I haven’t known many people to burn bridges, but I have known a lot who demolished them by neglect.
Recently, a reporter who has used me as a reference in the past was in the job hunt and called to ask whether she could put me back on her resume. She explained that she needed to replace one of her more recent references because he had, without notice, died.
The next day, another person called and said she was dusting off her resume and wanted to put me back on because she was applying for a job back in the Detroit area, where I work. She specified I would be Reference No. 3.
The problem with references is that we need them only once in a while. Years typically go between job changes, so we may not have the need to be in touch with them for long spans. There is another problem with these long spans of time. If you wind up working at a place where you are not going to end up with a good reference, it might take well more than a year to learn that. So you always want to be able to go to some of your reliable references.
That very natural passage of time degrades the quality of the reference. If I haven’t spoken with someone in years, I have no current information when someone calls to check on them and my endorsement has to be limited.
Your references should be a mixed group. Most important will be those people who have seen your daily work recently and know how you are today. But there is room, in a batch of three to six references, for a longitudinal reference — someone who has seen you progress over time. Those people may have the best picture of your career trajectory.
When we talk about networking, then, keeping our career-long references updated rises to a higher level of importance. It takes some diligence, but not much time. An annual e-mail reporting on your career progress can get the job done. It can even be the same e-mail for each reference. If the e-mail describes one or two difficult challenges or decisions from the year, this helps the references do a better job of recommending you. If you face a difficult decision, consider calling people you use as references for advice. They may be helpful, and this will help them see how you make decisions.
So, as you go about building and maintaining your network, keep your top few best references in the loop. Don’t tell them when they slip to No. 3. You may need to move them up if someone dies.
Have a question about references or careers? E-mail Joe for an answer.
Coming Tuesday: Training on the cheap from your local cable company.