July 5, 2010    /    by

Social networks can redefine "guilty by association"

Earlier this week I received an email from an out of state friend and respected colleague who I haven't heard from in a while. He ...

Earlier this week I received an email from an out of state friend and respected colleague who I haven't heard from in a while. He got straight to the point. "I just discovered that I'm only three hops away on LinkedIn from one of the suspected Russian spies . But guess what, you're even closer. You're only two hops away."

 Put in the other terms, my (real life) friend was telling me that I was linked (had a connection which is similar to a "friend" on Facebook) to someone who had an online connection to one of the alleged spies. 

I immediately checked out my friend's facts. It was true. I had accepted an invitation last year to connect to a person who was in one of the security groups that I was also in. At the time, this individual wanted to make me aware of several "hot job openings" for senior executives in my field. That contact never went anywhere, but now I was kind of "guilty by association." I presume that many others are in the same boat, since the recruiter has thousands of LinkedIn connections.

This is not the first time something like this has happened to me. But the previous time, I was a bit more culpable. Once I gave an upbeat LinkedIn recommendation to a colleague that I knew well and liked as a person. This government staff member did good work and had a good reputation - until he committed a crime and went to jail. (It turned out that I didn't know him as well as I thought.) I quickly learned that I could undo (withdrawal) my online recommendation for this person, and I did so.

 As I researched "the good, the bad and the ugly of social networks" further, I found out that many HR professionals and lawyers have suggested that online recommendations are a bad idea in the first place. That is, recommendations are not recommended , for a variety of reasons. Even when there are no negative employee/boss situations that arise, some bloggers suggest that these recommendations can be seriously flawed - due to conflicts of interest. Some managers may even recommend staff so that they are more likely to leave.

So here I am on 4 th of July weekend, wondering if I should stop accepting LinkedIn invitations. Should I change my social networking habits? Should I stop connecting to other professionals online? I meet many people at conferences and often try to establish a connection with them on LinkedIn within the next month. Does this still make sense?

After more research, I've also discovered that LinkedIn has even clamped down on super connected users . Most experts say that quality matters more than quantity . And yet, I have always used LinkedIn as a good substitute for keeping track of business cards which can become out of date. Using LinkedIn, I can easily keep track of friends and colleagues that I worked with in England, back in Maryland and even former State of Michigan employees who move one.  This pattern has served me well, and best of all, my database of contacts updates itself with the latest contact information automatically.

What conclusion did I reach?  Should I fear being "guilty by association" online? Should I encourage others to stop using these social networking tools?  I've decided to march on - with a few minor modifications.

Why? If you're not guilty there is nothing to fear.  I think a consistent "middle of the road" approach still makes sense. As long as we don't go overboard with these tools, they can help us to become more productive, well-informed and (yes) connected.  They can even lead to new opportunities - like joining interesting online groups, speaking at conferences or writing for magazines.

Sure, we need to to keep an eye on how things evolve to protect our professional online reputation and our virtual integrity . But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. I say keep using social networking tools like LinkedIn, when supported by company or government policies.

Meanwhile you can ask me to connect online - but I might say no or hit that archive button.

How about you? Have any stories you can share about online "friends" or "connections" gone bad?