I have worked in Human Resources for 5 years and I am really proud of the work that I do; however, I found myself recently lying about my title and job duties to acquaintances. I find myself constantly being asked to help find people a job. I started working at a world renowned organization about 18 months ago and these requests are coming up a lot. So much so that friends of friends are starting to contact me. I’ve had two recent experiences where I was told off and made to seem like a terrible person because I didn’t help enough in landing those people a job. I guess providing links to job postings and offering suggestions to beef up resumes wasn’t what they were looking for. Any advice on how to handle these situations?

Well, it goes with the territory with just about any job. I get tons of requests from friends and family and friends of family, but to be honest, last week my 7 year old took a header on his bicycle into a wooden fence–which snapped in half due to the force of his head–and instead of taking him to the emergency room, I took him to our scheduled 4th of July party. Why? Because I knew our friend, Curtis, MD, would be there. He checked out my kid and then we barbecued things. Because, what’s more American than grilled food?

And so, while you and I might complain, sometimes you probably even hit up some of your friends for help. Here are some things to think about.

People don’t want help, they want solutions. I don’t do resume reviews for random readers, but I do for friends and relatives. I’ve probably done hundreds of these over the years. What I do is go over the resume and tell them where they can make improvements. I never actually rewrite the resume, though. I’ll then say, “If you want to make the changes I suggested, then send it back, I’ll give it a second look.” I can count on one hand the number of people who did this.

Everyone else was just hoping that I’d redo their resume for them. Not gonna happen. So, they disappear. The same thing with most referrals. I’ll introduce people and they don’t follow up. It happens. People think we have magical job hunting abilities, but we don’t. We may have more insight, but there’s still a ton of work and the only person who can do it is the job hunter.

You need to maintain your status as a friend first. Be clear when someone asks for help, just say what you can do. Don’t say, “Yes, I’ll help you get a job,” say, “I’ll submit your resume to the hiring manager, but since I haven’t worked with you, I can just recommend you as a friend. It’s up to the hiring manager to proceed.” Or, “Gosh, I’d love to help you, but I don’t have any special insights to that company. Have you thought about seeing if you have any LinkedIn connections?”

Then commiserate about how job hunting is awful. Maybe share some of your own job hunting horror stories. Don’t ever give the idea that you can get someone a job. Do the things that friends do, not the things that headhunters do.

Recognize that not everyone who claims to be a friend is a friend. 6 years ago, we moved from Pennsylvania to Switzerland. Switzerland has a high cost of living, and so we now live in a 900 square foot apartment. This was a huge change from our 3700 square foot home in PA. This small apartment means we have no guest room. No spare beds. A couple of couches, that’s it. When we first moved, people started crawling out of the woodwork. Cousins I hadn’t seen since they were in diapers. People I hadn’t talked to in 15 years. They all were dying to come to Switzerland. I responded to each the same way, “We’d love to see you! Unfortunately, we don’t have room for you to stay with us, but I can recommend a hotel or a youth hostel and we’d love to have you over for an authentic Swiss dinner!” None of these people actually ended up taking trips to Switzerland. We were only on their list because they thought they could get a European vacation without paying for accommodations.

You’ll find that people who want you to help them find a job are the same way. And, who can blame them? When you’re looking for a job, having an expert to help is awesome. And you can help them if you want because you’re nice. But, they aren’t your friends. Don’t forget that. Your friends are the people who would happily help you and who won’t get angry if you can’t.

Helping is difficult. Helping isn’t always as easy as being nice. Lots of people who would benefit from your expertise wouldn’t dare ask for help. Lots of people who won’t benefit from your expertise get angry at you for trying your best because your best didn’t land them their dream job. Some people you help, and pull in favors, and invest your time, and then they quit the new job after 2 weeks because the boss meanly wanted them to arrive on time every day. It’s frustrating.

Don’t give up, though. You help because you are a nice person. What people do with your help is their business.



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19 thoughts on “The Perils of Being Helpful

  1. This is your best post for me EVER. I am constantly being used by “friends” who turn out to be users pretending to me my friend. Most people want something for nothing (because I am in a strategic position to help various subgroups of people). Because I don’t curry favours for personal gain, it never occurs to me until it is too late that I have been buttered up again. When I say, “no, I cannot use my position to give you preferential treatment”, people have become REALLY angry, as if I have betrayed them.

    I am going to tattoo your insightful advice onto my prefrontal lobe. My bank account of helpfulness went bankrupt years ago because I could not differentiate people who pretended to be my friends but were actually using me, from real friends who actually like me for me. Nevertheless I still err on the side of trust. Frankly, this is almost delusional. Most people want something for nothing and increasingly I seem to be an end to a means. I just can’t bring myself to see this as a norm, but I think it is. (???)

    Now I am seeking strategies to fill up my bank account of trust in people. Am I being too cynical to respond to any request for my help with the question, “what’s in it for me?” Also, there must be a more PC of saying this. I am open to suggestions about how to say this with using the actual words, “what’s in it for me”?

    I’m not a mean or selfish person…. I’m just sucked as dry as a chip from years of being used by “friends for a day” because I don’t know how to set boundaries in a polite, “user-friendly” way. It’s as much my fault as theirs, but I’m damned if I kind find the words to prevent being used without sounding mercenary/mean to people who really are just using whatever means available to get a job/promotion (understandable, but not OK when I get at least one request per week from a “friend”). Everyone thinks they are a special case and the “only one”.

    In my life, I only ask for help if I am 100% desperate (like I think once in my entire life re doing some statistical analysis, and I’m 60) and I’m absolutely stumped by people who ask for help when they have made no effort at all, but have a great sob story. I just assume they are asking for my help as a last resort, when in fact I am the first gullible port of call. I need better people radar. Any advice?

    1. Instead of asking some version of “what’s in it for me,” I think you would be better off just asking yourself upfront, how much time and effort would you be willing to put in to help this person, assuming they don’t ever reciprocate. If your neighbor asks for help, maybe in the interest of maintaining a polite relationship you’d be willing to spend half an hour reviewing a resume. So do that. If they aren’t particularly grateful and don’t ever do anything to help you out, oh well, you didn’t expect anything anyway.

  2. This is wonderful advice. Remember to do the friend stuff first like empathizing. I love it.

    BTW: I’ve never been to Switzerland. Can I come visit?

    1. Absolutely! I can recommend lovely youth hostels and hotels (although, to be honest, I recommend the hostels over the hotels). I’ll even have you over for dinner.

      But, you can’t sleep here. Unless you’re jet lagged and fall asleep on the couch for 30 minutes. That’s okay.

  3. You just wrote about MY LIFE! I enjoy helping friends and family, however, I never do the work for them. I know they appreciate the assistance I offer and I havent had anyone appear to be ungrateful. And then yes, I send a picture of a rash to my dermatologist friends….is this measles?! And the patiently replies, because she is my friend. We all do it!

    1. Yep. We all do it. I don’t mind 99 percent of the time. I love to help people! But, sometimes it gets grating.

      My life is pretty good, though. I have a mother who’s a nurse, a brother-in-law who’s an accountant and a brother who’s a lawyer. Yay family! What I really want, though, is a relative who works for an airline and can get me free flights. Preferably not an American carrier.

  4. I’ve been reading your column for a couple of years now I think and even though I live in another country and within a different culture, I’d say 85 to 90% of your advice still applies.

    I found myself nodding to every sentence in this post. Thank you!

  5. I was never so popular as when I moved to Miami. Popular in January. Not in July.

    But now that I live where there is snow, even though I have a guest room with its own bathroom, nobody wants to visit. I don’t understand.

    1. I want to visit you. In the summer, though. I hate snow. I want to move to Miami.

        1. It would be fun. Alas, my trips to the US are few and far between and non-stop family. Gah.

          I mean, I love all my relatives!

  6. As one of those tech-type people, you can imagine how many requests I got over the years to help people with their computers. I stopped fixing computers (even for family) years ago. Some of it may apply to other professions but the two largest reasons were these:

    1. I’ll always be “on the hook” if anything goes wrong again. It will always be attributed to the work I did and rarely does the scope of work stay limited to what I was originally asked to work on.
    2. My time and skills are worth something. If I allow people to get my talents for nothing, what does that say about what I worked hard to learn and do?

    I’ll point people in the right direction with advice on how to resolve problems themselves, but I now only do free hands-on work on my wife’s PC. 🙂

    1. Been there. When a hard drive crashed a year after I cleaned viruses from a relative’s system it was my fault. It didn’t matter that I told them they better start backing up their data fast or they would lose everything. A S.M.A.R.T. error means Warning! you are in imment danger…even if it takes a whole year before you crash (and burn).

    2. Yeah I’m a tech guy too. I am pretty straightforward with people. You get an hour of my time for free per week (unless you have cookies). After that I will suggest what you need to Google and send a copy of my consulting rates.

  7. I think your article is spot-on, but I wonder if it’s a bit incomplete. I could see someone integrating your resume advice, but deciding they didn’t need to bother you with another look. Or using some, but not all, of the advice and not wanting to show you that they didn’t follow all of your suggestions.

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