05/26/2010 05:37 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Are You My Friend or My Associate?

A few months ago I received an email from a guy who I'd worked with some three or four companies ago. I had never really been that close with him, and we would rarely email or stay in touch. Initially, he emailed me just to say, what's new, how's everything going, etc. I didn't think much of it at the time, and figured that's all it was. As it turned out, it would be a precursor to something I dreaded - becoming an "associate".

Three emails after the initial contact, this same guy, whom we'll call "Joe", emails me asking if I have any job contacts, and that he was looking for a new job. What I found fishy was that Joe already had a name of a person at a hiring company whom he wanted to talk to, and who I just happened to know personally.
In my line of business I meet a lot of folks and generate new contacts for my business network all of the time. So for me, finding Joe a simple job connection was a seemingly simple task. After two emails and a phone call, I was able to hook Joe up with an interview by the next day. Of course, Joe was ecstatic about it, asking me how I got the connections so fast. To me, it was a relatively minor task, so I didn't think much of it. Two weeks went by, and I never hear from Joe. So I emailed him and learned that he had gotten the job. No update. No thanks. Nothing.

So my question is this - when DO you know whether you are a person's "friend", versus being a person's "associate"?

When I think "friend", it seems pretty obvious what that would entail. A friend is, well, a friend. You talk, joke around, hang out, share email jokes, have lunch, etc. Pretty basic social definition in my mind. When I think associate, I am referring to a person, typically a coworker or former coworker, who exists mainly to help out in a business-related issue. It may be getting a contact or connection, or arranging a business meeting, or help finding a vendor. But there are instances of where a combination of the two can exist - a friend who is also a great associate, or an associate who you're really good friends with.

This recent incident with Joe outlines for me a distinct new trend in the business world - people who were nothing more than associates, are making themselves into friends, in order to get themselves better connected in business. In the big picture this all sounds great and positive, except for the fact that these same "friends" revert back into "associates" as soon as they do not need you for anything anymore. They basically use you for a connection or a contact, then literally cut you off once they get what they're looking for.

Now I'm a big fan of making new friends. Can one have "too many friends"? I would say yes, except I don't think I've reached that point in my life yet. The point that I HAVE reached is one where people are now coming out of the woodwork to use me in finding them their next job. My question is this - why do these people insist on changing back into associates, once we've become friends? I believe the answer is simple; society's addiction to the "quick reward" is now reaching into people's career lives. The syndrome of "want it fast, want it now" has a side effect of leaving friends, family, coworkers and everything else around them "out to dry", like remnants after a new carpet install, or leftovers after a good meal. I for one, don't enjoy feeling like a doggybag.

So the next time you parouse through your contact list, ask yourself two questions; "Is this person a friend or an associate?", and "Am I a friend or an associate to others?".

The answers may surprise you, for better or for worse.