Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
There are people who get legitimately excited about the prospect of broadening their professional circle—and then there are the rest of us, who shudder and blanch when we contemplate “networking.” Part of the reason for this visceral unease is the scourge of overly aggressive networkers: those people who, once encountered, loom large in our memories forever. For example, consider the plight of this person who wrote to me at my work-advice column looking for a way to say, “Stop following me” at professional events:
[Sometimes] I’ll say, “I got to use the restroom, see you later,” and they’ll follow me there and wait outside. … Even worse, people have started to approach me when I’m walking somewhere nearby the event, ask me where I’m going, and then join me. This gets awkward if I’m doing something personal and I even once ended up not getting something I needed at the drugstore because someone had followed me despite my protests, and I didn’t want them to know about the medical problem I needed it for. I’ve also had people sit down with me at an empty seat at a restaurant I’m eating at without asking, including once when I was celebrating my anniversary with my boyfriend!
There are also the networkers who imagine themselves to be benevolent bigwigs offering up the gift of their wisdom, even when you haven’t asked for help at all. This person’s professional contact—who’s a peer at the same professional level as she is—sends her patronizing missives to “stay in touch”:
He started sending me emails full of unsolicited advice and generic, go-get-em-tiger style encouragement on some projects I’m working on. They feel rather condescending. It’s always very generic, very obvious advice that I, for one, would only give to someone starting out in our field: “The next step for you is clearly XYZ.” Lots of approval granting: “Project X is looking great!” Offers to introduce me to people I’ve known for years—and would have to have known for years in my position. Just generally talking to me as though I am at a career level significantly junior to him. These emails are also never part of an ongoing conversation; they’re sent out of the blue.
Plus, there’s a whole category of pushiness in the pursuit of a job, like the job candidate who sent a framed photo of himself to his would-be interviewer:
I returned to my office one afternoon to find a beautiful gift bag on my desk. I thought that maybe it was from a secret admirer or an early birthday present. Inside I found a folder, a card, something wrapped in tissue, and a large round tin. Inside the folder was a multi-page resume on very thick, expensive paper. Inside the tin was a cake. The card included a hand-written note saying that he thought he was the perfect candidate for the job and somehow used the word “cake” in a pun. And inside the tissue paper? A framed color photo of the candidate …
I was so incredibly creeped out by this gesture. I didn’t know whether to laugh or execute a restraining order. I was afraid to eat the cake and couldn’t look at him and didn’t even call him for an interview.
Or consider this horror story from someone who works for a company known for its excellent perks and benefits:
[Candidates] have taken to outright stalking our employees. I freelance occasionally and have a separate website for my freelance business. I receive dozens of calls and emails to my freelance number and email account daily from people who want to “chat about the open position.” My husband—who has a different last name—runs a small retail shop. He’s had people come into his store and tell him that they did internet sleuthing and found out he was married to an employee of my company, and would he please pass on their resume?
With networking bringing out such odd, pushy behavior, it’s no surprise that so many of the rest of us instinctively recoil from the idea of networking. We’ve all had run-ins with smarmy strangers bearing business cards who’ve made it far too obvious that they viewed us through a utilitarian lens and were calculating how we might be able to help them. We’ve all been targeted by networkers who follow a format to create rapport seemingly devised by an alien unfamiliar with how human connection works. (How else to explain the people who use your name in every other sentence?) It’s off-putting to feel like someone is trying to force a connection, or taking interest in you just because of what you might be able to do for them.
There is something awfully sad in some of these stories. While some aggressive networkers are motivated by an overabundance of ambition, surely some of them are simply driven by the fear that this is what it takes to find professional (and thus financial) stability. They’re misguided in the way they’re going about it, but it’s hard to fault people who are just trying like hell to get and stay employed.
But if you encounter an overly aggressive networker, it’s okay to assert yourself. If someone is demanding too much of your attention at an event, you can say, “I’ve enjoyed talking with you but need to talk with others as well” (followed by a firm “Goodbye” if necessary). If someone interrupts you at an inappropriate time, like while you’re dining in public, it’s fine to say, “I’m not able to talk right now” or “I’ve promised my companion my full attention tonight, but I hope you enjoy your evening.” And in cases where the person isn’t standing right in front of you—such as with unwanted emails or the weird story of the unsolicited framed headshot above—you can simply decline to engage.
Meanwhile, what I wish aggressive networkers realized is that networking doesn’t have to be in-your-face or smarmy. Ideally, networking is just about making genuine connections with people and broadening the circle of people you know. (In fact, good networking is often so low-key that it doesn’t even always get called “networking,” which might be part of the problem. You could even call it “socializing.”) That takes more time, though, and you can’t force it to happen on demand, which makes it a less appealing route to people looking for instant networking success—but it’s usually far more effective and doesn’t leave a trail of annoyed, creeped-out targets in its wake.