “building relationships” any time you hear the word “networking”; that removes a lot of the negative grindset connotations that get attached to it.

      And networking goes in all directions. Sure, you might reach out to your college buddy when you’re job hunting. But also, your college buddy tells you she’s hiring for a particular position, and you remember that the guy who repaired your car has a daughter looking for just that position.

    7. Friendly Office Bisexual*

      I think in many cases it’s awkward! But informational interviews also helped me find the job I currently have, and in my field having a professional network is not only useful but necessary. Personally I find scheduling one on one meetings with a clarity of purpose (eg “hey can you tell me more about your role because I’m thinking of moving into a similar one”) less awkward than receptions where you’re just making small talk with people without really knowing whether you can help each other.

  2. Antilles*

    #3: I’m a big fan of announcing upfront that you have a hard out as AAM suggest. Interestingly, I’ve found that it often ends up in the meeting staying much more on the rails, like knowing there’s a deadline makes people focus more on staying on target.

    #4: If a recruiter is asking me to apply off the cuff without even talking with me, I’m not filling out that application until after we chat. To me, the out of nowhere application just seems way too likely to be a complete waste of time, e.g., when it comes out that we’re a compete mismatch of skills, level of experience, or salary expectations.

    1. Sloanicota*

      True, the first time you agree to meet with someone, you might want to include something like, “my schedule is packed so I can often only meet once, but I’m happy to …”

      1. H3llifIknow*

        I’m not sure I like “…only meet once…” as that’s pretty limiting and sounds kind of … harsh to my ears. But I fully support saying, “I can’t make this a regular mentorship thing,” “regular meeting due to other committments,” or something along those lines.

    2. H3llifIknow*

      Completely agree. So many recruiters are just trying to put a butt in the seat without doing the real legwork of … well, recruiting. They’re shotgunning out LinkedIn request and msgs and expecting the candidates to do all the work while they collect a fee if they’re hired!

      1. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

        Yup. I stopped replying with anything more than “location? rate?” years ago. Sometimes they reply that they’ll share all that on the phone, but I push back and point out that it saves us both time when they share this stuff thru email, especially given how often they didn’t actually understand the job they were trying to fill.

        Post-pandemic shut-down, I’m seeing a LOT more recruiters including basic info in the first email, so that I can often reply back “Thank you but I’m not local to that area”. So fast, so easy! Plus it gets them into my contacts for later.

        1. Texan In Exile*

          I got a message from a recruiter I did not know for the agency that places contractors at a place I have worked twice in the past two years, ten months as an employee and four as a contractor, asking if I was interested in working there again.

          I asked him how much it paid and I never heard back from him.

    3. That's 'Senior Engineer Mate' to you.*

      In my field (software) 99% of recruiter cold calls are a waste of time. Usually the recruiter is desperate and you have a match somewhere for one of the things in their list.

      The rare times they have something good they always lead with that. “I have a senior button pusher role paying $400k that I think you might be interested in”. Or the classic “I see you’re at Corporation X, would your non-compete allow you to move to Company Y?”

      1. MigraineMonth*

        My favorite was someone who reached out to me to see if I was interested in a job. I told them I didn’t have any experience in [X] technology or [Y] language, but I would be interested if that wasn’t a must-have. They replied that it wasn’t a must-have and I could learn on the job, so I applied.

        They responded that before they could accept my application, I needed to do a demonstration project… in [X] technology and [Y] language.

        I chose to brush up on my technical interviewing skills instead.

  3. Sloanicota*

    These are the kinds of examples I think of when somebody says “it can’t hurt to ask, right? They can always say no!” True that it is within the other person’s power to decline (eventually after enough repeats) but it actually *can* hurt you to make unreasonable or unwarranted requests too many times. Granted, young people are still learning where the line is, and it makes sense to be patient/explicit with them – but repeated requests have now taken OP from someone who was previously willing to assist into someone who is now actively unwilling to hire this person.

  4. Wintertime*

    #2 – I know that Alison mentioned that the lack of recognition could cause a morale issue. I’m here to tell you that inaction on the part of a supervisor has absolutely caused morale issues for me. More than once, I’ve been in group meetings where every single person who worked on a project was thanked – except for me. And I’m the one who wrote ALL of the content.

    My supervisor is great in a lot of ways that work for me, but speaking up is not her forte, so while she’s been empathetic in these cases, I don’t think she’s done anything about it (particularly in the instance where her boss – and her best friend, which is another issue – left me out).

    Over the last year, I’ve had so many weeks where I’ve felt unappreciated, but I stay because I have a level of autonomy that I’m not sure I’d get somewhere else and the ability to work remotely 99% of the time.

    1. soontoberetired*

      My old manager used to take my contributions for granted, so much so that people noticed and said things about it. I finally got a new manager who is really good at pointing out that I was the person who did that work they are so grateful about, not someone else. It is amazing what that does for morale.

    2. Dust Bunny*

      My supervisors at my current job (three over almost twenty years) have always been good about recognizing everyone’s contributions, all the way down. It makes a huge difference.

    3. Ama*

      I do sometimes roll my eyes at how effusive some of the thank you emails get at my workplace (probably in part because I feel like my team mostly gets thanked for work that isn’t that difficult but just happens to be more visible than our most complex projects), but they do make sure everyone involved with a given project gets thanked and the rare instance when someone gets left out by accident it has always been addressed publicly.

    4. Artemesia*

      my first year as a teacher, I worked like a dog to prepare 3 different preps to teach 6 classes, sometimes given our schedule without even a break all day except half an hour for lunch. I worked so hard. At the end of the year the Principal sent out a newletter type appreciation thing where he named Sue’s great work with the soccer team, Jean’s innovative new curriculum for kids with reading problems, Bill’s success with the science fair, John’s invitations to give speeches at local clubs on and on for 65 people. I naturally combed the thing waiting to see my name. It was not there. He praised 65 people on a faculty of 85. I still remember the sinking feeling of failure and humiliation. And I know I was doing a good job; on another occasion he told me I was the only one whose statement of what they were doing in the classroom (he had asked everyone to submit a sort of philosophy of instruction thing and most didn’t ) that he felt he could share with the board. So I knew I was not an abject failure. But it was still incredibly painful to be left out.

      If you are thanking people – make sure you thank all the people who contributed and especially the major contributors and not the show ponies.

      1. YMMV*

        I hope if I’m ever as oblivious as your Principal was, and inadvertently hurt someone, that they will let me know. I would make sure to acknowledge them publicly at the earliest opportunity and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

    5. Anonforthisforsure*

      Yeah, that’s what I often find frustrating about my job: if we get funding, the program team gets praised for their awesomeness because obviously the funder would only support a great program. If we don’t get funding, I (proposal writer) made a mistake or didn’t turn in a strong proposal.

  5. teensyslews*

    Something else I’ve done for overlong meetings is 5-10 mins before the end chimed in to say something along the lines of “I see there’s still 3 things on the agenda and only x mins left – should we schedule a follow-up session?” This can give some relief to more junior/timid people who might feel obligated to stay on a call if it goes late.

    Another strategy can be, if you’re the SME, reviewing the agenda and seeing if the meeting timeline fits – I’ve been invited to 30 min calls where I know the topic will take an hour, so I’ve just reached out to the organizer to have them extend it beforehand.

    All of this assumes the meetings run late due to productive conversation and not just the rambling that can tend to eat up so many meetings.

  6. H3llifIknow*

    I am in a super hot field right now (Cyber) and I must get 3 recruitment emails or msgs daily, mostly via LinkedIn but also referrals, etc… They always say, “I have an opportunity that your profile indicates you’d be a fantastic match for; if you’re interested let me know/send me your resume/let’s set up a time to talk” or some form thereof and it makes me crazy. I ALWAYS respond along the lines of, “I’m pretty happy where I am, but I might be interested. I’d need a lot more information around the role, who I’d be supporting, and the anticipated salary though before I could give you a firm answer.” 90% of the time I receive crickets back. I once had 10 (TEN) recruiters contact me within 3 days for the EXACT same job opening! That’s crazy. They’re clearly sending a “form” msg out to everyone with “my job title” and it bugs the heck outta me that they’re Sooooo secretive around the actual job info–I get it, they don’t want me reaching out directly to a company, but the job is supporting an AF program so it’s not like I could reach out to the AF and ask for the job directly!

    1. Cat Tree*

      One time a recruiter contacted me about the very position I was hiring for! They clearly just send mass emails based on specific words in the resume without even a cursory evaluation of experience. I don’t even respond to them at all anymore.

    2. Coverage Associate*

      I get identical emails purporting to be from whole different recruiting companies but using the exact same text. Even when I am actively looking for a new job, I just delete those. I keep the ones that at least show that they understand law firm jobs and licensing. (No, I don’t want to have to take the Minnesota bar exam to take a job in Minneapolis, even if the new firm is willing to pay the cost of testing and preparation, which they aren’t.)

      1. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

        Nah, it’s different companies, and they’re using text provided by the client company. (Often badly! Often leaving in information that was directed at them.) At least, that’s how it is for the identical emails I get.

  7. Fluffy Fish*

    #1 for those in these situations, it helps to frame it a bit differently. being direct as Alison suggested, is actually doing this person, and others like him, a kindness.

    not that you owe them anything but most people do want to be kind and not smack down someone young and eager though misguided. especially as these people are fresh out of school and we all know how terrible college career advice can be – not to mention all the other terrible advice out there- they simply may not know.

  8. Semi-retired admin*

    Ugh, I feel for the left out admin so much! I was once in a job where they made a big deal of taking a “staff photo” and I was deliberately excluded, literally told “secretaries don’t count”. No one on my team or my manager spoke up. It’s one of my very worst work-related memories, and even now it makes my heart hurt to remember it.

    1. Ann Nonymous*

      I’m sure you were too shocked and hurt to think of a snappy response. I’m super mad for you.

    2. Chirpy*

      I once had a similar thing, where my male coworker WITH THE SAME TITLE, HIRED THE SAME TIME AS ME got a photo on the website, and I didn’t even get an acknowledgement I worked there…it was not the worst time at that job, male boss always included male coworker but not me, in really obvious ways.

  9. Boof*

    Yeah, I try to help students but once and a while I get something I have to set limits on. For example, if there’s a research project, that can be mutually beneficial if it works out, yay! But once I had a student that I think was trying to have me help design a start up company idea; it was sort of for a class (it was some kind of “we will help you launch your business idea!” ‘class’), but they were an undergrad student and I’m a faculty physician (so, about 2 decades different in education / experience ) and once I realized it was going to be me basically 1) coming up with an idea for them and 2) probably having to explain about 20 years of understanding biology, management and currently unanswered medical needs that no one else is already frantically working on … no. Sorry, that’s basically me doing the project and I don’t have time to do that and so it wouldn’t go well at all. So I did politely tell them I didn’t think I could help them further than what we’d already initially discussed, and I had given him the best other contact I could think of to talk to. I didn’t ghost them but I did have to say no, which honestly is really hard for me when I love students and projects.
    So basically know your limits and be ok stating them when something is going way beyond it. It’s ok, everyone’s better off that way in the long run.

    1. YMMV*

      Back in the early days of the World Wide Web, I worked for a career book publishing company with a popular website. We were constantly inundated with requests from students around the world sending us lists of dozens of questions about careers that they wanted us to answer for school projects.

      If we had tried to respond to the thousands of questions we received we wouldn’t have been able to publish any books! I had no intention of being a free career counselor for everyone on the planet.

  10. HonorBox*

    Regarding the thank you: I’m super pissed on behalf of Jane. The LW explicitly asked that she be included in the meeting and explained that her role was important. While perhaps there “wasn’t enough time” to go get another bottle of wine, the sales team should have been able to punt and figure out how to include her in the thank you. It can feel like a gut punch if everyone around you is being thanked and you’re not even recognized as part of the team, so I’m really hoping the LW said something. And saying something isn’t a demand for recognition or even a make good for Jane…simply outlining her importance to the overall success of that team, and the business as a whole, is a great reminder that everyone plays a key role. Not including someone – and doing so in a more public setting – is worse than not saying thank you at all.

  11. BellyButton*

    I would have given my thank you gift to the employee right then and I would have no hesitation in discussing her being left out with whoever organized it. I would assume that they didn’t realize she had been involved.

    1. YMMV*

      Absolutely! I can’t believe her boss didn’t immediately rise and say “we couldn’t have done it without Jane, she is the one who (etc.)” then handed her the bottle.

  12. Crocdilasaurus*

    The term “recruiter” is a bit of a misnomer. Most of the time, no, this is not a targeted solicitation where you are a star performer who they want to lure away from your current job. You’re just some jamoke whose resume contains the right keywords.

    Even if you are targeted, the hiring company has a process, and even star performers need to go through the process, which might mean filling out forms or answering screening questions.

    1. M*

      Eh if I’m just some jamoke with the right keywords, they’re just some spammer I’m not interested in talking to. I’m gainfully employed and not going to do more than a phone screen without knowing about the role and the salary range (where I expect to be told these things). I sure as heck am not going through a whole application process to find that information. Recruiters are probably best served sending these kind of messages to people who are unemployed or list themselves as open for work.

      If you’re the one doing the soliciting, it is on you to persuade the other person to talk to you.

  13. Not Tom, Just Petty*

    The recruiter story reminds me of the urban legend* used as a plot device in, I’m pretty sure, at least the Sopranos and probably some LifeTime movies. Wife wants a divorce, seeks an attorney. Husband has already had meetings with every divorce attorney within an hour. They are now legally bound not to take her case because of “conflict of interest.”
    So this guy scours the job boards, presents himself as a recruiter, asks people to apply, owns their application.
    It’s like Victoria Chase in “Underpants Gnomes Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”
    *I’m using this term because I don’t know if there is an actual example out there.

    1. BubbleTea*

      This does really happen. I used to work with survivors of abuse and one of my clients had this experience. Every single solicitors office in town refused to meet with her.

  14. Artemesia*

    they don’t own you if you don’t apply — but once you fill out the paperwork they provide as recruiter then they own you.

    1. E*

      I know that in practice it’s not always, but truths like this just reinforce my extreme distrust of recruiters. The whole industry seems so scammy.

  15. Peanut Hamper*

    But if I don’t have a hard stop

    I think the LW is assuming that a hard stop is put in place by some other event, such as another meeting. But the work you need to get done is also a hard stop, so you always have a hard stop. Feel free to write it on your calendar after the meeting if you want to.

  16. Sagegreen is my favorite color.*

    Argh, is there anyplace else to read these that I don’t have to pay for?

    1. Hlao-roo*

      As it says in the post (“where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago”), you can find the letters and answers in the archives with a bit of searching. Sometimes the answers are updated for the Inc. articles, and you need to pay to access those because that’s how Ask A Manager gets paid for her work.

  17. ijustworkhere*

    I usually respond this way.
    “I don’t have anything more to offer you beyond what we’ve already discussed, so my suggestion is to use this time to further develop your network and get other’s perspectives. Wishing you well on your job search.”

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