My LinkedIn policy has changed as I’ve evolved as a guidance professional. Having worked frequently with school settings before becoming a careers adviser, my initial reaction was to apply the rules taught to teachers. If a student wants to connect on social media don’t do it! Having been thus schooled, my old policy was to politely refuse when a student asked to connect with me on LinkedIn. I knew other careers professionals who had the same policy. This was my ‘advice for contacting’ message on LinkedIn:
It wasn’t until a year ago that I started questioning this. Without a child protection argument to apply, why was I so careful not to connect with clients, and how was it affecting my work with them?
Here’s how I moved from ‘cautious avoidance’ to ‘genuine connection’.
My old LinkedIn policy: cautious avoidance
Avoiding an inbox?
Part of my caution was a fear that in connecting with clients, I could find myself starting each day with hundreds of LinkedIn messages, full of career related queries, that I couldn’t fulfil in the time available. But who says that I have to fulfil them? These would be clients reaching out, and I could apply the same process as I would when I had limited time at the end of a careers event – quick referrals to existing services (individual appointments, alumni mentors, events or resources). If I was inundated and had no time even to do that, I could draft an honest response to explain. If I did have the time, it could be a good way to fulfil a client need along the same lines as our email guidance work. Being available doesn’t necessarily equate to being overwhelmed – and being honest and genuine is important to me; engaging when I can, explaining when I can’t.
Another risk in my mind was that clients would ask for introductions to my connections, who might get irritated with the volume of contact requests. Again, my default position came from a parent-child style of interaction, rather than the adult-adult dynamic we use in guidance. If I felt I would irritate the connection by fulfilling the introduction request, then I could explain that. If the connection was irritated, they could explain that too. By saying a blanket ‘no’ to being a connection hub in this way, I prevent connections and myself acting naturally, and remove an opportunity for the client to try out the introduction feature, and engage in what could be a useful form of participant modelling, whatever the outcome. And the outcome could be good! Again: being a hub for introductions/connections doesn’t necessarily equate to being an irritant – giving students real experience of networking in this way is important to me; supporting when I can, being honest when I can’t.
My new LinkedIn policy: genuine connection
I’m looking now at LinkedIn as a way to express the values that I hold as a guidance practitioner.
- Person-centredness: being genuine (saying no when I have to!) but also prizing the individual (engaging when I can)
- Experiential learning: offering feedback on their connection request, supporting reflection, sharing resources, and offering tips to try out
- Connectivity: being a hub which can help build participant modelling, information interviewing and perhaps even communities of interest
My new ‘Advice for Contacting…’
To make this text more prominent for non-contacts, I’ve adjusted my public profile to remove some less relevant sections, so that this paragraph (which is by default at the end of the page) is a bit more noticeable.
To connect or not?
If I know the client/colleague/contact then, yes. If not, then I use the full range of LinkedIn’s options as seems appropriate. If they seem like I might know them, but I can’t recall, I might ‘reply, but don’t accept’ to ask them a little more. Some that seem more spammy, I might ‘Ignore’ or even report afterwards.
Basically, reacting as a normal human being!
- The tools on the LinkedIn for Education page (if you haven’t tried it already check out July 2014’s new ‘Field of Study’ tool)
- LinkedIn Tip Sheets
- Information Interviewing guide (to support introduction messages)
One potential implication of becoming a ‘connector’ as part of my role, is the question of ownership over those contacts.
Could an employer argue that the connections that a careers professional makes during the years that they work for them, are assets of the organisation? There have been a number of interesting articles on this point recently (including this one on LinkedIn), although all the examples are currently commercial, and have largely been US-based. Key factors seem to relate to whether the account was initially set up purely for work purposes, which generally doesn’t apply on LinkedIn, and so I think the risks are more limited in this sense. However, nearly every report suggests that establishing a clear social media policy is a good idea. I’d suggest the following (practical) ingredients for a careers service social media policy, taking as a core principle the comparison with existing principles:
- Make a clear commitment as part of a handover to introduce the new professional to relevant LinkedIn contacts (just as you would over email).
- Do not use a LinkedIn account ‘jointly’ with your team (just as you wouldn’t share email passwords)
- Do not use LinkedIn as the sole repository of contact details (just as you wouldn’t rely on just the phone numbers for careers contacts stored in a professional’s mobile phone)
- Make sure that any policies about conflicts of interest, professional conduct etc. refer to the subject of communication, not the medium (e.g. it’s about appropriate conduct with that client, regardless of whether contact is on email, in the careers service, or when you bump into them in the street).
But what about ‘keeping your contacts?’ If you have LinkedIn contacts that you gathered during the time of your employment, I don’t see any evidence or precedent that indicates that these should be summarily removed if you were to leave your service. The offline comparison works well here – even before social media you’d remember a contact you worked with before, and might be inclined to keep an eye out for their news, and perhaps keep in touch. If it had been too long, they might just ignore a message from you, just as they might on LinkedIn. They can also decide how/if to use and share their data and remove you as a connection as they see fit. It’s a human relationship that endures past an employment position, just as before (except now they can ‘delete themselves’!)
I’ll post further as I inevitably refine this policy, but otherwise I hope it’s a helpful summary of my (over)thinking on the topic!