Networking with Older Men

male mentorsCan a younger woman network with older men without getting into questionable situations? My friend J told me of her interesting dilemma over the weekend…

She’s traveling a lot for business these days, and on one of her latest trips she sat next to an older businessman. She’s generally against talking to her seatmates, but wanted to have a bit of chitchat before she made him move to let her go to the bathroom — and she discovered that he’s the Chairman of the Board of a huge non-profit foundation (like, huge). They exchanged business cards when they got off the plane. Great contact to have, right?

Later that night, the text messages started. They were friendly at first (to which she replied warily), then turned slightly suspicious (to which she increased her delay before responding, then finally stopped responding all together). They’re no longer in the same town, but the question that’s left is: can she still network with this contact, or should he and his possibly less-than-pure motives be left in the dust? Call me an opportunist, but I’d hate to throw away a potential networking contact like that just because the guy was a bit skeevy. We’ve talked about how to handle it when a potential client hits on you, as well as how to network when you’re the low man on the totem pole, but not necessarily when a potential mentor/networking contact hits on you.

I’ve been in the situation myself, although in my case I think my defenses went up too soon — I vividly remember being asked “So what do you want?” when I took an older gentleman to lunch when I was around 23 (he practiced in a specialty I wanted to get into). Nothing but advice, I answered honestly, but I somehow still felt a bit dirty. I made sure that the next time I asked an older gentleman out to lunch (this time an adjunct professor whose specialty I was dying to get into), that I had a male classmate there with me at the lunch.

In my friend’s situation, though — this VIP could open a number of interesting doors to her. He’s a successful businessman with lots of contacts, and through his work with this big foundation he has even more contacts. His advice would undoubtedly be invaluable, and a very successful older friend is never a bad thing to have — you never know who will hear about the next big career opportunity. But how can she manage the relationship so it’s clear that she’s not interested in funny business?

For my $.02:

– I think the relationship needs to be managed the right way from the start. One of my female mentors (who came up when there were few women in senior positions) noted that she generally encouraged a “father/daughter” relationship.

– Know a bit about flirting so that you DON’T do it — simple things like

  • shake hands with him (businesslike — firm handshake, ladies!) as soon as you exchange names
  • do not touch his arm or encourage physical closeness of any sort (for example: don’t show him your phone or magazine in a way that might make you two huddle together)
  • watch your eye contact — I’ve heard that “business” eye contact is between the eyes and nosebridge; “friend” eye contact is between the eyes, nose, and mouth, whereas “dating” eye contact involves, um, lower eye contact. Also, watch the duration of your eye contact.
  • perhaps put something between you and him — casually put your purse on your lap, or even an in-flight magazine.
  • don’t seem too interested in his personal life

– As a “rainmaking litigation partner at a Biglaw firm” noted in comments a while back, “There is typically an inverse corrolation [sic] between the female summer associates that I want to date and the ones I want to hire. The qualities in the ones I want to hire are: hard-working, thorough, intuitive, and detail-oriented. The qualities in the ones I want to date are: flirtatious, spontaneous, and fun. Know which category you want to find yourself in and act accordingly.”

– Shut him down quickly if it goes there. “I’m flattered by the attention, but not interested like that.” This is better done sooner rather than later.

– Realistically assess when to abort if the attentions continue. What do you really want from this guy, and how many awkward conversations are you willing to endure to get there? In my friend J’s case, I might suggest first studying the VIP’s resume (which should be publicly available, at least on the foundation’s website), and sending an email — from whatever email address is on her resume — to say it was nice to meet him, and then asking direct questions toward things she’d like to know from his background. E.g.: “After perusing your profile on the ___ website, I noticed that you had moved from <Field X> to <Field Y> — I’m interested in making a similar switch myself, and would greatly appreciate any advice you have on that point. Did you join any organizations, or find any reading materials to be particularly helpful?” And if his response is still a bit questionable — well, move on.

Readers, what are your thoughts? What would you do in this situation — would you try to salvage the contact or move on? What is your best advice for how to network with older men?

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  1. anon for this one :

    Here’s what not to do

    Accept an out-of-the-blue offer to have lunch from an older colleague you’ve never spoken to before.

    Not say anything when it turns out the restaurant is all the way across town.

    Accept the wine he offers at lunch. Let him pressure you into several glasses.

    Agree to move over to his side of the table so that he can hear you better.

    Allow him to give you a hug in the elevator, which turns into a grope and a kiss.

    Be mortified about running into him in the hallway for the next five years.

    Ask me how I know.

  2. Italian Tomato :

    Another complaint – it’s no wonder men are leery of mentoring young women.
    While in law school I had a wonderful old attorney mentor for whom I was working as an intern. I became close with his family too. We would frequently have lunch together or grab a drink after work. It was a really small firm so there were few others to invite. It was completely professional.

    Yet, we were in a small legal market and other older men felt the need to mention me to him all the time. He confessed at the end of my internship that several men in the legal community came up to him in the gym to “high five him” about his hot new young catch. Others told their wives who told his wife that he had been “lunching with another young woman.” She laughed and new it was just me but many other wives are not so trusting and understanding. He was appalled at the comments people made to him and assured them I was a young and professional law student he had taken under his wing. He told me he had heard a lot about how rough the legal field could be for young woman but didn’t realize it was like this until after hiring me.

    He had a very thin skin but many others would be embarassed for colleagues to see them with a young female and wonder if they were cheating on their wife. It is so sad.

    • Italian Tomato :

      Gah, I meant he had a thick skin.

      I really appreciated he waited until the end of my intership to tell me he had run into these problems because otherwise I would have been so embarassed to continue going out in public with him alone.

      • summer in illinois :

        I can relate so much to this…worked very well with an (older male) prof who was mentoring me this year, but had other (older male) faculty raising their eyebrows & female classmates giving me a hard time about it. The mentor prof deserves serious kudos for listening when I complained to him about the dynamic. He made serious efforts to ensure it was clear to all that I was not getting special treatment & gave me some good ideas on how to navigate with the specific people involved. (I guess it’s a pretty common issue at our school since there haven’t been a lot of super-academic females…gee, I wonder why…) Still, though, yuck.

  3. Great post. The advice re: eye contact will be very helpful to me, particularly as between the “business” eye contact and “friend” eye contact. I never had thought about that distinction.

    Regarding not being “too interested” in his personal life, what do other Corporettes say about this? I’ve found that in some cases, it can actually help to ask about a man’s personal life (just as you would with a woman). For example, if I’m networking with a man and he mentions his kid(s), I ask how old they are, how many they have, what they like to do. People love to brag about their kids. I was recently networking with a man who said he was recently married, and I asked how they met, where did they get married, etc. That networking opportunity has now become a business relationship.

    Not that I would ever interrogate a man about his personal life, but for networking purposes I have found that asking someone about their personal life can get them to open up and perhaps feel more comfortable with me than if we were just talking shop. I think it *can* be a good way to make a memorable connection with someone and show you care about them and that you are interested in them as a person, not just their job and how they got there.

    On the cynical flipside, if the man is a “creeper” and you know he is married/in a relationship, asking a simple question about his wife/significant other sends them a message that you know their relationship status without being accusatory. This can often require much more finesse than I can usually muster, but I am sure it can be done.

    YMMV of course. I would love to hear what other Corporettes have to say about this.

    • I second this. I often find that asking a man about his wife and children will dispel any notion that I am “interested” in him and sets up a way for our professional connection to grow.

      • Nah. If a guy’s looking for sex, that’s what he wants. He already knows his stautus & doesn’t care what you think as long as it doesn’t get intbe way of what you do. And then he may joke about you being as bad as he is.

        • Latte Tuesday :

          I have found this works. I have had a couple of situations where a man that I work with professionally says something inappropriate and we are in contained space together (in a cab on our way to a conference, for example), I have said “Oh, how if you wife by the way?”

          At least for me, that has immediately silenced the other talk. Although I suppose it does require that the other person have the capacity to feel some guilt.

  4. You ladies are totally playing with fire here.

    If you are a 23-year-old freshly minted lawyer just keep your head down and do your job and stop thinking about networking with some senior executive man with 30 or 40 more years of experience than you. From his point of view (I’m a 52 year old guy), you’re still pretty much a teenager. At best he will talk with you because you are an amusing distraction. At worst…well, you know.

    • Alanna of Trebond :

      You are ridiculous. This is how I got loads of interviews my 1L year, because I was a self-assured 22 year old who knew what field I was interested in and was very knowledgeable about it. It is from networking. I’m glad I’m such an “amusing distraction” because I’ve gotten a job and some very good offers (that I turned down) through networking and NOT ONCE has it led to an unfortunate situation.

      So LSco, I am sad for you, because you are a 52 year old guy who has been around twice as long as I have, and you still haven’t managed to figure out the worth of young women as professionals.

    • Alanna of Trebond :

      I also just realized that you are probably a troll. If so, good job! You get a gold star for your trolling today.

    • I appreciate the fact that you are writing. From my perspective, networking was a critical part of the position I turned down. I would have been meeting with male professional (primarily in the medical field) 1:1 per company protocol.

      Do you have recommendations for situations like this (or situations the other women here have mentioned)? Meeting with older men (or even peers for that matter) is not always avoidable because, well, we work together. I, and I am sure others, are open to learning better/wiser strategy for communicating “business only” when the relationships come with unwanted and/or unexpected innuendos/comments/wives’ perceptions. It sounds like many women here love their jobs and simply want to talk shop when meeting work associates.

  5. I talk to older guys all the time. My company is male-heavy, I sit in b-class on planes a lot. I am normal looking and dressing (not sexy or frumpy). Have been lucky thus far I guess reading these posts- never had this problem yet. I don’t put my cell on my b-card. I would never text a new contact. I would immediately cut loose a skeevy contact- what do you think that will ever amount to? I have had some fascinating conversations about the business world with dudes in planes etc. about life in Shanghai/Geneva/etc., business issues of the day, their family/lifestyle, what I do, etc. and learned a lot- would not shy away from engaging with the world because I am female.

    I might subconsiously raise my husband sometimes as a defense tactic… haha I probably also seem so busy/haggard that it doesn’t even occur to them to try. I go on business trips with male colleagues all the time and make it very clear at hotel checkins, etc. that we are separate. When assumptions it comes up I just laugh and move on. My teammates all are married except one. One time he misinterpreted a comment I made and cut me off quickly, though my intent wasn’t meant the way he thought! But was a good lesson to be careful.

  6. My boss always wants to get me smashed!

  7. I’ve been through similar situations many times in my 20 years in the workplace. I also work in a company that’s been dominated by men. I’ve been sexually harassed six ways to Sunday — verbally, physically, you name it. One of the best ones was a member of our board, who, after the first board meeting, called me from a hotel and asked me to come over. Yeah. Awesome.

    This is my strategy: When a man (any age) has tried to indicate an unwanted personal interest in me after a business interaction, I act like they’re joking. Every single time. “Oh, you are so crazy!, Haha, that (text, email, etc.) gave me a real laugh!” Then immediately change the subject. Repeat as necessary. Do not waver. Most will get the message fairly quickly (so it doesn’t escalate,) but this allows them to save face. This is particularly helpful if you feel intimidated by the person’s age or rank. I have found that about 70% of them (the ones who were just trying to get a read on whether you were single/available, rather than the more skeevy/predatory) can then switch back into business mode and perhaps become a good contact.

    Not saying we should have to do this, we shouldn’t let them get away with it, etc. Just saying if you find yourself in a pinch in the moment and don’t know what to do, this works. It worked on the board member who called me from a hotel. He finally got it, and now we see each other at work functions and have no problems.

    Regarding the texts specifically, at whatever point the exchange has gotten borderline, I stopped replying. The next interaction, if needed, would be an e-mail. If he references said texts, I just say, “Oh I get so much junk mail, blah blah, I must have missed that one”. Lather, rinse, repeat.

    • cmj, I love this! I think this really is the right approach. Dignity is preserved all around and no one has to be the wiser. If we can successfully draw the boundaries in a way that preserves our reputation and maintains a businesslike relationship while not decimating another person, why would we not do this?

    • Corporate Tool :

      This is ballsy, but so useful.

      • And I love the fact that there’s a gentle implication that his texts were, in fact, junk mail. Perhaps unintended, but perfect.

      • My mother, who survived the rough-and-tumble work world of the 1970s, taught me this. I’ve seen her turn very unpleasant situations completely around and leave everyone smiling. I’ve perfected it now, I don’t even think about it anymore, it just comes naturally. My mom, as always, is a genius!

        • CMJ – I agree to a point. If I avoided every guy who flirted with me, well, that just would be excluding a lot. (It happens. I’m an extrovert who legit LOVES sports, I talk easily to everyone, I drink scotch gracefully, and I smile a lot and am an obviously happy person. Guys respond to this.) In my experience, you have to be ballsy, rational, and consistent. You don’t really have a choice. Tap the wedding ring and shake your head. Laugh it off, be kind, and move on. Cite a boyfriend/girlfriend in conversation, whatever works for you. “Sorry, dude, I’m taken.” Confidence and quick, blunt statements are the key. Don’t EVER let an obviously flirty statement pass unaddressed. If you’re consistent, confident, and still friendly, it will work. I don’t believe in letting them save face. If they’re that egotistic, they won’t be a good contact for me anyway.

    • Oh Sigh, WHY must we still allow men to “save face”

      That being said, this is probably one of the most useful ways to be tactful and then keep focused on your business objectives.

      I would also NEVER give out my personal cell phone number. Keep a SEPARATE cell for just for business (it’s not that expensive to add a line) or only give out work/office contact information.

      • As I said, this isn’t about right and wrong. He’s wrong. But we all have to operate in an unjust world, and I think her first priority should be to protect herself and defuse the situation quickly. Again, I think this can be particularly helpful to younger women in junior positions, who don’t have much experience dealing with jerks in the workplace, who find themselves in a bind and need to do something fast.

      • Because you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, which is exactly why this strategy works. Do you really believe that by showing moral outrage or hostility when a man of any age or situation tries to hit on you that he will then turn around and sin no more? No, he files it away and if he has future interactions with you (or knows someone who does), won’t hesitate to label you a b*itch.

  8. Could I please add a painfully obvious but excruciatingly under-recognized pointer to your list of “don’ts”?


    I don’t know what it is about women who get in awkward or stressful situations, but a lot of them giggle, even if they are normally professional and not flighty. Whatever the powerful ol’ gent says, it’s not worth a giggle. Totally the wrong message. Perfect the art of the feminine chuckle, but for the sake of all that is good and arm’s length: Don’t giggle.

  9. to LSco: So we ladies should stand back and not network with more experienced professional men in our fields, leaving the field open to the young guys who will have no trouble with getting mentors etc.?

  10. Marie-Christine :

    He’s made it plenty clear what his take on the possible relationship is. If she goes ahead after that, she’ll only have herself to blame when she has to kick him in the balls..
    Think of it this way – she was going to have a career without meeting Mr Big Shot. Things haven’t changed. Period.

  11. Text messages are for kids and cheaters. Be neither in the business world.

    The only text messages that I have ever sent were strictly when I needed to communicate urgently with someone and could not make a phone call.

  12. I am a recent college graduate working in finance. I networked with a senior banker via LinkedIn and suggested we get coffee in person. We met, got along, and he gave me career advice and promised to refer me internally as well as make an introduction to his friend at a different bank.

    I met his friend and I sent him an email thanking him for the introduction, and he texted me the following morning. Needless to say, this turned into a series of (seemingly) innocuous text messages, where he finally asked to meet me for drinks. I agreed, though was suspicious of his intentions since he is almost twice my age. When we met, I made it clear that I was not going to sleep with him – though he was initially frosty, I cracked some jokes and made him laugh. He was touchy and leaned in for a kiss, but I turned my cheek.

    Needless to say, I have not heard back from him since – probably because he came expecting sex and I was not willing to put out. However, during the night, once I established that I would not have sex with him, we still got along (or so I thought) and ended on a pleasant note. My question: Is there potential for a professional friendship?

    In my experience, some of the mentors I have stayed closest to (male and female) who are the most willing to go to bat for me are the ones who have become my friends and who know me on a personal level.

    I am thinking about following up with a text message or email, expressing that I’d like to keep in touch and get coffee once in a while. He is a senior guy who is well-connected, and I want to keep on pleasant terms with him, rather than drop off his radar completely. However, I don’t want to give off the impression that I am hitting on him. Is this a smart or stupid decision? Is this situation even salvageable?

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