Work advice: Rules of disengagement
Q: I recently bumped into a gentleman on the street and was involved in a brief, professional discussion. Business cards were exchanged, and I assumed that might be the last of the interaction. Since then, he has called and emailed several times for a lunch meeting. I'm not sure what the meeting would be for; we are not in similar fields. Today, he called three times. I finally answered on the third call and politely refused a lunch invitation, saying I had work commitments to complete before heading out of the country. He was nothing but polite, but I am kicking myself for sharing that much information. He seems like a perfectly nice person, but all the calls were overwhelming and unwelcome. How can I politely cut off contact?
A: Your fields are unrelated, yet he's pushing for a lunch meeting while giving no hint about what he wants to discuss. To be perfectly crude about it, this gentleman seems to want to make it his business doing pleasure with you.
I would say, hey, can't blame a guy for trying -- except for the intensifying barrage of calls and emails. That's counterproductive in a business context and creepy in a personal one. At minimum, he's not respecting your time. (Ever heard of voice mail, dude?) If this were purely a professional situation, you wouldn't be struggling to justify avoiding this "perfectly nice person." And avoiding him is what your instincts appear to be screaming at you to do.
If he calls again, go ahead and give him a chance to prove me wrong: "It was nice meeting you, but I'm not sure what I can help you with. Are you looking for opportunities at [my firm] or contacts in [my field]?" If he says yes, hand him off to a recruiter or HR person and wish him luck.
If he confesses to non-career-related motives: "Oh, I see. That's very kind, but I'm going to have to decline." No details, no made-up partner, nothing to suggest you might be amenable when you're less busy or next week or, like, ever. Then get off the phone.
Once you've closed that door, ignore future knocks. Screen your calls, save all past and future messages from him, and consider letting your company's receptionist/HR team/security personnel know what's going on, in case he decides to pop by for a surprise visit.
Finally, as a devoted apostle of the gospel of advice columnist Carolyn Hax, I urge you to buy, borrow or download Gavin de Becker's "The Gift of Fear." Your instincts know the difference between networking and stalking. That book will put you in touch with them.
• Karla L. Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office.
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