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When to Refuse LinkedIn Connection Requests

With social networks, quality may be more important than quantity

By Quentin Fottrell | MarketWatch | May 14, 2014

(This article appeared previously on MarketWatch.com.)

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.

How Not to Decline an Invitation to Connect 
 
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.

(MORE: Older Job Seekers: Get Social and Mobile)
 
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’ John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development. The site, after all, is “for advancing your professional interest,” he says.

LinkedIn Pros and Cons 
 
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.

(MORE: How LinkedIn Can Help You Become a Volunteer)

Dobroski 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.

Keeping Things Professional 
 
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.”

Too Many Connections
 
Some LinkedIn users say they’re overwhelmed with unwanted connections. “I can’t believe how many people ask me to connect with them on LinkedIn because they claim to want to learn from me or be a colleague and then immediately spam me with emails,” says Richard Laermer, author of Trendspotting for the Next Decade. He used to get two emails a week on LinkedIn, but now gets 10 or 15 unsolicited emails every few days. “They seem to come in waves.” (Although LinkedIn launched in 2003, it only introduced a block feature in February.)
 
For those who accept connections from those they don’t know, pay close attention to the picture to make sure the profile is real.

“Not having a picture says to me you can’t figure out how to put one up, you don’t use your account very much, or you simply don’t like to look in the mirror,” says Billy Bauer, a marketing director in Secaucus, N.J. Either that or the profile is a fake, he adds.

For those seeking to get noticed, profile photos that are cute on Facebook can be creepy on LinkedIn. “The worst offender was a picture of a man smiling in a bubble bath,” Bauer says. “Thank goodness there were lots of bubbles.”

How to Spot a Spammer
 
A connection in a far-off place could also be a sign of a spammer.

Michal Ann Strahilevitz, a professor of marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, recently received an invite from a waitress from a pizza joint in Cambodia. “I have not been to Cambodia, but I did work as a waitress in a pizza place in Texas when I was in high school,” she says.

She does make exceptions to her rule not to accept strangers. “I am Israeli by birth, and I figure I should accept any opportunity to create professional bridges with our Arab neighbors," says Strahliveitz. “It’s quite nice to have both Arab and Israeli names in my network.”

Facebook v. LinkedIn
 
Facebook is still the dominant social network, with 1.2 billion monthly users worldwide versus 277 million for LinkedIn. In the U.S., 71 percent of adults with Internet access used Facebook last year (up from 67 percent in 2012) and 22 percent of adults used LinkedIn in 2013 (up from 20 percent the year before), according to a survey by Pew Research Internet Project.

While Facebook is popular across a diverse mix of demographic groups, the research found, LinkedIn is especially popular among college graduates and Internet users in higher income households. Twitter and Instagram appeal to younger adults and urban dwellers.

The Creep Factor 
 
LinkedIn’s “Who’s Viewed Your Profile” is another networking feature that gives some people the heebie-jeebies, and may make some pause before accepting a connection. Dating sites like Match.com and OkCupid use this feature, but it’s absent from Facebook.

“It all starts with someone looking at your profile, then you wonder who they are and look at theirs, then they look at yours again, and it just seems to go on,” says Alex Parker, president of Brand Strategix, an Internet marketing agency in Rockford, Mich. “By the end, I’m wondering, ‘Should I know this person?’”

Networking or Broadcasting? 
 
But the humblebrags and endless schmoozing on LinkedIn have become too much for some users.

Last month, Neil Gussman went to a lunch for the chemical industry in New York. “One of the attendees asked me, ‘What do you do?’” One week earlier, that same person had endorsed Gussman for “public relations.”

Laermer is tiring of “the constant nagging” from his connections. LinkedIn, he says, encourages the kind of showiness that would make Liberace blush.

“Social networking is now an oxymoron,” he says. “It’s become a form of broadcasting with everyone just trying to get attention.” 

Quentin Fottrell writes for MarketWatch. You can reach him at qfottrell@marketwatch.com