In its quest to deliver a more engagement-centered user experience, LinkedIn Corporation has made significant and sweeping improvements to its social networking platform. A more enabling technology with easier navigation, improved site aesthetics and innovations around content curation are sterling examples of LinkedIn’s commitment to strengthening the capabilities and marketing reach of its 250 million-plus citizens. But with the exponential growth that LinkedIn has enjoyed comes the need for more finely-tuned protocols, especially in the ways in which people connect and build cohesive networks. It all starts with a well-crafted and properly-framed LinkedIn invitation, one that provides a point of reference and gives impetus to connect.

HANDSHAKE Two Gray Stick Figures

On LinkedIn, everybody sets their own rules of engagement and carries out their own professional agenda. We assemble networks at our own rate, according to our own best judgment and commensurate with our ability to balance risk and reward.  As your professional network expands, you gain social proximity to more relevant people and increase your potential to make quality connections. Simply put, you become better positioned for business opportunities within the LinkedIn ecosystem.

Reviewing the LinkedIn profile of someone you have met in the real world (or discovered on the site) is the logical first step in laying a foundation for meaningful engagement. However, when it comes to vetting potential connections, intuition and compelling text in a LinkedIn profile will carry the process only so far. The only way to truly discern whether certain people merit inclusion in your LinkedIn directory is to get to know them on a deeper level.

The Etiquette of Connecting on LinkedIn

Just as in real world society, when it comes to online interaction, the adherence to the highest standards of integrity and ethical principles is vital to the responsible functioning of the entire community. Truth in representation, respect for others and accountability for actions shape the social business etiquette that is essential to LinkedIn’s mission. There are strict guidelines in place to ensure that members obey the rules. (If you haven’t perused the LinkedIn User Agreement in a while—or ever—I recommend it. It’s a great read.)

Businesspeople are connecting on LinkedIn in astonishing numbers. Despite the rampant use of the standardized, default invitation—a horrible breach of etiquette and a sin for which many dedicated LinkedIn users offer no absolution—when one party requests the honor of a connection with the other, it is implied as a genuine offer. (By now you should be well aware that personalizing the invitation to connect on LinkedIn is a best practice. It also gives people a shot at recalling you and how and where you met.)

There is a discrepancy that exists between the LinkedIn invitation platform and the ways in which professionals come together in the real world. LinkedIn recommends that you only should send invitations to the people you know well. Of course, you know that as you spend more time and engage more frequently on LinkedIn, you become tacitly aware of others, and vice versa. You will want to invite some of these folks to connect. Our networks are built on the leaps of faith we take in reaching out to people we think will be “good” connections, whether now or down the road. Conversely, we will give the benefit of the doubt on occasion to the invitation from a stranger. The unwritten rule of LinkedIn culture is that professionals connect with each other willingly, amicably and for the right reasons.

The Gray Areas of the LinkedIn Invitation

Think of how businesspeople meet other businesspeople in today’s so-called Relationship Economy. They attend networking events, conferences, symposia and trade shows.  They get introduced to each other. They exchange pleasantries, trade business cards and do lunch. Invariably, both parties consent to connecting on LinkedIn and an invitation from one or the other will be forthcoming.  Regrettably, the LinkedIn invitation platform does not take many of these first-encounter scenarios into account and the person sending the invitation is tasked with trying to squeeze out some context for the proposed connection.  Moreover, professionals are routinely introduced to each other sight unseen—usually via email—or referred by colleagues and clients on the premise that they will connect.  These interactions, too, are not addressed and fall outside the lines.  In social networking, the square peg does not fit in the round hole.

The LinkedIn engine is fueled by algorithm, inference and suggestion. Some of the invitations that you receive from others are generated through the LinkedIn assumptive model. The People You May Know feature warehouses a collection of professionals that LinkedIn “thinks” might be potential connections for you. Nice as these folks may be, you more than likely have no history with them. Some you might recognize and know, but they are not your colleagues, classmates, clients or friends. Although you have networks and interests in common, and share demographic characteristics, on what basis do you connect? Without knowing their rules of engagement on LinkedIn, you are taking a chance by sending an invitation. (In such cases, you are relegated from personalizing the LinkedIn invitation, a restriction that is highly counter-productive to catalyzing a meaningful relationship.)

“How do you Know This Person?”

In order to connect with another person on LinkedIn, you must first define the relationship at the point of invitation. At the time of this writing, these are the choices given to us in the LinkedIn invitation criteria in response to the question, “How do you know this person?”:

◦ Colleague

◦ Classmate

◦ We’ve done business together

◦ Friend

◦ Groups

◦ Other

◦ I don’t know this person

Some of these selections create a clear-cut basis for connecting. I have clients and students that continue to agonize over how they should assign status to their outgoing invitations, and view those they receive from others that do not fall into the declared relationship class as effrontery. You, too, might resent an approach on LinkedIn if the invitation is not personalized or does not accurately tag the relationship.

Additionally, the process is laden with contradictions:

♦ The mere presence of “I don’t know this person” in this list goes against the grain of a LinkedIn philosophy that encourages (mandates) us to connect with people we know and who know us. This option, which requires prior knowledge of the invitee’s email address, can also set one up for disaster by prompting the dreaded “IDK” (I don’t know this user) response, an invitation decline which is fed to LinkedIn. Collect 7 of these and your account will be suspended. (I have never used this option to connect, nor do I recommend it.)

♦ Stating you are a “friend” to someone when, in fact, you have never met them before, can be construed as deceptive. Claiming to “have done business with someone,” or be a “colleague” when, truth be known, you have never been in the same room together, can border on fraud in the opinion of some.  I know for a fact that many LinkedIn users constantly wrestle with this dynamic.  (The convention today is to opt for either “friend” or that you’ve “done business together” at your current company, and hope that the invitee will not be offended or view this as a false pretense. I am totally fine with people inviting me in this fashion.)

♦ A shared membership in a LinkedIn group is the least ambiguous and most unobtrusive route to take when connecting. Having one or more LinkedIn group memberships in common gives us a clear path to inviting others to connect and affords us with more affirmative social networking opportunities. (A case can certainly be made for ratcheting up your involvement in large LinkedIn groups. You will expand your reach to appropriate  sub-populations and enhance your connectivity.)


In order to account for the gaps in the current structure, and to cover the broad spectrum of how people come together in the course of commerce, I propose that the LinkedIn invitation checklist expand to include these two choices:

◦ Met at a networking event

◦ Introduced by a colleague, client or friend 

With this enhanced invitation platform, people would now be able to connect in a more fluid manner, without false labels or perceived misrepresentations, and provide the accurate back-story. There is great comfort in truth.

Now wouldn’t this make things so much easier?

About the author

J.D. Gershbein

©2014 by J.D. Gershbein. All Rights Reserved. Since 2006, JD Gershbein, CEO of Owlish Communications, has helped advance the collective awareness of LinkedIn and inspired opportunity-oriented professionals in all walks of business to step up and achieve on the site. His message fuses LinkedIn profile optimization, personal branding, respect-based social networking, marketing communication strategy and classical business development techniques with neuroscience and psychology. J.D. is one of the world’s top scholars on LinkedIn, a globally acclaimed speaker and frequent media contributor on social business strategy. He is also adjunct professor of marketing communications at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Stuart Graduate School of Business, where he is advancing social media marketing as an accredited field of study. His book “The LinkedIn Edge: Creating a Psychological Advantage in Social Business” is due out in summer 2014. Get more LinkedIn wisdom when you subscribe to JD’s blog. You are welcome to connect with JD on Google+, Twitter and of course,LinkedIn


12 Responses to “The ONE Enhancement on LinkedIn that Would Change EVERYTHING”

  • I fully agree that those options need to be added. Like you mention, the "friend" option is something I often find offensive (and potentially limiting), so most of the time I select "we've done business together". Also, from a linguistic perspective, having worked together isn't the same as having worked at the same company ("colleague"), or even that you've had a business relationship. Particularly for academics, the LinkedIn relationship options are inaccurate at best. By the way, the "I don't know this person" option refuses to let you connect. In other words, it's the only negative option on the list. All the others either require no further input or require an email address for the person you're connecting to. Yes, I've used all of them at one time or another.

  • J.D., I've long agreed that Linkedin needs a richer array of invitation options but, with 200+ Million members, the list of options has to be handled carefully else it could take on the proverbial "feature creep" which plagues so many development projects. That in mind, I'd propose a simpler fix: OTHER "OTHER" is a simple option which could handle far more than 200 Million members - and - provide Linkedin with trackable, user supplied information... (some of which may surprise even Linkedin's network analysts)

  • I think many LinkedIn neophytes (and even experienced users) may not realize how an IDK actually harms the sender. Most people also do not know about the "7 IDKs and you're suspended" rule. This should be better publicized. I have had the experience of trying to connect with someone I knew from long ago from LI's list of suggested contacts. It often does NOT give you the chance to customize the "let's connect" message. This is a terrible flaw in the system, leading to IDKs. My name has changed over the years and I do need to explain it to some people. I believe I have gotten some IDKs from people who were not aware of my name change.

  • I would like to be able to connect under a heading that conveys my thought that we may have: Mutual or shared interests, mutual goals, might mutually benefit, help one another, mutual support etc.

  • Thank you for your responses, folks, ~ all are spot-on! @Klaus: I appreciate how you have made the distinction between colleague and co-worker. Just because you see someone in the corridor, or say "Hi" at the water cooler every day, doesn't mean that you are colleagues. @Vincent: "Other" is a feasible option, providing that the requisite blank text field is supplied so that the person sending the invitation can frame the relationship properly (with a character limit, of course). @Sharon: Still, so many people are not aware of the IDK and its potential account liability. When declining an invitation to connect, simply click on "Ignore" and it's no harm, no foul. @Margaret: MUTUAL is one of the top social networking words. Showing one's proactive nature at the outset is an excellent approach, providing it is genuine and follow-up will be imminent.

  • Joseph Ned says:

    HI J.D. Good post. I often find the 'I don't know them' option perplexing too. Why is it even there? As for the suggested add-ins: I like the 'met at a networking event' option, but it would need some kind of constraint. Perhaps if LinkedIn added in an events application. Then you could choose the event from a drop down list, just how group selection works. I disagree with the 'Bob introduced us' option. The only see it as a viable connect if it goes through the person responsible for the introduction and allows them to 'ok' the invite before it goes to the intended.

  • Thanks JD. Great Blog. I agree with a lot here. For a site that is meant to help network, the idea that we need to "Know" the people we want to connect with seems to be a bit of an oxymoron. As a long-term LinkedIn user, I would add few other suggestions: Premium membership-In addition to charging for some extra would be great if one of the options of premium membership would be as a commitment to a PROCESS of networking. IE I am willing to pay for the concept of "I connected with you on LinkedIn and I am willing to set up a call to learn more about how our connection can help each other" LinkedIn can THEN kick people out of this premium (or perhaps just charge them more) if they are reported for connecting but NOT going to the next level of connection. I always send an invitation to connect in the "real world" when I invite, and I am SHOCKED how many people "Connect" but don't reach out...whats the point? Also I would add that while it can't be unlimited, the amount of characters you have to send an initial invite is currently way too short. You do need to have some ability to explain where you think that a connection can benefit both parties and it is tough to do in the characters allowed currently. I wind up spending lots of extra time trying to figure out a good message that fits....kind of annoying.

  • @Mike: Thank you for contributing your very thoughtful comments. You and I are cut from the same networking cloth. The sad reality is that most people don't operate the way in which you describe in your second paragraph. Moreover, LinkedIn cannot chastise people for actions or inactions that occur. They gave us the platform. We are supposed to provide the work-around. And, yes, I could use a few more characters in my invitation text. The 300 to which I'm limited sometimes isn't enough. This, of course, is a spam-cutting feature that LinkedIn introduced in fall 2009. Prior to that point, many overzealous users tried to ram a few paragraphs of sales pitch into their invitations. People complained. LinkedIn adjusted. So much of what we do on LinkedIn defeats the purpose. With a well-crafted, accurately-framed invitation, we create a purpose.

  • Sort of agree, BUT, I also happen to be one of the liberalists who accepts most invitations no matter how vaguely I may / may not remember a person. I'm not really sure how my connections on Linked In would exploit the fact that we are connected, and I'm not too wary of anything I say on the site going places I didn't mean it to. Might be just me, but visibility into the communities of people who share work relationships (even if not strong enough to be "people I know well") is very valuable. Refusing the compliment of someone hoping to know you better seems jsut seems anti-linkable.... If people are spending time agonizing over which hair to split on how they know someone, maybe there should just be an easier way to UN-Link someone when an acquaintance becomes a bother. (I haven't spent time looking, but IS there a way to divorce a Linked In connection???)

  • @Mark: Yes indeed. If you go into your Connections tab, on the right-hand side you will see "Remove Connections." Click there, it will take you to your address book with boxes next to each name. Check the box(es) of the connection(s) you wish to remove, click on the blue badge and--Voila! The connections that you remove will be none the wiser--that is, they won't know that they've been removed from your network (unless, of course, they realize it on their own). This feature, for whatever reason, is currently disabled for me and countless other LinkedIn users. I have a ticket pending in LinkedIn tech support and hope the problem is resolved soon. Purging connections is an important part of LinkedIn network management.

  • Lisa says:

    Sounds like hard work on your part-- Somewhere along the blogroad, I've read a lot of not-so-positive vibe on this issue, but still I'm not "giving up" guess I'm right after all...

  • Wow. VERY well said and I Love the two options you have ideas for..