If You Wouldn’t Do It In Person, Don’t Do It on LinkedIn!

July 18, 2011

Thanks to Miss Manners, Emily Post and our grandmothers, we know to say please, treat others the way we’d like to be treated and write a note when we receive a gift.

But for some reason, the minute many people turn on a computer or mobile screen, their basic knowledge of etiquette flies out the window. Perhaps because they’re not face to face with others, they forget how to interact.

If you’ve noticed this phenomenon, you won’t be surprised that some of the most frequent questions asked during our “LinkedIn for Job Seekers” webinars are queries about etiquette.

While every situation and every individual is different, here are some guidelines to help you use LinkedIn in a polite, professional way:

Say thank you early and often.
I once received a LinkedIn message from a recent grad who asked me for some pretty specific career advice. Since her request was very polite and we had attended the same university, I answered her multiple questions and wished her good luck. And then…I never heard from her again. Because I’d taken so much time to reply, I wrote back and said I was a little disappointed not to receive a thank you. Her response? “I didn’t want to bother you.” Trust me -- a thank you is never a bother and is always appreciated, especially in the impersonal world of online communications.

Customize every connection request you send.
Just because LinkedIn provides a basic message “I'd like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn,” that doesn’t mean you have to use it. Just as no one wants to receive a robocall or a letter to “Dear Occupant,” no one wants to receive a generic request to join your professional network. If the person doesn’t recognize your name and your request has not been customized you might see a lower response rate.

You’ll get much better results if you write a brief, personalized, polite note to each potential connection that includes these key elements:

  • A brief self-introduction if you’ve never met the person before
  • An explanation of why you reached out and would like to connect (e.g., “I read your recent post in our small business discussion group and believe we have similar interests” or “I’m switching careers into your industry and read in your profile that you’re eager to network with new real estate agents.”). If you’re a job seeker, it’s okay to ask for advice or guidance, but do not directly ask for a job in a connection request. Establish the relationship first.
  • An indication that you understand that LinkedIn is about mutually beneficial networking. For instance, “I hope we can connect and please let me know how I can help you in any way.”
  • A thank you to the person for considering your request.

Is it time consuming to write such a detailed request to every person? Yes. And that’s exactly why people will respond -- because you’ve shown you are someone who deeply values the people in your network.

Don’t pester.
No matter how customized and well written your connection request, there is no guarantee that everyone you want to connect with will want to connect with you. If you haven’t heard from a potential connection in over a month, it’s okay to follow up and perhaps send that person an InMail (if you have a premium LinkedIn account) to remind them that you’ve reached out and would like to connect. Perhaps you can elaborate a bit on why connecting with you might be of value. If that doesn’t work, it’s best to move on to people who are more interested or responsive. As in real life, you can’t force someone to become a friend.

Know that it’s okay to turn down or ignore a connection request.
Likewise, you don’t have to accept every connection request you receive. If you see a request from someone you don’t know, there are two ways to handle it:

  • Simply click “Ignore” to ignore the request or save it for the future. I do this with most unsolicited, generic requests I receive from people I don’t know.
  • Check out the person’s LinkedIn profile and, if it seems interesting, reply to the connection request with a short note. For instance, “Can you remind me how we know each other?” or “Can you let me know why you’d like to connect? I limit my network to people I know.” If the person is really interested in connecting, he or she will write back with more information. If you never hear from the person again, that personal probably wouldn’t have been a valuable contact anyway.

If you accept a connection request and change your mind later, you can “unconnect” from someone using LinkedIn’s Remove Connections feature. The person will not be alerted. Of course, if that person looks through his or her contacts or attempts to send you a message, you will no longer be shown as a 1st-degree connection.

Don’t over promote yourself or your business.
You know “that guy” at conferences who shakes every single person’s hand, distributes his business cards or brochures like candy on Halloween and can talk nonstop for 10 minutes about how great he is? Don’t be that guy (or gal) -- at conferences or on LinkedIn! LinkedIn was built on the idea of trusted professional relationships, not self-promotion, so make sure that you use the site as much to help your contacts as you hope to be helped. This means:

  • Writing thoughtful comments on the status updates of people in your network.
  • Congratulating other people on their success as much as you promote your own.
  • Writing recommendations for others as much as you request them for yourself.
  • Answering expert questions and responding to posts in groups.

When you do have something purely promotional you’d like to share, such as a webcast you’re hosting or a new blog post you’ve written, send the announcement to a targeted list of people in your network that you think would be truly interested and/or post the announcement in the appropriate place in groups -- the “Promotions” tab -- where people expect to find such information.

The amazing thing is, the more you help others, the more they are likely to have a positive view of you and your business. This will ultimately be more beneficial than any blatant self-promotion could be.

The bottom line? Use good “real world” judgment, be polite and treat others as you hope to be treated. If you wouldn’t do it in person, don’t do it on LinkedIn!