I don’t want to help rude networkers

A reader writes:

I’ve been in my industry for eight years now. From the outside, it’s a very cool area to work in (and mostly it is…) and it’s definitely more on the map as a career path than it was when I started.

Lots of grads are very interested in a job like mine, but entry-level roles are rare. I get lots of out-of-the-blue LinkedIn messages and emails asking for advice, and am always willing to grab a coffee with people to offer what I know about breaking in because it’s hard, particularly if you don’t already have connections. Over email most are polite, but in-person some are just awful: entitled, rude, uninterested, no answers to why they like the industry or what they’re after…

I’m particularly struggling with what to do with one person. A friend connected us, I fit her in for a coffee, and she was rude and dismissive — like talking to a grumpy younger sister who didn’t want to be there. I left thinking, did I accidentally email her asking to chat instead of the other way round? She then sent an email following up four weeks later, which was just a request to further connect her with people wrapped in a pretty weak thank-you.

I’m not expecting bouquets of flowers or a poem about how awesome I am, and I don’t want to be a jerk because first jobs are tricky. It’s tough and I know there’s some etiquette to it that she just doesn’t get, but I also don’t want to waste my limited brownie points with friends in the industry by connecting them to surly grads I don’t rate. How do I reply saying “You were rude and I don’t want to help” without saying that? Do I offer feedback that might help in future or is that likely to cause drama?

I answer this question 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.

{ 68 comments… read them below }

  1. Hannah Lee*

    That’s a great suggestion Alison gave, to ask the people seeking the networking meeting to send over a short list of what questions they have, or what kind of info they are looking for before agreeing to meet with them. Because it’s true that even that small hoop will likely to be too much for the truly unengaged. And it will help LW if they decide to meet because they know in advance what key topic to think about in advance.

    1. Bruce*

      Yes, came here to say this too. The prescreening suggestion puts more on the other person to show some effort and thought. Good advice!

    2. Ms. Murchison*

      Agreed. I was going to propose switching to phone meetings and only doing face-to-face with folks that the LW wants to nurture/connect with further, but asking for more info from them up front is even better.

    3. Lightroast*

      Was going to agree with Alison and you on exactly this! My industry has the same issue with network spam (“do you have time to chat/coffee/video call?” without any clear connection to me or my company. I really wonder if professors or LinkedIn advice has been telling these new grads to do this.

      The “please send me an email or your questions” stops most of them and is a great filter for those that are actually interested. If they can’t take the time to write down their thoughts, you know they aren’t serious.

      One time, a recent grad *did* email me some thoughtful questions and I took maybe 45 minutes to reply. No reply or thank you at all from them! Oof.

      1. Project Maniac-ger*

        As we’ve seen from other letters, college career services vary widely. I’m afraid some of them are saying “the people you network with will help you get a job” instead of “the people you network with are human beings and treat them as such” like networking is just a task, a means to an end. Combined with the general lack of professional socialization skills, some of these young folks are really hurting themselves.

      2. Mio*

        It’s very possible some college counselors advise it. Anecdotally, a little over a decade ago, I went through a governmental unemployment program and they had us cold call companies and people, and if the person we called was not hiring/interested in discussing potential employment at their company, we were to ask if they would agree to meet over coffee so we could ask advice on the industry/profession. The next question if they declined was whether they know anyone we could call.

        It was grueling.

        The organization running the program did keep detailed data on how many people found a job and through what method and supposedly, this one was the most successful after networking (ie your actual network; they didn’t refer to this cold-calling as networking).

        I didn’t find a job this was but I did find my next job at the time (shitty underemployment) through directly calling a place that was advertising a position.

  2. MPHG*

    I’m a journalist and get this stuff all the time. My first response is always “tell me what questions you have” because if you can’t come up with questions, you’re not cut out to be a journalist. It’s shocking how many “let’s network” requests that cuts out.

    1. Goldenrod*

      I do a similar thing, even though my job is very different – I’m an EA.

      Sometimes people will call with random, elaborate questions – asking me to direct them to the right resource. I always give them my email address and ask them to send me their question in writing. This helps me forward it on to the appropriate person.

      But it also has the side benefit of adding friction. A lot of the time they never bother to follow up – my feeling is, if you can’t be bothered to write an email, I can’t be bothered to research your question.

      (The only exception to this is if someone is an ESL speaker or otherwise has a hardship that would make emailing difficult.)

    2. Six for the truth over solace in lies*

      I’m a technical writer in software, and same. The questions don’t even have to be super high level or complex. “What does your day to day work look like?” is fine, as is “what do you look for in an applicant new to the career?” or “can you tell me a little bit about what the process of writing documentation is?” And I’d like some indication of what drew you to the field—even if it’s “I’m a skilled writer and tech writers actually get paid decently” That’s why I got into it, I’m not going to judge, and I work with an anthropology major, an English major, three former teachers who wanted a job where they got paid well and nobody yelled at them, and a software engineer who discovered he disliked coding.

      But I’m not here for the people for whom “networking” was basically “can you submit my resume for me with a recommendation despite knowing nothing about me,” which is a lot of them.

  3. CubeFarmer*

    I went back to school last year for a mid-career masters in my field.

    My field is a tough one to break into, and I was happy to make connections for classmates whenever I could. Here’s the thing: I would write the introductory email to both parties, the older, experienced colleague would respond with something like, “Hey, nice to meet you, and I look forward to connecting.” The classmate would ghost. This happened a few times.

    It was to the point where I would be skeptical about making a connection like this, because the ghostings were a bad reflection on the classmate and by extension me and my academic program. Luckily the colleagues were cool about it, “Kids these days–eh!” but I’m not wasting more social capital on people who can’t be bothered to follow up.

    Young grads: do not do this. At least respond to say “thank you.”

    1. Jiminy Cricket*

      Yep. So many introductions just hanging out there in the ether.

      And I changed my approach for this reason. Step 1) Ask established contact if it’s okay to give their email to specific networker. Step 2) Tell networker it’s on them to reach out to the established contact.

    2. Hrodvitnir*

      That’s just astounding. I know it has always been a thing for people to flake for a variety of reasons, but it’s so hard to imagine not jumping on that!

  4. Cinnamon Stick*

    It is quite kind to put yourself out there and have a chat with people who want to network with you out of the blue.

    That said, you’re under no obligation to introduce them to anyone you don’t want to. You can simply say, “If someone I know has something that might suit you, I’ll pass your contact information along.” Then it’s time for greyrocking.

    1. Managing While Female*

      Same. This person should know how they came off. In fact, I’d say this approach is more of a favor than connecting her with anyone you know, considering she’ll probably just be rude to them too (and burn YOUR capital while you’re at it). Knowing that people don’t owe you anything is a real learning curve for a lot of 20-somethings who are just coming out of childhood where others had to take care of you, and the sooner they can learn that they need to practice gratitude, the better life will be for them.

  5. RCB*

    I’m a firm believer that people can’t fix themselves if they don’t know they have a problem, and thus they need to be told when they have a problem, HOWEVER I also know that 98% of people are not mature enough to take feedback well and just get defensive (which in itself is a problem that they also need to work on). Because of this I’m always torn because I want people to be their best and I know I can help them, but I also know that the attempts will likely fail and it will just end up wasting my time, so I just limit it to times when it’s really important to me or that person is really important to me or to someone I know.

    1. Managing While Female*

      In this case, even if they get defensive, it’s not OP’s problem. They can just ignore any additional rude responses.

  6. Cabbagepants*

    I get a lot of very generic questions from new grads, like “What is it like to work at your company?” and “what is it like to work as [job title]?” I do like helping people but not at too much expense of my own time.

    This post has inspired me to write a short blog post on of FAQs on LinkedIn that I can point people to.

  7. SereneScientist*

    Follow-up question for Allison and the commentariat, I’m starting to get more of these types of out of the blue requests mostly from students or recent grads of my alma maters. It’s understandable that they are ticking up because I work in a fairly visible and presitigious firm for our industry and I’m working in AI. Problem is, the asks are almost uniformly vague, usually something along the lines of “I’m interested in consulting and want to learn more about [my firm].” While I can’t always tell from these initial messages, but it often feels like these folks haven’t really do any sort of research at all about my firm or the field writ large–is there a polite way to say “hey come back to me with more specific Qs after you’ve done some reading”?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes! Something like: “Great! There’s general info about Company X on our site, but if there are specific things you’re wondering about that aren’t covered there, feel free to send those questions on to me and I’ll see if I can help.” You could even add, “The more specific you can be, the better on my end!”

  8. tina turner*

    If I had this much free time I’d wonder what more I could be doing iin my career. It’s very generous to meet w/strangers but it can all be done by email. Someone suggested asking for questions via email but then you might as well just answer them there & cut out the coffee trip. If one person stands out asking brilliant questions you can always “mentor” them.

    1. Claire*

      Eh, depending on the questions it might take more time and/or effort to answer them in writing. I’m a person who MUCH prefers to share knowledge verbally than in writing. If heading to the coffee shop is too much hassle, a quick zoom chat might be an alternative.

      1. Apples and Oranges*

        I’m the opposite! I’d much rather answer questions in writing, on my own time, than have to set aside time from my schedule to meet with someone. Getting them in writing also allows me to keep my answers short if I’m just not feeling it, or bow out entirely “hey unfortunately these aren’t the kinds of questions I’m able to provide much insight into. Best of luck!”

        But certainly one can tailor the options to their own style if they prefer conversation to email. Agree that a quick phone/zoom call is relatively easy…I’d just personally hate it.

      2. Six for the truth over solace in lies*

        Same, and ironically, it’s because I’m a writer professionally. If I’m writing info up for someone, it’s really difficult for me to not fall into making it as thorough, well-researched, and comprehensive as the other things I write in a professional context. Verbally, I can relax more and spend less time.

    2. Bardgar*

      I know you were the hardest working woman in show business, Tina, but most people need work-life balance! If the OP has that much free time, she’s doing something right!

      1. Hannah Lee*

        Also, one thing I’ve learned over time is that the networking in these situations can go both ways. Not often, but sometimes that person just starting out if they are good at what they do, and get a foot in and continue to develop, gain experience after several years can be a connection for the more experienced person.

        So yes, taking that first meeting is reaching back, giving a hand to a newbie, but it’s also potentially a way to continue to build your own network, practice networking skills, build a new connection (plus try out new coffee places)

        Sure 95% may dead end, but aside from the “giving back” aspect, their can be other pluses for the interviewee.

      2. Six for the truth over solace in lies*

        Agreed! The idea that if you have time for coffee meetings you should instead spend that time directly on your career is alien to me. My goal is to be at a point in my career where I have time to spend on plenty of things, and some of those things might include helping newbies in my field. I think it’s a good thing.

    3. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

      We don’t know how often she is doing this. When my husband does any kind of networking, I consider it working. (It’s right there in the name! And he’s gotten every job he’s had that way). Plenty of areas entail networking as more or less a requirement for success.

  9. Meg*

    I get these a lot from young people as a veterinarian. Some don’t even bother to thank me for answering their 15 written questions that are entirely non-specific or get mad that I don’t gush over how great my job is (being a vet can be rather soul sucking and we have a big problem with suicide). I’ve gotten really picky about who I respond to now. It can’t be through their dad saying, “My son is an Eagle Scout so you need to hook him up with a large animal vet!” which hasn’t been my job in a decade. I don’t mind talking to truly passionate youngsters, but I really don’t like talking about work outside of the job generally.

    1. Pippa K*

      Please let me take this chance to thank you for your own efforts and as a stand-in for the vets who did it for me when I was young. I spent my teens and part of college working/observing/tagging along at vet clinics, and the vets and techs taught me so much. I didn’t end up becoming a vet in the end (hello and goodbye, organic chemistry!) but what I learned about animals, and medicine, and workplaces – it’s all stayed with me for decades. I know these mentoring demands can be a real burden and probably often seem fruitless, but thanks, very sincerely, from someone for whom it was formative!

      1. wordwords*

        I could have written this comment! Heartily agreed. I didn’t end up going into veterinary medicine in the end — college chemistry put paid to that — but what I learned from working at a small-animal vet clinic, shadowing a large animal vet a couple of times, and observing all the vets and techs I encountered has hugely shaped my life nonetheless. It’s made me a better pet owner (and more confident in caring for my pets when they’re ill or old), a more knowledgeable and interested layperson, and now a translator who specializes in medical texts partly because of that early experience. (We don’t get a lot of veterinary texts at my company, but I’ve let my colleagues know that I’m highly interested if we ever do!) Thank you to you, Meg, and to everyone who was generous with their time and mentoring with me back in the day; it meant and means a lot.

    2. just here for the scripts*

      And thank you for staying with the field. It can definitely be hard and emotionally draining work —and vet schools are now screening for resiliency and offering both small business guidance and mental health supports, and hopefully that will help the next set of cohorts.

      1. Meg*

        I do hope so. My vet school experience was not positive at all and any mental health support was basically lip service. We were abused and overworked and basically told to deal with it.

    3. Laura*

      How do you answer it? I’m a pretty fried and crispy vet and I will tell people that while I love the animals, science and medicine aspects, if I could go back in time with today’s knowledge, I wouldn’t have gone to vet school. Then I get to hear all about how I’m pooping on other people’s dreams. But…your dreams aren’t my reality, even though your dreams ARE what my dreams once were. Vet med is rough. How do you redirect the people reaching out without getting a lash out when they realize you are saying no?

      1. Meg*

        People really do hate it when you say it’s not all puppies and sunshine, huh? I’m pretty pragmatic so I don’t mince words about the downsides, but I do kind of put them in a sandwich. For example, “I love solving problems and helping animals, but some clients can be extremely abusive and will take to SM to complain about something they don’t understand or that vets can’t work for the love of animals alone. The suicide rate is high enough that we have an entire organization devoted to lowering it. I do enjoy my day to day work, but it’s honestly a huge struggle with the exorbitant student loans that I can’t even pay the interest on. I completely understand if you’re not dissuaded from it as I wouldn’t have been able to be, but everyone needs to go in with all the information.”

        I honestly don’t recommend anyone go in now. I graduated 15 years ago and tuition has literally doubled in that time. My alma mater charges over $50k in tuition ALONE. I was also a large animal/equine vet which are industries that cry publicly over not having enough students interested, but there’s a reason for that. I was making under $20/hour at many points and working 70 hours a week around the clock at a VERY dangerous job. I work with small animals now and still have to worry about bites because people don’t want to muzzle Fluffy for my safety as he growls at me.

  10. Luanne Platter*

    I wonder if this would also be an alternative phrasing:
    “Hi (Graduate), I can help with connections but I have some questions based on our coffee meeting. During the meeting, you seemed distant and uninterested in the industry. May I ask what changed?”
    This calls out the behavior politely and lets them know to adjust for future meetings, and perhaps opens the door for an explanation or dialogue. Just a thought.

    1. I NEED A Tea*

      I was thinking maybe it could be said during the meeting – “are you still interested because you seem distant.”

    2. Hell in a Handbasket*

      I don’t think they should say they’re willing to help, because they’re (justifiably) not.

  11. Binge Crosby*

    Alison’s #4 point in her response has always worked well for me, and not just in networking situations. If somebody wants a professional favor, put up a minor hurdle they have to clear first on their own. They’ll either follow through in a good way, show you who they are by following through in a bad way (or not at all), or ghost. IME, over 50% of the time they ghost, which saves you time, money, and energy.

    1. Freya*

      This. I’ve had a lot of people tell me as a dance teacher that I should be doing a demo at this or that fair or public event. Saying “that sounds cool! Would you be able to get the application form for me, or find out who I need to talk to?” makes the vast majority disappear.

  12. S*

    Off-topic, but I just wanted to say I enjoyed the photo on the Inc page that goes with this letter.

    1. Fiddlesticks*

      I can’t take my eyes off the creepy AI generated anatomy, what the heck, Getty Images?

  13. Yeah…*

    I am still smarting from writing recommendation letter for dear friend’s son. No thank you or any acknowledgement for doing so even after being prompted be his mom I will keep this in kind for next time

  14. Moving away*

    I taught English in South Korea directly out of undergrad and it was something that other young people that were friends of friends of friends also wanted to do so I got many emails over a period of time for people asking all sorts of advice. I knew how intimidating it had been moving to a faraway country and was very grateful to the people who had given me advice so I always paid it forward.
    Similar to OP, some people were pretty rude and it always floored me, but luckily not most. The one guy that irked me the most was someone who I answered multiple emails and even read over a potential work contract with him and gave him my input. Then a few months later I had a question for him and crickets.

  15. B*

    I suspect the rudeness is coming from mismatched (and unrealistic) expectations. Young people are told they should “network” to get a job. So they network (contact you) and expect a job. They don’t actually want to ask questions or learn information or have coffee. They’re hoping you’ll give them a job. Or at least “one weird trick” to get a job. The reality is dispiriting to them: networking is a long game and only works if you are building durable relationships based on genuine interest and respect.

    This is probably a Pareto situation: if you put a filter in place to weed out the bad faith opportunists from the genuine inquirers, you’ll end up with 80% dropping out and you’ll have much more fulfilling conversations with the remaining 20%.

    1. Lily Potter*

      Yes, it’s been many years since my undergrad days but my recollection is that my college didn’t do anything to teach networking. As a twenty-something undergrad, my experience had been that teachers taught skills as “do this, then you get that” rather than talking through the far more soft skill of networking. The only reason I got a job was because I landed in the one field where “do this, then you get that” applied (government). If I’d have had to get employment via soft connections, I might well have starved!

      1. Cat Lady Esq*

        I had a similar experience both in undergrad (at a prestigious New England liberal arts college!) and in law school (not as prestigious large state school).

        No one ever explained what networking actually was!!!! I learned the hard way that it’s making genuine connections with people you’re legitimately, actually interested in connecting with and want to stay in touch with. That’s it, that’s basically the whole thing.

        For so long I thought I was a screw up because I just didn’t understand what I was supposed to be doing at networking events besides chatting with people. Our schools are failing kids in this area, in my opinion.

        1. B*

          100%. I am over a decade into a legal career, and it only really clicked for me when, after a few years, I started to notice how people who know each other tend to end up working together. That’s networking! When people know each other and trust each other and like each other, they like to work together, and are willing to stick their necks out to recommend each other. There’s no magic to it, and there’s no shortcut.

        2. fhqwhgads*

          Yeah I was about 35 before I understood what networking was. Then again, no one at my prestigious New England liberal arts college ever told me to do it, either. Pretty sure I was 24 the first time I even heard the word and apparently spent 11 years trying to glean from context.

    2. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

      This is my experience. They sit politely through your answers to the questions, but what they really wanted was for you to say, “you’re going to be a star” and hand them their first job.

      Even though talking about jobs is my actual profession, if someone isn’t doing any of the work to research for themselves, or even to take notes about what I suggest, there’s times when I’ll start answering their questions with follow up questions about where they’ve already looked and what they’ve done to build their skills before I have the 2nd conversation. (I’m talking to you, every single person who “wants to be a writer and wants to learn about the publishing business” and stares blankly when I tell them any of the truth of about that world.)

    3. singularity*

      This x100, but I’m fairly certain most grads don’t know ~how~ to network. People throw the term around a lot, but it’s a soft skill that isn’t usually specifically addressed, or it’s presented as a ‘magic button’ they push and suddenly a job appears.

      1. B*

        It doesn’t help that the advice mostly comes from school career counselors who, as a rule, don’t really know how to get jobs.

    4. Pescadero*

      I’d say – The reality is dispiriting: networking is a long game and only SOMETIMES works if you are building durable relationships based on genuine interest and respect, but mostly you’ll just be awkwardly trying to fit in with no success and no results from it.

  16. Artemesia*

    When I worked with grad students they would contact with me wanting to talk about research for their masters or doctoral theses. I never met unless they first gave me one page where they indicated what question they wanted to pursue, how they thought they would pursue it (their tentative research design/plan) and why it was an important thing to pursue. If you cannot do that, then you are not ready to talk about your research.

    I would think a similar screen would help. Before agreeing to meet, ask them to email with their professional goals and what 3 questions they particularly want to explore with you. Bet that weeds out most.

    And for referrals. Like for references it is entirely reasonable to say ‘I never recommend people for jobs if i haven’t worked with them; your best bet for that is your internship supervisor or someone you have worked with.’ You can always break that rule yourself if you meet someone you think is impressive, but don’t hold out the expectation that you will be facilitating a job contact. ‘You can add — if I hear of something I will pass it along to you.’

  17. Knittercubed*

    I can relate to this letter. I am a second career RN, BSN. I am now retired. I have a wide network of friends around the country who are seeing their adult kids flounder. Nursing looks like a Hail Mary pass, income and job prospect-wise. I get a lot of requests to meet with and talk with adult children about nursing as a career.

    Sometimes it goes well. Other times I feel the person blowing off my real world information, hand waving my caveats without any basis. There are pitfalls to getting a degree and finding out you hate personal care, shift work, crises and body fluids. Holidays! Birthdays! I could go on.

    I’ve started screening these requests by asking if the person in question has any hands on care experience (nursing home, EMT etc) and what their goals are from a nursing education. If the only goal they can think of is job security, my advice is for them to work a year as an aide in a nursing home. If they still want my help after that, I am all in. In 40 years I’ve gotten one call back and that person is now happily in an RN role.

    The LW is right to value their time and screen people for potential.

  18. Peanut Hamper*

    I originally read that title as nude networkers.

    I think I may need new glasses.

  19. HonorBox*

    I have a sense, based on what is written in the letter and based on my own experience, that pointing out the “wrong” in the coffee interaction probably won’t land with the intent you’d want for many, though not all, candidates. I’d be more likely to respond with the “if I know of anyone, I’ll try to connect you” because that’s non-committal, but still shows that you might be willing to help. I agree entirely with asking these folks if they have questions and not meeting with those who can’t come up with any, because they should be as (or more) prepared than you are for something like this.

    1. sara*

      I agree. I work a lot with this age group and I think the most likely responses (given that this is already someone who was willing to be rude in person) are that the person ghosts you and never responds, or that they respond with a LONG list of excuses and blaming you for getting that impression, etc. Now I know one can technically ignore such emails, but for many of us it takes a toll on our psyche to get abusive, rude emails popping up in our inbox. It’s reasonable to want to avoid them! I personally would just hit delete and not respond.

  20. a good mouse*

    I used to have a super cool job that a lot of people wanted to do at a big name company. When people said they wanted to work there, my first question was always “doing what?” (because “Coming up with all the ideas!” wasn’t a good answer or real role, but “graphic design” was something workable). Then I’d give them my card and tell them to email me an introduction and I’d be happy to forward it to someone in the area they were interested in.

    I think maybe one out of 15-20 people ever actually emailed me. That added step weeded out basically everyone. I feel like I can open a door for you, but I’m not pulling you through it.

  21. HailRobonia*

    Offer to connect them with your “colleague” who is actually a scheduling bot with a female name ;)

  22. Garth*

    Personally I will always default to helping out entry level folks, but rudeness is a non starter. Plus, this person seems like they’re just going through the motions anyway, I doubt they really want to do much networking.

    Like Barbara Billingsley said in Airplane “chump don’t want the help, chump don’t get the help”

  23. Raida*

    Honestly during the chat I would specifically insert direct questions like “Why are you interested in [industry]?” “Why did you reach out to me?” “What do you want to achieve from this chat?”
    and then, if they aren’t engaging or are rude…
    “So why did you reach out to me when you aren’t able to say what you are interested in with [industry]?”
    “How do you intend this chat to help you when you don’t engage with the subject?”
    “Okay, now you tell me why I should forward your details to my professional network to help you break into [industry]”

    but I’m direct.

    Then if they reach out to ask for connections, say “Sorry, no. My professional network rely on my judgement in who I do and don’t forward connections for. You were unengaged, didn’t seem to know the subject, didn’t seem interested in the subject, didn’t seem even happy to have the chat.”

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