Badmouthing people is the biggest networking mistake

In the last year, I’ve made more of an effort to network — and have actually found that most of the time I even enjoy it.

Fundamental to this change from thinking “networking” was a dirty word to actually looking forward to it was hearing Kelly Hoey speak at Inspirefest 2016, and reading her excellent book Build Your Dream Network. Kelly spoke at Inspirefest again this year, and I was lucky enough to reserve a place on her Inspirefest Fringe Workshop also. Kelly’s advice is very practical and accessible and a great place to start if you are a reluctant networker or an introvert who cringes at the thought of making small talk with strangers.

Network with intention

One of my favorite bits of her advice is to “stop committing random acts of networking.” I remember reading this with a smile and sense of relief. It helped with the FOMO (fear of missing out) that at the time meant I had been accepting any and all invitations and signing up to every free event advertised on Eventbrite. It made me think more strategically about which events were worth my time and which ones I could skip.

Recently I attended a workshop run by a network I had only just heard of. I went because I thought the topic sounded interesting and thought I might learn something. It was also a  chance to meet other people with shared interests. I’m not going to name the network and have changed the name of the people who attended for reasons which will become clear.

Within a few minutes of arriving and being welcomed by the organizer, he and other networking members started talking about someone who hadn’t arrived. The conversation between the existing network members went something like this.

“Once you’ve met Tom you won’t forget him. He makes his presence felt,” followed by knowing chuckles from the rest of the group.

Another first-time attendee: “What do you mean? Does he have a chip on his shoulder?”

Organizer: “More than a chip, cod and chips and chicken McNuggets on both shoulders. He has an ax to grind.” More laughter.

The speaker, who was a regular at the network, commented that it would be great if Tom didn’t show up.

The workshop began and in due course, Tom showed up, late. As billed, he was a disruptive presence — but the way in which he was treated was pretty appalling. At one stage the organizer turned to him and said: “Tom, shut up.”

My feeling was that while Tom did, in fact, have a chip on his shoulder, his presence could have been handled in a better way.

We still have to treat difficult people well

Having had teaching experience, I know how irritating it can be to have a dominant or disruptive student in a group, especially on an ongoing basis. However, I would never have dreamt of discussing the student’s poor behavior with their peers in their absence or of disrespecting them in front of the rest of the group.

Witnessing this in what is billed as a “professional network” left a very bad taste in my mouth. Among other things I wondered what the members might say about me to each other if I became a regular presence. The hostile atmosphere made me withdraw, and I stopped attempting to contribute to the discussion and resolved not to come again. There were two other people who were also there for the first time. I wonder if either of them will return.

TL:DR: I won’t be returning to your professional network because your network does not behave professionally.

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.