February 25, 2015

The Rolodex & The Airport Bar: How to handle LinkedIn Invitations

“I don’t know this person; why did he add me?”

“We worked together 10 years ago. Does that still count?”

“What about the weirdos?”

Every time I teach a LinkedIn class, I hear variations of the question “Who belongs in my network?”

The simple answer: Whomever you allow. You are the bouncer of your LinkedIn network. You get to hang the velvet rope, and you decide when to pull it aside.

The Open Network

I know a recruiter with a straightforward policy of accepting all LinkedIn invitations. For her, a diverse network is worth the hassle of the occasional weirdo or spammer. In a job that’s all about finding and connecting people to the right career opportunities, a network of thousands is a valuable asset.

LinkedIn discourages you from connecting with people you don’t know, but the dangers are minor. You’re not sharing family photos or confidential information (if you are, you’re doing it wrong). My recruiter friend has only received a handful of inappropriate or annoying messages in the years she’s been an open networker. Those people got bounced from the club, pronto.
The Rolodex

I don’t use a Rolodex, except as a metaphor for how I use LinkedIn. It’s a streamlined contact list for people I know in a (mostly) professional context. The barrier to entry is low: If we shake hands, have a pleasant conversation, and you give me a business card, I’ll add you to my Rolodex. I’m connected to people I’ve known since childhood and people I met in the breakfast line at a conference.

Since my Rolodex is virtual, it’s fine if the handshake and the conversation are also virtual. The important thing is that we have some basic, friendly human connection. I don’t add business cards that I find on the sidewalk or that get shoved at me by pushy salespeople.

The Airport Bar

A banker introduced me to the Airport Bar Test: If he’d gladly have a drink with you in an airport bar, then he’ll add you to his LinkedIn network. It’s more selective than the Rolodex approach, because enjoying a drink together requires enough mutual interest for at least 15-20 minutes of good conversation. If you don’t know or like a person well enough for this to sound appealing, then perhaps you don’t need to be connected on LinkedIn.

The Inner Circle

I know another recruiter who has been on LinkedIn for years, uses it to find candidates, and sends lots of InMail, but has fewer than 200 connections. Quality over quantity is his mantra, and it works for him. When he looks at his LinkedIn news feed, it’s a well-curated stream of content and updates from people he knows, likes, and trusts.

Until LinkedIn rolls out a tiered system of contacts (wouldn’t that be nice?), being selective with your network is one way to keep your inner circle close. It works best if you have another system, like a database or an old-fashioned Rolodex, for those casual contacts you might want to reconnect with someday.

Sound complicated? Here are 3 reassuring thoughts: 

  • Adding someone to your LinkedIn network is not an endorsement. LinkedIn has endorsement and recommendation features, and you don’t have to use them unless you want to. Nobody is going to look at your profile connections and think “Pfft! She’s connected to that guy! There goes her professional credibility.” 
  • You’re not expected to reply to random invitations. Just like unsolicited sales emails, there’s no social obligation to respond, and most people don’t. Enthusiastic open networkers send out lots of LinkedIn invitations, and they don’t take every declined invite personally. If they did, they’d be too sad to be enthusiastic networkers for long. 
  • You can always move the velvet rope. I recommend erring on the side of openness, because you can always remove network contacts if they bother you. LinkedIn won’t even notify them that they’ve been removed. And who knows – that friendly woman you met at the airport might be a source of professional insight or hold the keys to your next job. 
If only you’d stayed for a drink.

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