• 06/07/2013
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LinkedIn: When To Say No To Connecting

Should you accept LinkedIn connection requests from strangers? Before deciding, make sure you understand the security and reputation risks.
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Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and the like make sense professionally for some people, but not for others. Presence on LinkedIn, on the other hand, is a no-brainer.

Although LinkedIn has gone through lots of changes lately, for the most part it is what it is: the leading social network and collaboration space for people who want to make and develop professional contacts and their own careers. What's less clear about LinkedIn is how far your network should extend. Sure, having lots of connections looks good on your profile, but is any connection a good connection? Can some connections actually hurt you?

There are two schools of thought on this issue, according to Ari Lightman, professor at Carnegie Mellon University and director of its CIO Institute. "If you're an open networker, it makes sense to connect to as many folks as possible -- that broadens your network and gives you reach which might come in handy and provide greater visibility," he said. "The other camp says if you do not know the person you should not connect with them."

Lightman said the arguments for being more selective about the people you connect with are focused on relevance and security. "More people make it more difficult to receive information that really might be of value," he said. "Another argument for no is that you open up yourself to spam from folks who want to sell you products and services. This is commonplace, and many people simply tune it out. But when there is malicious intent -- say, a phishing attempt -- then clicking on a link can load a virus onto your system. There have also been several fake connection requests infecting the unsuspecting user with virus attacks."

[ Get more ideas on making the most of LinkedIn. See LinkedIn Tips: 10 Ways To Do More. ]

And as LinkedIn and other social networks soak up more and more of our personal information, people may be looking to connect to perpetrate identity theft.

"There is plenty of information that someone could mine if they wanted to try and recreate your identity, including work history," said Lightman. "Exposing your information to a wide community gives them access to lots of data about you that could be used maliciously. LinkedIn, as well as all other social networks, are trying to get this under control by allowing people to adjust their privacy settings. It comes down to the classic trade-off of openness/transparency versus risk mitigation."

In addition, indiscriminate connecting isn't just a threat to you; it could be a threat to your company and your colleagues, according to security consultant Brad Causey.

"LinkedIn is a goldmine of reconnaissance and attack opportunities," he said. "Once connected, competitors will have access to your other connections, and can often dissect the organization chart of the company. This can lead to targeted recruitment efforts, or even insight into proprietary processes. ... In addition to recon and competitor insight, spear-phishing campaigns allow fake groups or fake profiles to target specific company employees for compromise."

However, Bruce Hurwitz, president and CEO of Hurwitz Strategic Staffing, warned that refusing invitations could close off opportunities you haven't even imagined.

"I once did a search for an economist in Columbus, Ohio," said Hurwitz. "I know no one in Columbus. So I sent a message to all my first-degree connections in Columbus. I got a candidate. Now, as a recruiter, the old-fashioned way of doing business would have been for me to call financial institutions and universities to see if I could find someone. But I used LinkedIn. The person who got me the candidate was the owner of a beauty parlor. One of her customers was married to the economist. Never in a million years would I have called beauty parlors in Columbus to look for an economist. But through LinkedIn, that's how I found him. And that's the best example I can give of why you do not want to limit your network."

Jake Wengroff, founder and principal analyst with social business consulting firm JXB1, noted that this issue is not a new one. In fact, he said, it's been divisive for years, and it's an issue that people may change their minds about, depending on where they are in their careers: "Closing yourself off to people may make sense when you are happily, gainfully employed, but what happens when circumstances change?" he said.

He added that connecting to strangers improves search results on LinkedIn, especially when searching for jobs -- as connections increase, so do job listings.

That said, Wengroff and others noted, it's important to do some level of digging when you get an invitation from someone you don't know -- especially when their profile information is scant.

"When I receive an invitation from a stranger," said Wengroff, "I find the email alert in my external inbox and send a reply message with a short note saying, 'Hi, thank you for the invitation to connect on LinkedIn. How did you find me?' This helps in determining whether it's a good idea to connect with the stranger. It's been hit or miss, but I have met about a dozen such strangers who took the time to craft original messages and explain why they wanted to connect with me."

Hurwitz said he accepts all invitations to connect, with a few exceptions.

"I accept invitations from everyone," he said. "If I have a competitor who wants to connect with me, I have no problems with that. They will receive tweets and updates about what I am doing, and that's how I build my reputation in my industry. I do not, however, accept invitations from individuals with provocative photos or who are members of the 'adult film industry.' That's because I care about my reputation."

What's your cutoff for connecting on LinkedIn? Do you have to know (or know of) the person who is making the invitation, or do you throw caution to the wind to grow your network as much as possible? Please let us know in the comments section below.

Follow Deb Donston-Miller on Twitter at @debdonston.


re: LinkedIn: When To Say No To Connecting

Timely article, I just received my first LinkedIn 419 scam, but with a decidedly "American" twist. I tend to be more of an open networker, due to the nature of my role, but I do make sure that they are either in my discipline, OR we have common contacts before accepting. Looks like I'll have to be more judicious on the first screen....

re: LinkedIn: When To Say No To Connecting

A local competitor has already lifted some of my website's phraseology onto his own and has just asked to connect on linkedin. My view is that I have nothing to learn from him but that he has something to gain from me. So, I refused his offer - largely on the gounds that his fairly overt plagiarism of my site leaves me with worries as to his ethics. 

re: LinkedIn: When To Say No To Connecting

A local competitor has already lifted some of my website's phraseology onto his own and has just asked to connect on linkedin. My view is that I have nothing to learn from him but that he has something to gain from me. So, I refused his offer - largely on the gounds that his fairly overt plagiarism of my site leaves me with worries as to his ethics. 

re: LinkedIn: When To Say No To Connecting

My LinkedIn approach is to only connect with people I know, people who have introduced themselves via a mutual contact, or with whom I have had a longtime dialogue via social networks. I think your LinkedIn connections reflect upon you. Frankly I am surprised to hear the point of view that you should connect with people you don't know to expand your reach. I do that via Twitter, but I think of LinkedIn as closer to the vest.

Let's hear your approach.

Laurianne McLaughlin

re: LinkedIn: When To Say No To Connecting

I don't connect with companies using a personal profile. They should know that it's against LinkedIn policy for entities to have personal profiles. I also don't connect with folks outside the U.S. that I don't know and have absolutely nothing in common with. I prefer to connect with local people as that's where my target market is. I will connect with non-local folks if they are an industry influencer or someone who provides valuable content.

re: LinkedIn: When To Say No To Connecting

I have always been an open networker, as I find it can help you connect with like-minded people in your field whom you might never have met, as the article mentions. For example, I have connected with alumni from my college whom I never met in person or even knew during college, but ended up helping one of them obtain a position at my previous company because she was a very good fit.

Obviously, it is good to be selective, but I think there are still opportunities for you to maintain your desire to be an open networker and be smart about it. Lately, I have noticed the number of spam invitations has increased. But taking a few extra minutes to research the person, look at their profile, and determine their true intentions goes a long way to protect you.

re: LinkedIn: When To Say No To Connecting

Interestingly, Don Peppers has posted a Linkedin influencers article today entitled "How to find opportunities in your social network" and fits in nice with this piece.

Many associates find it interesting the someone in the people business, as I am, is not an "open net worker". They are surprised to hear, or see, that someone who has been on LinkedIn since the beginning usually only has between 12-1500 connections. I actually purge my connection list quarterly. The first to go are those who connect but do not share their connections. To me the purpose of connecting is to share. If you are going to ask to connect then you should also be sharing who you are connected with and not blocking them from your other connections. To me this is the "life blood" of LinkedIn, connecting.

If think the authors have gone a little over board regarding identity theft concern. Yes, it happens. It has always happened. It is just easier with the internet and people posting too much personal information. For me the word is professionalism. Keep your profile and posting professional and you will help to minimize your identity theft risk and increase your reputation on LinkedIn.

re: LinkedIn: When To Say No To Connecting

This is a crucial concern in my opinion and it comes up almost every day for me when I view my email. The question is what does connecting with someone we don't know and have no 1st/2nd/3rd person connections with do to our reputation which we work very hard to protect on LinkedIn. I think the answer is constantly changing for me. I am starting to think that kschuster3271 is correct that its about staying professional and honoring the task we have as professionals which is to help others connect to better opportunities. Our reputation isn't the only thing that is in jeopardy here. We are risking the possibilities that might not occur in the workplace if we choose to restrain LinkedIn's "lifeblood". Let's leave the more intense scrutiny to HR and be a part of LinkedIn's "life force".