Short version: I was asked by someone I hardly knew to put them in touch with someone in my professional network. I gave them a name, but I now feel uncomfortable with it. For the next time:

How to politely refuse to put someone in touch with my professional network?


Background

I am a young academic, teaching in executive education (i.e. to people older than me). Through my personal network, my studies, and previous professional experience, I have professional contacts in the industry. These contacts are public (on LinkedIn).

The other day, I was informally talking with a student (who has 10y+ work experience) during a university's reception. This student wanted to transition from one field to another (in which I have multiple contacts).

He asked me if I knew someone in his new field (I used to work in) and if I could put him in touch with them.

Problem

I genuinely answered that I know people in the field he wants to transition to (answering no would have been awkward as I happened to worked in this field), and ended up giving him the name of a friend/contact in this field. (I didn't play the go-between, just gave him a name — without making explicit whether he could say "{ebosi} said I could contact you (on their behalf)" or just "{ebosi} told me about you".

However, I don't feel comfortable, as I didn't know this student at all (the reception was for all master's student and he's in a class I don't teach to). I felt like I somehow put my reputation into play for someone I'm not sure I want to.
Moreover, I'm not sure about his intentions (just asking for a candid 20mins talk to better know the field, or aggressively asking for work) — I know it's my fault for not having check that beforehand, though.
The fact he send me an email after 36h saying "your contact hasn't answered me" make me fear he might be toxic… and thus harm my relationship with this industry contact.

Question

To avoid this unpleasantness in the future, I am wondering

How to politely refuse to put someone in touch with my professional network?

I am not comfortable with the idea of saying "I don't know anyone in this field" when it's an blatant lie.

For having answers useful to a larger amount of people, please consider cases where you don't want to put the person in touch because:

  • you don't really know the person who is asking (e.g., you've just met them at a cocktail party),
  • you already know the person who is asking (e.g. a coworker, student, personal friend) and have motives (legitimate or not) for not wanting to put them in contact with your professional network (e.g., toxic person, would make you look bad, don't want to bother your contacts, …).
  • 2
    Why not swap roles? What would you hope would happen if you were in their shoes? – Strawberry Nov 17 at 11:21
  • 3
    @Fattie your wishes, my command (-; – ebosi Nov 18 at 10:24

10 Answers 10

up vote 157 down vote accepted

If you must decline, I would simply say,

"I'm sorry, I don't know you well enough to introduce you."

If you do know them and simply don't want to open up your network...

I'm sorry, but I cant think of anyone in my network who would be able to help you.

Of course, that is the truth, as once you told anyone of your misgivings, they wouldn't be able to help the person.

If you don't want to refuse them outright, tell the person that you will talk to a few of your contacts and see if any of them would be interested in speaking to someone, then call your more friendly contacts and ask.

Don't lie to the person and don't make excuses as that would be both dishonest and unprofessional.

Personally, I do give people access to my contacts, but I am clear with both the contact and the person about it.

Hi, Joe. I met this fellow last night who is interested in your industry, I don't know him, but he'd like to get into widget manufacturing, can I give him your contact info.

Then I get back to the person and let them know what Joe said.

  • 37
    For the case of "you don't really know the person who is asking" I'm usually asking the person to tell me why they want to get in contact with my network. If they don't have a good explanation, I'm telling them they should think about it before asking me. If they do have a good-sounding "sales pitch" (e.g. a job search with good qualifications, a good business idea, etc…), I'm then in a better position to pass it further and maybe even benefit myself from doing so. – liori Nov 16 at 12:59
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    In a situation like this, I would also rather ask for the student's contact info and give it to my professional contacts. That way the person you want to stay on good terms with isn't pestered unless they initiate the conversation. – David K Nov 16 at 13:33
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    @DavidK I wouldn't. That's putting the burden of reaching out onto my contacts. – Richard U Nov 16 at 13:45
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    @RichardU "the burden" or rather "the decision". If a contact is interested to reach out, this small burden is not a problem, if he's not, then he could decide about it. – Mayou36 Nov 17 at 9:58
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    @RichardU it does: you mentioned that this puts the burden on the contact and while this is of course true, I've added that this also gives the contact the possibility to decide whether he want's to reach out or not and not just get's contacted (or not at all). So the burden is one side of the medal, but the possibility (and freedom to decide whether) is the other. Besides having someone showing up with: "hey, I've met a guy who is interested in what you do, here's his address" I usually like and don't see it too much as a "burden". – Mayou36 Nov 17 at 16:05

From my own experience below, I've found the safest solution is to, in a way, shift responsibility to the people who the student wants to contact. Instead of flat-out refusing to give them contact details, suggest instead that you will enquire as to how your contacts would feel about meeting the student. By doing this, you are respecting your contacts while not giving your new acquaintance a definite "no". This even gives you the chance to iterate that "many of us don't respond quickly - if at all - to out-of-the-blue requests for introductions". This will also gently lower the student's expectations of a response without coming across as being deliberately unhelpful. Whether or not you actually do reach out to your contacts after this is up to you.

Spend enough time in one profession and you will inevitably gather a network of useful contacts that someone else may want to take advantage of. I work in software development, which in my city, is a relatively small field where everyone is perhaps linked by one or two degrees of separation. With this knowledge in mind, some people have approached me asking if I can put in a "good word" for them or asking if I know anyone in a certain company, which in the case of the latter, half the time I usually do. Most of the time, I believe they mean well and just want to start / advance their career, but I'm not comfortable giving away a person's contact details along with the "Kozaky said I could..." addition. So I just say to them, "I'll ask if they are looking for anyone right now, but you're really better off checking their vacancies page." On a case by case basis, I'll decide if it's truly to my contact's benefit to know this person.

  • 5
    The problem with suggesting that you will inquire with your contacts means that the requester will still expect something from you. This is especially an issue if you don't plan to ask, since you already don't feel comfortable. Thus you'll be leaving the requester hanging with no intention of help. Plus the requester may continue to ask you for updates. – Bort Nov 16 at 19:08
  • 1
    This idea is wrong because you're taking on someone else's problem or plan which is strictly their own business, becoming a middle party, which you should not be. That's just all - i do not understand what's the problem to just say no? Really, i am interested in this thinking – Croll Nov 16 at 20:03
  • 1
    Typically I too would have just said "no" but the original post seemed to suggest that the student would not react well to such a blunt response. In times I have used this approach, the interested person almost never follows up on it. Have you experienced otherwise? – Kozaky Nov 19 at 8:08
  • @Bort as the question reports at the end, even when handing out a contact the requester still expects something of you. You can never get away from them :-) – gbjbaanb Nov 19 at 16:14

How [do I] politely refuse to put someone in touch with my professional network?

Giving a random stranger direct access to your personal or professional network should feel uncomfortable.

The issue isn't just that your reputation may be on the line by implicitly supporting this stranger, whom you know nothing about; the issue is also that you've not received consent from those in your network to be introduced to this random stranger.

Fortunately there is a tried-and-true method for introductions that sidesteps this issue entirely.

It's called the "Double Opt-in Introduction".

It works by first receiving consent from both parties before making any introduction or sharing any contact information. This verifies that both people are genuinely interested in the introduction and that you're not about to accidentally waste your friend/colleague's time (or worse, help their stalker get their address).

In your case it changes the entire interaction.

Instead of

Random Stranger: do you know someone in [my new field] that you could put me in touch with?

you: Yes, here's some contact info!

or

you: Sorry, I don't know you well enough.

it becomes

Random Stranger: do you know someone in [my new field] that you could put me in touch with?

you: I'll look into it. Do you have a card or contact information so that I can get back to you if they're interested?

With this change in the interaction you're now in control of the situation and haven't had to do something that makes you uncomfortable.

It's then on you if you decide to reach out to others to determine if they're interested in meeting this random stranger.

you to colleage: Hi [name], I met [random stranger] who was interested in meeting someone in [shared field] so I thought you two might be interested in chatting. Let me know if an introduction would be helpful.

If they respond positively, you can then make the introduction. If they respond negatively, you can then send a polite email back to the random stranger.

Hey [random stranger], I reached out to a few of my colleagues working in [field] but unfortunately they weren't interested in a discussion at this time. Sorry I couldn't be of more help, and best of luck.

Even with this final rejection, you're letting the random stranger down easy. You've shown that you've tried to be helpful, and if they want to be angry at anyone they can be angry at the nameless colleagues who weren't interested in meeting them.

  • 5
    This approach is fair to everyone involved except the person who gets asked (the OP), who then ends up with an extra likely-useless bit of mental state to juggle and follow up on. – R.. Nov 18 at 16:30
  • Keep I'm mind, you don't have to actually follow up. You can take their contact information and promptly "forget" to follow up if you don't want to. It's certainly passive aggressive, but it avoids an uncomfortable response of "no I won't help you". – zzzzBov Nov 19 at 3:26
  • @R.. Giving up your seat in a bus to an elderly lady is also fair to everyone except yourself, so what? Being nice does come at a price. – Dmitry Grigoryev Nov 19 at 8:41
  • @DmitryGrigoryev: I don't see how being nice to someone who has a genuine need and being nice to someone who's violating others' boundaries in hopes of personal gain are related... – R.. Nov 19 at 15:40

In your place I would simply say that I respect privacy of my contacts and I'd suggest the person who's asking to use LinkedIn or another website/event.

The main concern (moral or even legal) is sharing personal information of your industry contacts.

  • 5
    @ebosi Sharing someone's private email definitely violates their privacy. Corporate email as well unless it's publicly available somewhere. Name combined with employer is definitely personal data since it (easily) leads to exact identification of said person. – Simon Nov 16 at 11:34
  • 1
    Individuals share personal information about others all the time. It's a key function of networking and it is effective. The problem here is one of appropriate context. The OP was taken advantage of after inadvertently dropping a name to someone that doesn't seem to understand what is appropriate and what is not. Introductions should be done with tact and with the advance cooperation of the VIP contact. – teego1967 Nov 16 at 14:26
  • 1
    @teego1967 Hopefully even people without good manners will realize that it's not ok to share someone's personal information every time somebody asks. Explaining why context isn't appropriate can be complicated. – Simon Nov 16 at 15:15
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    For goodness sake. Don't hand out names (far less emails). Good grief. – Fattie Nov 16 at 15:47
  • 1
    It wouldn't bother me to get an additional private email message. It wouldn't help the sender, either. Unless there's an actual reason for me to read an email (like I know the sender) I'll probably just delete it unread. Even if I read it, I'll think it likely some sort of scam or pointless demand on me, because that's what emails with requests from people I don't know normally are. That's the other side of unsolicited email. – David Thornley Nov 16 at 18:12

You can ask them what specific aspect of the industry they are interested in, which normally would catch someone who is underprepared.

Then tell them the best way to network is to keep on attending industry events, because they're the best way to really understand the industry and the impact you can make in it.

Finally apologise and say you don't refer people who aren't in your class.

That makes it look helpful, gives advice, and safely answered the question directly.

Otherwise, to use Kozaky's answer as I couldn't put it better myself, for warm contacts: "I'll ask if they are looking for anyone right now, but you're really better off checking their vacancies page."

  • +1 "you don't refer people who aren't in your class", a nice way of partitioning who you would/would not help, and something a reasonable person would understand – cdkMoose Nov 16 at 17:16

Good answers already, I'll hit it from an angle.

I'd just refuse unless there was something in it for me. Information and contacts are things you've worked for quite often. No sense giving them away unless you can see an advantage to yourself in it.

I wouldn't be rude, but direct 'Sorry, but I don't do that'.

Up to them how they want to take it. If someone said that to me I'd just reply 'Fair enough' and get on with my life.

  • 6
    What if the OP is a nice person? I don't think they'd really be able to apply this advice. – Sneftel Nov 16 at 14:38
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    @Sneftel I'm a nice person, doesn't mean I'll let casual acquaintances take advantage of me. You take charge of life or it takes charge of you... having said that many people don't get to that stage until more mature years... or at all sometimes. – Kilisi Nov 16 at 14:42
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    @Sneftel nice to whom? This advice is the nicest of all to the person's contacts. It's also polite and honest with the supplicant. – Dawood ibn Kareem Nov 18 at 20:05

(Based on a comment by Thomas, who I think has come up with the perfect solution.) Normally I would agree to just say no, but since your position in teaching means this is likely to come up repeatedly, you can plan ahead. Make a connection with someone who's job it is to filter incoming hopefuls (i.e. a recruiter) and plan that if anyone asks you for a contact, you will send them to this person. They may even have business cards for you to hand out on their behalf.

They are able to weed out the chaff (it is their job) and they will actually be happy that you are widening their exposure.

  • Not only this, but you might get a small cut of the referral if you send enough people their way! – corsiKa Nov 18 at 6:06

Refer the enquirer to information that is publicly accessible but not readily discoverable. As an insider, you are in a far better position to "see the wood for the trees" among the glut of information available.

If pressed for contact information, advise your enquirer to consult the relevant public website/profile/directory, explaining politely yet firmly that you are not at liberty to give out private contact details (no reasonable person would be offended by this; if the enquirer is, he/she really needs to learn the rudiments of GDPR and/or other relevant data-protection legislation, as a matter of urgency).

In general, a fellow professional will not appreciate your giving out a personal telephone number to a stranger, unless the stranger were a potential customer... personally, as a freelancer in the UK, I am happy to receive a call from a stranger interested in engaging my services (and prepared to pay my rates -- in general, I do not tolerate attempts at haggling); on the other hand, I am definitely not happy to receive a call from a stranger trying to sell me something.

This is one of those many questions on how to politely refuse something to someone. Unless you owe that something to the supplicant, there is nothing impolite in the refusal itself, unless you phrase it rudely.

It's true that it is easier to refuse if you have an acceptable reason (in your case, that would be not knowing the right person), but if you don't have such a reason, don't try to make one up.

Generally I would have acted like you did, if I knew someone who works in field X and they wanted to know who, I would have told them. I mean that's not super secret information, maybe it will end up benefiting both of them in the end, it's no big deal.

But then I would send a message to the person I knew saying that I gave their contact details, to whom and why. Something like

Hey just a heads up, if you receive a message from some student Y soon then that was because he asked me for someone working in your field and I thought of you. I don't otherwise know him except for this one conversation at a uni reception, so don't think of this as my seal of approval or so. Hope to see you soon etc, me.

That's not really an introduction but it protects you from false claims of the student you didn't know and it ends your involvement there.

That the student later sends you a message saying your contact doesn't reply, well, that hardly needs an answer. Not your business.

  • Your answer is indeed relevant. It's what I actually did: telling my contact something like "well, I've ended up giving your name to this guy I had just met… I'm sorry if this bothers you". It's all set now as my contact is also a friend, so we're all good. But my email looked a bit like "I'm trying to fix my mess" and I didn't fell comfortable to impose this to the contact — hence wanting to find a better way to behave for the next time. – ebosi Nov 19 at 9:34

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