It was the LinkedIn rejection heard 'round the world.
In February, 26-year-old job-seeker Diana Mekota sent an email and LinkedIn request to connect with Kelly Blazek, who runs an online job board for marketing professionals in Cleveland. After Mekota posted online Blazek's harshly worded response — which called Mekota's email "inappropriate, beneficial only to you, and tacky," and closed with "don't ever write me again" — the Internet exploded in its full viral fury. News sites including CNN and the BBC picked up the story, which even inspired its own Twitter parody account.
However out of line the response may have been (Blazek has since apologized and returned her local "Communicator of the Year" award), some business etiquette experts and LinkedIn aficionados say the original LinkedIn request was a bit inappropriate, too. "I don’t think she should have tried to connect with this woman," says Lizzie Post, co-author of Emily Post's Etiquette and the creator of a business etiquette e-learning program. "To be a connection on LinkedIn, I would wait until you have some kind of rapport."
LinkedIn combines the politics of job seeking, the nuances of business etiquette and the still new-to-many social protocols of online networking, making it an invaluable yet at times perplexing professional tool. On the one hand, LinkedIn says you should only accept invitations from people you know and trust. On the other, the site itself likes to suggest "people you may know."
"I think people are confused by it," says Mark Williams, a U.K.-based consultant who trains recruiters, marketers and job seekers on the dos and don'ts of using LinkedIn. "If I was going to a networking event and I only spoke to people I knew well, that wouldn't really be good networking."
Meanwhile, deciding whether to accept each invitation can get a little overwhelming if they pile up amid the tidal wave of email we receive every day. It seems a little wasteful to throw out potentially valuable business contacts. Yet it can also seem strange to share so much with someone you haven't met.
That's why many LinkedIn and etiquette experts recommend only accepting invitations from people you know. Beyond concerns about privacy or potential spam, you'd be opening up your network to a stranger. In addition, the quality of people you're connected with can send a good or bad message about who you are as a professional. "It's not a popularity contest," says Nicole Williams, a career coach and spokesperson for LinkedIn. "Your connections should reflect your professional network. It does reflect who you are."
If you do want to send an invitation to someone you don't know well, experts suggest first reaching out via email, LinkedIn's "InMail" messages or even by phone before sending a cold invitation to connect. Sending an impersonal request first, Williams says, is the online "equivalent of walking around a room and shoving business cards in people’s faces." If you were at a conference or networking event, "you would first go up and say hello, show an interest in them, and then say, 'Hey, would you like to swap business cards?'" The same goes for online.
Still, some experts say there are a few people you should almost never invite — or almost always accept. For instance, it's not a good idea to ask someone with whom you've just interviewed for a job to connect on LinkedIn until after the employment decision has been made, says Barbara Pachter, the author of The Essentials of Business Etiquette: How to Greet, Eat and Tweet Your Way to Success. Asking an interviewer for a connection can force an awkward situation. "The end result is I may have to give you bad news," she says. "If you’re going to be putting me in an awkward spot when I’m interviewing you, what are you going to do when you’re working for me?"
On the flipside, Lizzie Post says she always accepts LinkedIn invitations from interns who've worked with her. "When you have an intern, there’s an agreement between you and that person," she says, which implies a responsibility. "They’re starting out and trying to build that network. You are, in essence, that baseline for them."
When in doubt, one way to judge whether or not to accept an invitation might be what social media maven Alexandra Samuel called the "favor test" in a Harvard Business Review blog post from July. Samuel, the author of the recent book Work Smarter, Rule your Email, said that because the power of LinkedIn resides in getting and making introductions to people in your network's network, deciding whether or not to connect with someone is as easy as asking yourself a simple question. "Would you do a favor for this person, or ask a favor of them?" she wrote. "If so, make the connection. If not, take a pass."
And then, leave it at that. No need for rude retorts — or even a response at all.