Keep Those Contacts Close

Something special about Capitol Hill: Nearly everyone gets business cards. You can be 22 years old, three weeks out of college, and still get a raised-print, golden eagle card with your name and “STAFF ASSISTANT” embossed on the front.

And then you pass the cards out. To everyone you know. Slowly and over time, you build an all-powerful contact list. People you know, people you’ve drank beers with or worked with on legislation. The more contacts, the better. Sit back and watch that stack of embossed cards grow.

But sometimes those contacts want things in return — whether it’s a favor, a job recommendation, or, in some cases, lunch or coffee. In this week’s Hill Navigator, what to do when a contact wants to be more than friends, and how to keep that connection strong while issuing a polite but firm dismissal.

Q. I have been working pretty closely with a staffer from another office on a bill. Now that the bill has been introduced, there really isn't a reason for us to spend time together. However, he is still trying to find excuses to have coffee or lunch. How do I kindly tell him I am not interested without ruining our work relationship?

And even if you’re cringing as you read this, you should still do it. Here’s why:

First, a coffee break isn’t that long. You guys have worked together. You can probably fill the time, even if it’s talking about your previous success or brainstorming on another piece of legislation.

Second, because you have worked together on the same issue area, your paths are bound to cross again and again. D.C. — and Capitol Hill in particular — can be a small town. Keep that in mind before torching any bridges.

Third, it’s during the workday. It’s coffee (or lunch if you’re inclined to be more generous with your time). There are different social norms that govern workplace interactions. You can meet a colleague for lunch or coffee without elevating it to a date.

And if your suspicions are correct — that the lunch invites are just a ploy to get you to agree to hang out post-work — this can still work in your favor. Use your staffer-winning charm and tell him coffee works better for you than post-work activities. And tell him that you are glad to meet him in Longworth or Dirksen. And offer to bring your LC along to brainstorm more legislative ideas. He’ll get the hint.