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Marketplace
Ask A Manager

Ask a Manager: “Can I pick your brain?”

Rose Conlon, David Brancaccio, and Candace Manriquez Wrenn Oct 28, 2019
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Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Ask a Manager’s Alison Green joins “Marketplace Morning Report” to address the strange, tricky and awkward things at work. Got an issue in the workplace you’d like Alison to tackle? Send us your questions and one of the team might contact you for a future show.


Most young job seekers have been told that if you ask for a job, you’ll get advice — and if you ask for advice, you’ll get a job. But emailing a senior professional asking, “Can I pick your brain?” could send the wrong message.

Informational interviews can be a legitimate way for students and people without robust professional networks to establish relationships, identify career goals and — occasionally — to learn about job leads.

The problem is that they can be time-consuming and taxing for busy professionals, many of whom have seen an uptick in the number of “brain pick” requests in their inboxes in recent years as the internet has made it easier to reach out to just about anyone.

Workplace culture expert Alison Green said that people who make the requests don’t always understand the extent of what they’re asking.

“It’s a pretty big request. You’re asking someone who might have a very packed schedule to take time away from their work, or from their family and their leisure time,” said Green. “It’s not that people are heartless and don’t want to help, but it can be tough when they’re getting a lot of requests like that.”

“The request itself is so broad and vague that it doesn’t really explain what you’re hoping to get from the time,” she added. “Maybe you have a targeted list of questions, or maybe you’re going to show up with nothing much to ask and it’s going to be awkward and difficult.”

And if it’s clear the person seeking advice is really just looking for a job, it can make things pretty uncomfortable.

“You might occasionally get a job lead out of it, but when people go into those meetings expecting that, it’s often pretty transparent,” said Green.

“It’s much better to approach someone with a specific request, like ‘Could I have 10 minutes of your time to get your advice on X?”

Being specific increases the likelihood that it’ll be an efficient use of time — and if someone wants to deflect the request, it’s easier to say they don’t know enough about the particular subject the person is asking about.

It can be tricky to balance a genuine desire to help others while avoiding spreading yourself too thin. This can be true for women and people of color, who might feel internal or external pressure to say yes to meetings with other women and people of color to combat inequality in their industry.

“It’s a lovely thing to do. But it also means that women and people of color end up with a disproportionate amount of pressure to help others,” said Green. “As a society, we’ve got to figure out a better way to ensure that we are all leaning in to help groups that have been traditionally disadvantaged, rather than expecting the people who are in those groups to do all the work themselves.”

Got a question about life in the workplace? Use the form below to let us know. One of the team might contact you for a future story.

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