Facebook may have stretched the definition of “friend” to include even your second cousin’s chiropractor. But users of professional networking site LinkedIn seem to go even further, approving virtually anyone who asks to be a “connection.” Since saying yes can open the door to constant sales pitches and other forms of self-promotion, a backlash was inevitable.
Last month, the International Association of Business Communicators in Cleveland revoked the “Communicator of the Year” award given to Kelly Blazek, who ran an online jobs bank listing there. Blazek wrote a stinging rejection to a LinkedIn connection request from recent college graduate Diana Mekota: “Your invite is inappropriate, beneficial only to you, and tacky. Wow, I cannot wait to let every 26-year-old job seeker mine my top-tier marketing connections to help them land a job.” The reply went viral, Blazek apologized and returned her award.
Experts say it’s perfectly fine to reject a request to connect on LinkedIn, as long as it’s done respectfully. In fact, LinkedIn has long held that connections should be limited to people one has actual connections to. But negotiating the decision can be challenging, says Carl Van Horn, professor of public policy and director of Rutgers’s John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development. The site, after all, is “for advancing your professional interest,” he says.
But other users of the site may judge you by the number and quality of your connections. They are seen as an endorsement and reflect on your professional reputation, says Scott Dobroski, career trends analyst at Glassdoor, so choose them carefully. “It all depends on how comfortable you are with your own transparency online,” he says. He recommends checking out each would-be connection’s Internet footprint and see if they have drunken Facebook or Instagram photos, or even if they’ve ever been convicted of a serious crime that could reflect badly on you. Rival companies or professionals only interested in self-promotion are also best avoided, he adds.
People are more likely to have a personal connection with their Facebook friends than their LinkedIn connections, which can lead to some hairy experiences. Adi Bittan, CEO of reputation management company OwnerListens.com, received a request from a LinkedIn connection — a Ph.D. student from a major university — to demonstrate software that could estimate a person’s clothes size over a webcam. “We set up a Skype call during which he explained that the solution actually requires taking one’s clothes off,” Bittan says. “I ended the conversation quickly and advised him to rethink his pitch.”