LinkedIn & Social Professionalism: What Norms ARE the Standards of Conduct?

*Originally published on LinkedIn March 21st, 2019.

Hello World! Thanks for your view! The purpose of this article is to solicit all the feedback I can get; my hope, though, is that others – in my network and beyond – can also benefit from any discussions that this write-up might generate. Thanks in advance for any comments – I’ll appreciate learning your point of view much more than just your view.

If your LinkedIn feed is like mine, you’ve no doubt at least seen the picture above (minus the emoji) and perhaps are one of the million+ people (like me) who have read, liked, and/or commented on the associated article by Adam Prybelski. He makes a great main point: clearly, the purpose of LinkedIn as a tool for “professionals” means that certain content (which may be a perfect fit for posting on Facebook or other social media platforms) is NOT the right type of content for posting here on LinkedIn. Michael Spencer delves deeper into this topic in his article published a few months later. He points out some specific behaviors and examples of LinkedIn misuse which concerns him as soiling and diluting this platform, “dumbing it down” to Facebook’s level. His points are well taken too, and its not difficult to spot most things that are clearly unacceptable on LinkedIn and/or not in keeping with the acceptable content policies.

However, LinkedIn is, very clearly, a social media platform. The whole concept of “marketing yourself as a brand” and gaining notoriety as an “influencer” or “thought leader” is based on metrics quite similar to those associated with building fortune and fame for Instagram “professionals,” right? More and more job application platforms these days put LinkedIn under the category “social media” rather than “job board” in their drop down menus when asking “how did you hear about this position?” as well. The categorization of this platform as social media clearly has blurred the lines when it comes to the “right” and “wrong” ways to do LinkedIn. So what are they??? Let’s reach what level of consensus we can, if any consensus is possible.

I consider myself a rookie of sorts to using the full power of LinkedIn as a tool for its intended purposes. Perhaps I’m simply ignorant to understanding the more subtle acceptable and unacceptable practices, customs, and courtesies of this awesome platform that everyone else already knows. Nonetheless, from my rookie point of view there is great disparity in how professionals at all levels use LinkedIn, and what conduct might be viewed as “right” or “wrong” in certain contexts. Below, I’ll share some examples, opinions, and ask some questions to solicit YOUR point of view as to what is proper, what is acceptable, and what things are really not cool to do on LinkedIn. Perhaps together we can solve this mystery.

Quick Background

Before going further, I must share some facets of my background which set the stage for writing this article. I am an executive level professional whose career spans 21 years. However, I spent most of those years in the Army. I only began using LinkedIn in late 2015 as part of my preparation to transition from continued service and join corporate America. In the Army, LinkedIn is simply not necessary as a means of making career moves. While by no means perfect or completely immune from abuse, the Army’s systems for assignments, promotions, and career development truly are designed for meritocracy, transparency, fairness, and based on standards and requirements that provides opportunity for every Soldier who is capable and motivated to achieve their goals… without needing LinkedIn to do so. LinkedIn has little to no bearing on the livelihood of Servicemembers with the DoD.

I did well to find myself a fitting role as I transitioned out the Army in 2016, but I was only on the job market for a short period of time. I really only “dipped my toe” into understanding and wielding the power of LinkedIn at that time. I found the role I took on without using LinkedIn as a tool in that process at all. Nowadays I’m an executive and leader who’s engaging in only his second job search ever and I’m finding that the key to getting myself at least “a look” for roles on par with what I bring to the table requires that I’ve got to be more effective using LinkedIn. It is what it is, and I’ve got no beef.

I imagine many Veterans end up confounded and stifled in their job searches as a result of having not used LinkedIn for the number of years that their civilian peers have been using it while they were in the Service. What’s more, I’d bet that the youngest generation of entry level and/or early civilian career professionals who are very used to using other social media platforms also have some friction finding their bearings as to what’s okay to do on LinkedIn. While there’s obviously a spectrum of opinions on what’s okay and what’s not when it comes to nuances that are simply based on the spectrum of personalities in the world, I’m curious to know what do YOU see as acceptable norms and/or rude behaviors when it comes to “proper” LinkedIn custom?

What’s Proper Connecting Etiquette?

While I was finishing my bachelor’s degree from 2005-2007, Facebook and Myspace were really starting to blow up. A good friend of mine at the time was one of those guys who would say/ask just about anyone he might meet around campus: “I’ll Facebook you, ok?” He was constantly seeking to connect online with anyone and everyone he encountered IRL and had any level of positive interaction with at all for 10 seconds or more, it seemed. I’ve found many people approach connecting on social media platforms like Facebook in this same way. My approach to “Facebooking” has always been the opposite. To this day 99.9% of my Facebook friends are people I really know and have real ties to, rather than people I’ve simply met in passing. I’ve approached LinkedIn the same way as well, to a degree, but I’m realizing that my approach thus far has underutilized the power of this platform. Although, clicking “connect” on every profile I encounter also wouldn’t be the “right” way to network either. What’s the happy medium?

Prior to this last month, my LinkedIn network had been comprised almost exclusively of people I actually know personally or have real professional experience with as a team mate, business partner, or recruiters I have worked with. Its not much different now, but over the last month I’ve begun to expand my network. As I’ve been doing that, my approach has been to send connection requests to people I actually know or to people in organizations or roles that I’m interested in knowing more about as a career next step. My results have been mixed. However, I have come across many profiles where the connection count vs. career details were so incongruent as to suggest that some significant amount of people on LinkedIn do simply click, click, and click “connect” indiscriminately.

When I reach out to connect with someone I don’t know, I always (~99.9%) include a message with it to explain why I’m seeking to connect. However, I’ve gotten connect requests from strangers without any such courtesy and also had connection requests accepted from people that I failed to send with a message alongside it. What’s right and/or wrong? Is it the norm to include a message when connecting with a stranger? Or is it more the norm to send “blank” (no message included) connection requests? I’ve accepted blank connection requests from strangers, messaged them asking what motivated them to reach out to me, and been puzzled when they don’t respond. Should I disconnect from them? I’ve also been puzzled in some cases when strangers have taken my connection requests but didn’t respond to questions I asked them in my connect-request message. Do people read the messages that come with the connection request? Overall, statistically, I’ve found it to be more the norm that people don’t communicate alongside connecting with strangers than they actually do. What’s your experience been? What “rules” do you follow when it comes to connecting with people you don’t actually know?

What are “Proper” Motivations for LinkedIn Use?

Social media, in general, is the “wild west.” Realistically, though, interacting online is just like anything in “real life.” That is, you’re interacting with all the same people from all walks of life that you might just as easily encounter on the street… popular ones, awkward ones, rich, poor, outgoing people, introverted people, criminals, politicians, scholars, philanthropists, et cetera… every “kind” of person with all kinds motivations are online. All the same things go on online as they do in the world. Just like in the “real” world, though, generally people do take their motivations to the “right” place to indulge them. For example, while people do meet and start dating from first connecting on Facebook, most people whose motivation is to find romance online will go to a more fitting platform appropriate to their motivation, such as Match or Tinder. What’s the right motivation for LinkedIn activity?

At a macro level, I consider the following to be the prevailing motivations and/or types of users that are the “proper fit” I expect to find networking on LinkedIn: job searching and recruiting, sales and business development, marketing and news, and (of course) content/idea sharing from everyone here (centered around business and/or industry in some way). I’ve read that the purpose of LinkedIn is to “find opportunity.” That point of view is succinct and well put. However, here’s what I see as the distinguishing factor of LinkedIn from other social media: livelihood. Its true that other social media platforms are used by people and businesses for purposes of enhancing their livelihood as well. However, no other social media platform’s primary purpose centers around its users’ livelihood as deliberately and solely as LinkedIn does. No matter how you slice it, LinkedIn is truly a platform driving capitalism, no?

Whether you agree with that point of view or not, here’s what I’d like know: do you expect / accept different standards of conduct correlated to people’s motivations? For example, I might expect someone who is a recruiter to accept and/or request blank connections in a “click, click, click” fashion because it makes sense for their career to “see” as many profiles as possible. However, if a sales person is reaching out in hopes of starting an organizational business relationship, I would expect way more convention to their approach. Right? What else? Dating? Do people use LinkedIn to date? What things are acceptable or not depending on the role and motivation of the person doing it from your point of view? I’ve seen professional athletes with LinkedIn profiles… if they posted highlight videos from their game as self promotion or some kind of business related analogy, is that unacceptable? What are the hard maxims and boundaries that vary depending on the user’s role and motivation?

What’s the Really Bad Stuff?

In the sections above I’ve brought up examples that really approach this overall topic with kiddie gloves. However, I’m certain that there’s quite a bit more to unpack when it comes to the potential harmful use of LinkedIn through misconduct. For example, connecting with someone to share information you shouldn’t, legally, is really bad. Think about RFPs, bids, etc. What rules should professionals follow on LinkedIn to steer clear? What kinds of policies have you experienced in your organizations centered around LinkedIn?

I’ve been told that some companies restrict (by policy) HR people from connecting or engaging with candidates at all on LinkedIn because it can be viewed as unfair to the hiring process. However, I don’t see this as the norm since most job applications solicit LinkedIn info from applicants for the purpose (I think) of viewing their profile as part of their hiring assessment. Personally, I like that. I want hiring people to check out my profile because I can showcase more here than I can on my resume. However, I’ve heard about all kinds of potential for discrimination in hiring practices due to LinkedIn. Universally, advice for jobseekers on having a “winning LinkedIn profile” encourages that everyone should have a picture posted. But doesn’t that open the door for discrimination based on gender or race? I hope LinkedIn isn’t being used that way, but I’ve been around long enough to know that someone undoubtedly is up to no good like that. What other types of behavior are unethical and are truly the greatest threats to the kind of culture we hope to have here on LinkedIn? What rules (whether self imposed or externally) do you follow in consideration of ethical or legal morality concerns?

Final Thoughts

Culture is (loosely) defined as the customs & norms tied to a particular social group. Most people I know and talk to about LinkedIn like that the culture of the social group of users we have here is unique to this platform and distinguished from the type of conduct we see elsewhere (like Facebook). I’ve seen the picture in the header at the top (minus the emoji) enough times in my feed lately to realize that a lot of folks are getting frustrated with what the culture on LinkedIn seems to be becoming. However, I haven’t seen much consensus on what’s okay and what’s not to be certain that we collectively understand our identity as a community universally.

The way to affect what the culture on LinkedIn will be in the future is to be more clear and in sync across the board within our community of users about what the do’s and don’t really are. Everyone knows that IRL if you fart in a way that’s gonna be noticed, you should at least say “excuse me.” LinkedIn manners are not as well understood (by all) as is the etiquette for flatulence, as far as I can tell. I hope to hear from YOU about your opinions on this topic whether its related to anything I’ve conveyed, or anything I’ve failed to address. What’s clearly okay or not? What’s murky? How SHOULD it be? Thanks for reading.

***if you have a point of view on any of this that you would like to share, but don’t want to do so publicly feel free to message me. I promise you on everything that I won’t betray your anonymity in anything I share. 100.

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