Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

3 Times Your Desire to Be Helpful Backfires on the People You Care About

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I have a feeling that even when it’s not convenient, plenty of you find lots of satisfaction in helping people—especially when it comes to the job search. And if we’re being completely honest here, it’s not always for self-less reasons. In fact, a study proved, “that the more people participated in meaningful activities, the happier they were and the more purposeful their lives felt.”

Don’t feel guilty: I’m right there with you. I’ve definitely helped people during their job search—and then patted myself on the back.

That’s why I’m willing to bet that you can also think of a few times when the “help” you provided ultimately made your recipients’ lives harder. So, while it’s admirable to be eager to lend a hand, there are a few times when your efforts are giving people false hope.

1. When Your Friend Complains About Work

I’d argue that this is the situation in which I most often make people’s lives harder when I’m trying to help. I’m lucky enough to have not one, but two jobs I like. So, when friends of mine complain about their horrible company, my first thought is, “Oh, that’s awful. Well, let me use my expertise and help you get your resume and cover letter together. Also, here are two dozen jobs I think would be great for you. And, while we’re at it, let me email my pal and set you two up on a coffee meeting.”

Sure, this isn’t the worst thing I could do, but I’ve found that in some of the follow-up conversations I’ve had with friends, I spoke in a reassuring tone that calmly said, “You will totally get at least three to five of these jobs.” And this was annoying for two reasons: For starters, no one cannot guarantee positive results for anyone. Ever. And more importantly, I failed to consider whether or not these people wanted to switch jobs before I dove in with a completely new career path for them.


Listen to your friend before leaping to conclusions. Is he just venting? Or is he specifically calling on your experience and connections to help him land a new position? If you’re not sure, this article from Muse Senior Editor Stacey Gawronski lays out very clearly how you can be helpful, without being condescending when someone comes to you with career complaints.

2. When You Say Yes to Being a Reference Even Though You’re Not the Right Person

It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in a conversation with someone in which you say, “Oh, I work at that company you’re interested in. Why don’t you send me your resume?”

This is totally fine when you know someone at least remotely well, but I’ve gotten into a bad habit of saying this to just about anyone who expresses even a modicum of interest in one of the companies I work for. Which is terrible, because when I “recommend” one of these people for a job, I have absolutely nothing positive or negative to tell the hiring manager.

That means I’m not only adding approximately nothing to that person’s chances of being brought in, but I’m also giving him or her the idea that an interview is much more likely since now he or she has that magical “in.”


While you may not be a good reference, you might be the perfect person to set him up on an informational interview with someone in the relevant department at your company. By offering this, you’re helping him meet the right people, while also not having to go too far out of your way. After all, this should just be a quick email (using the double opt-in template, of course).

3. When You Don’t Actually Have the Time or Resources to Help

I have a feeling that there may be a couple of people reading this thinking, “Hey, Rich owes me some cover letter suggestions. It’s been months!”

And yes, the truth is that because I’m so quick to offer help on application materials, I’ve fallen behind on, well, most of them. If you have the time to lend a helping hand to a friend, go for it. However, if you’re swamped with one million other responsibilities, that’s also OK.

Many people you’ll encounter will understand that you can’t get back to them right this second. Do the asker a favor and set some realistic expectations around how much support you can offer. If a resume editing session is going to take a few weeks, say so. If a coffee meeting simply isn’t feasible right now, speak up. And if sending along someone’s materials to the hiring manager just doesn’t make sense for someone in your position, be honest.


Even though you may not have a lot of extra time to sit down with someone, you likely can find five minutes to shoot over a helpful article you read on tailoring your resume (or—shameless plug—just a link to The Muse), an insider tip about interviewing with your organization, a powerful TED Talk on being persuasive, a writing hack that helped you get through the cover letter process, or even a podcast that you found super insightful on current industry trends. The person may have no interest in reading or listening, but that’s on him or her.

I get it. Sometimes it’s just a knee-jerk reaction to seeing someone in need and deciding that it’s up to you to make everything better. (It’s always nice to be the hero!) While you should be commended for taking this initiative, think deeply about what the other person needs. Ultimately the more honest you are about what you can provide, the more you’ll be thought of as a valuable—and helpful!—resource.

Photo of three people talking courtesy of Thomas Barwick/Getty Images.