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I have two acquaintances, whom I have met under very different circumstances, and years ago we connected on LinkedIn. However, both of them (and myself) have ended up working in very similar roles, albeit they work for companies much larger than I do (and frankly companies I would love to work for).

Now, one of them I haven't really kept in touch with all that well since meeting (the odd message here and there, but nothing of late). The other, I actually grew up with his wife and she and I are friends on Facebook and have kept tabs on each other as we have settled down and had families of our own.

Would it be appropriate to reach out to both of them? I am tired of working for smaller companies - where upwards mobility is limited and want to work somewhere with room to grow and learn more! So I have decided to begin to look for work (but I am being picky because I want the right job). So, I am not aiming to ask them for a recommendation or reference, just tips and tricks to get past the computer screening of the applications.

If it is appropriate should I mention, that I am not looking for a reference? Or should that be left unsaid, and leave them to assume that.

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This seems to be entirely the purpose of LinkedIn. You should indeed mention that you're not looking for a reference. Especially in case of the acquaintance you don't know well and whom I assume doesn't know you well either, it could be awkward if they were to assume you're asking for a reference and it could cause them not to respond to you.

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