Networking can be the key to finding success in your desired field of employment, and, thanks to a arsenal of tools like Facebook and Twitter, reaching out to colleagues and potential employers for advice and support is easier than ever. Problem is, those are often the same tools we use to ask people out on dates, which has turned many strictly professional attempts at networking into embarrassing, one-sided amorous encounters.
Take the tale of my friend Alex. When an out-of-office male coworker asked him to drinks, he thought nothing of it. “I’m notoriously naive when it comes to these things in the first place,” he admits. He quickly realized his coworker had asked him to drinks under the assumption it was a date. “It was pretty awkward. Especially because it was only when I mentioned my girlfriend that he realized it wasn’t a date, so it was sort of a double whammy.”
Alex’s experience is by no means unique. In fact, the first thing to realize about Alex’s story is it happens to everyone. The fact that many will use flirtation—and even sex—as a tool to get ahead in the workplace has kept the guise of networking a nebulous one. Do you walk the line and use sex as a means to get ahead or do you let the person down and potentially burn an important bridge?
The trick is to avoid this awkward misunderstanding in the first place. And that begins with honesty, says John Crant of New York-based networking group Out Professionals. “Be upfront and open about your intentions. Yes, we are eager to set up networking meetings, but we benefit more if everyone understands the correct basis for the meeting.” He says that to use flirtation at any part of the networking process is to run the risk of sending the wrong signals when it matters.
Keeping things vague will only open up the door to miscommunication and land you in a difficult spot. State that you would like to meet so as to learn more about your chosen field and talk about how you might advance to the next level. Arrange in-office visits or daytime coffee over dinner or drinks, and, if there is particular concern, opt for a group meeting instead of a one-on-one. By being confident and clear about your goals upfront you’ll also help to showcase your strong communication skills.
And if they still think it is a date, let them down easy. “An individual’s feelings are involved here, so it’s no time to be trite,” says Crant. “If you find yourself in this unfortunate situation you should give a heartfelt apology and let them know about your misstep, along with what you were hoping to accomplish with the discussion. I would hope that you’d also be picking up the tab.”
But what if the tables are turned? What if you are the one who wants it to be a date and aren’t sure if you’re reading the other person’s signals right. “Remember, at the beginning of most ‘getting to know yous’ our internal distrust meters are set to high,” says Bradford Noble, a life coach specializing in dating and relationships. “If you act like a user, you will get used or at the very least sniffed out.”
While it may be tempting to just “see what happens,” it is important to be as honest about your intentions as possible. Use the word “date” or indicate you’d like to “share a romantic evening.” Take the conversation out of a work environment as soon as possible, like correspondence from personal emails rather than work ones. (Asking someone out on Linkedin is, for certain, the lamest way to communicate your desire. Don’t ever do it.) The more uncertain you are of or their intentions the more important it is to emphasize yours. To try and transition a networking meeting into a romantic encounter could spell disaster. “If you have ulterior motives they will eventually come to light and when they do it will inevitably degrade the trust in the relationship you are trying to build,” explains Noble.
As for Alex, he says he is a little less naive now but isn’t sure he won’t misread signs again. “It’s hard in New York. You want to have dinner with someone platonically one-on-one and they misconstrue it as a date.” At least he knows the girlfriend line works like a charm.
Benjamin Solomon is a freelance writer based in New York City. He was most recently the Editor-in-Chief of Next Magazine. He has contributed to Vanity Fair, Playbill, Details, Out Magazine, Time Out New York, Today.com and has appeared on Biography Channel, East Village Radio and in Wallpaper magazine. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @benjaminsolomon.