Using Connections; Getting Used

Last Updated Oct 2, 2007 2:24 PM EDT

A friend and former coworker, let's call her Sarah, recently saw on LinkedIn that my friend, we'll call her Tammy, works for a company she was applying to. Sarah has never met Tammy, and Sarah said that she wasn't 100 percent sure she was qualified for the job (she took 2+ years off from work to raise her son), but felt that it would be a good fit for her even though it would initially stretch her skills.
At Sarah's urging, I pulled some strings with Tammy, who pulled some strings with her company to get Sarah's resume to the right HR person. But when I wrote Sarah back to let her know that the wheels were in motion, she told me she is only half-heartedly looking for work and would much rather beef up her freelance clientele. I had begun to sense that this was the case because the email address she wrote me from (which is also on her resume) doesn't work, and her website of work samples is rife with spelling errors and inconsistencies, even though the jobs she's applying for require writing and attention to detail.
I feel kind of used. I'm definitely not going to use my network to help Sarah in the future, but I'm not sure I should tell Tammy that Sarah's not really interested in the job. Where's the line?
In the world of social networking sites and MySpace "friends," the concept of connections has become cheapened. To refocus, I think we need to look to the people who best understand the gravity of this concept: the Mafia. If you vouch for someone, you're signing your own reputation to theirs. If they screw up, then you can both end up swimming with the fishes. They take this stuff deadly seriously, at least in the movies.

But seriously, this concept of asking for favors from people you don't even know is stretching it a bit. You weren't wrong to want to help out one friend by asking a favor from another. It's Sarah's behavior that was questionable. First, she put you into an awkward situation, and one that is kind of hard to say no to. Second, she didn't even want the favor she was asking. She asked you to vouch for her, although she never intended to live up to her end of the bargain (the implicit expectation that she wanted the job).

But let's not hate Sarah. I don't blame you for declaring that you don't want to use your network to help her in the future. Yet it's easy to understand how Sarah, after taking two years off to raise her son, can be a bit confused as to what she wants from her career. She's probably conflicted; upset about having to leave her son and go back to work, and unsure of what she wants her future to hold now that she's a mother first and a career woman second. Let's be easy on Sarah, and try to take a lesson from the whole event.

Your goal is to keep your connection with Tammy, but not alienate Sarah. This can be done quietly by following what appears to be your instinct: tell Tammy that Sarah's not that interested in the position. This will keep Tammy from having to lay out any more favors to help Sarah get the job, and there's really no harm done since it will only prevent Sarah from getting a job that she doesn't actually want. Sarah doesn't have to know anything about this. She simply won't get the job; these things happen.

By being up front and honest with Tammy and putting the brakes on the favor train, you've demonstrated to her that you understand and respect the concept of vouching for someone. In the future, when asked to vouch for someone, you'll be more cautious. This is a bit sad - it's nice to think that you can trust your friends implicitly - but practical. Before you put your own reputation on the line, make sure that your friends are prepared to deliver. There's nothing wrong with having your friends use you as a connection; there's everything wrong with having them use you.

Have a workplace-ethics dilemma? Ask it here, or email wherestheline@gmail.com

  • William Baker

    William Baker is a freelance writer living in Cambridge, MA. His work has appeared in Popular Science, the Boston Globe Magazine, the New York Daily News, Boston Magazine, The Weekly Dig and a bunch of other places (including Field & Stream, though he doesn't hunt and can't really fish). He is a regular contributor to the Boston Globe, where he writes the weekly column, "Meeting the Minds." He holds a master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and is at work on his first book.