how do I stay in touch with former managers?

A reader writes:

I started a new job about a year and a half ago with a manager who was amazing — very supportive and patient. He was one of the perks of the job. He recently found a new opportunity and moved on from my organization a little more than a month ago. When he left, he told me to keep in touch and that I could use him as a reference in the future.

I’d love to keep in touch but have no idea what to say! I feel like the standard advice is to send relevant articles and say why I think they would be interesting to him, but he’s moved to a different industry and is more than 10 years senior to me. Should I just reach out and ask him how the move went and how the new job is? How do I follow up after that? Appreciate any advice you may have on keeping in touch with past managers!

Yeah, don’t do the thing about sending him articles, unless you run across something that truly makes you think of him. If it’s a genuine “Oh, Brian would love to see this” moment, then yes, send it along. But don’t go looking for articles that you could send him as a way of staying in touch — that’s not a good use of his time (or yours), and it can come across oddly unless it’s really genuine.

Honestly, I think the advice out there about staying in touch with past managers tends to overstate how much you need to do it. Generally I think the reasons you reach out should be genuine ones, even if that means that quite a while goes by in between contacts. If the relationship was a strong one when you worked together, you can let a few years go by without contact, and the manager will still welcome hearing from you about a reference or an update about your life or a request for professional expertise or so forth.

But if you worry about going that long without contact, aim for an email once or twice a year. (My personal opinion is that once a year is fine, unless it develops organically into a closer relationship than that.) Tell him what’s going on in your life professionally or personally. If you can connect professional updates to things he helped you with, that’s ideal — a skill that he helped you build, or something he coached you in, or something you learned from watching him, or something he said he could see you doing one day. It’s super gratifying to hear about that kind of thing from former employees! On the personal side, big life events can be a good reason to email, like getting engaged or married, having kids, taking an amazing trip to a destination you’ve talked about with him, etc.

Alternately, you can ask him to catch up over lunch once a year or so as well. Some people are lunch types, some aren’t, and you’ll probably have a decent sense of whether he is from working with him. (I’m not so that’s probably biasing me into more caution here than is necessary; I suspect more people are up for lunch with old contacts than are not.)

Mainly, though, the thing is to make this all genuine. Don’t look at it as “I need to check off specific actions in order to stay in touch with a former manager.” Look at is as “We worked together, I liked him, and he’s now a person I know and will occasionally talk with” and that’s far more likely to lead you in the right direction.

{ 50 comments… read them below }

  1. Amber T*

    I think picking a non-religious holiday (or, if you’re sure he celebrates a religious holiday) is a good reason to send a quick email. “Hi Brian! Happy Thanksgiving, hope all is well with you. How do you like *work in new field?”

    1. TootsNYC*

      I’m in copyediting, so I can totally see using National Grammar Day or National Punctuation Day as a reason to send off a note.

    2. Seeking Second Childhood*

      If you know the manager’s birthday (and that they celebrate birthdays), that’s a good one.
      Otherwise, maybe try to find something that the rest of the world celebrates that had an additional social meaning for you — for example, not long after I started this job, a couple of Poland-born co-workers described Schmingus Dingus Day, and someone came in with a bulk-pack of tiny water pistols for lunchtime. That was a many-year tradition, and still is an excuse to write to people who have retired or moved to new positions.

  2. Washi*

    With my faaaaavorite manager of all time, we wish each other a happy birthday and get coffee once a year (so 3 contacts total.) It doesn’t have to be much!

    1. It's not broken it's just a sprain*

      Exjob AwesomeBoss retired so we friended each other on Facebook. I don’t usually do that with people at work unless one or both of us have moved on.

      She also said she’d be a reference for me anytime. I guess at some point she might not, since it seems like I will never be employed again. :P

  3. CM*

    I totally agree with this advice. I’ve found that once a year is perfect — even once every few years can be plenty for a former manager. I like to send a holiday card to former contacts with a short note: 2-sentence update on my life, inquiry/comment on theirs (“Congratulations on getting the big promotion!”), and saying that if they’re interested in catching up for coffee or lunch, they can email or text me. Also, LinkedIn is perfect for this if your manager is an active user — for people who post updates, articles, etc., it’s an easy way to interact with them by leaving a quick comment.

  4. government worker*

    What does it mean to be a lunch type? Like, is that a person who doesn’t do lunch at all, or just doesn’t enjoy lunch as a way of catching up?

    1. Lance*

      I’d be thinking it’d be more so the latter; that a ‘lunch type’ may be alright socializing and hanging around others during their lunch period, while ‘not a lunch type’ would prefer to spend their lunch quietly, on their own.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It depends! For me, it’s that I don’t usually do lunch with business contacts because I’m busy and don’t want to spend an hour plus travel time on a conversation that could take 5-10 minutes if we had it over the phone (or just can’t prioritize lunching for social reasons over more pressing work stuff I have to do). But for other people it could mean “not into lunch, in general” or “doesn’t tend to have business lunches” or so forth.

      1. Sloan Kittering*

        It’s true, I’ve encountered to people in my field who often default to a business lunch if they’re trying to fit in something unusual (like catching up with an old colleague), and some people who would hardly ever do this and rarely suggest it. It’s a good thing to notice about people.

    3. Marthooh*

      When lunch types say “Let’s have lunch some time”, they mean they want to have lunch with you sometime. Non-lunch types say the same thing to mean “Let’s part on friendly terms and then never see each other again.”

    4. Seeking Second Childhood*

      Sometimes it’s as simple as people who only take half-hour lunches so they can avoid traffic at the end of the day.
      (That would be me…)

  5. stitchinthyme*

    Yep, that’s basically what I do as well — just a chatty email once or twice a year, updating them on my life/job and asking about theirs.

    Although this is a bit timely, because I just sent one of those last week to a former supervisor, and have not received a reply. He also ignored a Facebook friend request from me last year (though I saw him comment on a mutual friend’s post so I know he wasn’t just away from FB), which makes me wonder if I just need to write him off as a possible reference. I try not to read too much into non-communication, as he could just be busy, so I guess that if/when I should need a reference, I’ll email and ask, then assume I shouldn’t use him if I still get no response. Pity, since he’s really the best possible reference I have from the job before this one (the big boss has a policy of not giving references).

    1. Iris Eyes*

      I really wouldn’t read too much into the Facebook thing. I have some people who’ve been in friendship limbo for months for various reasons. I have very very few former coworkers who are Facebook friends and only have one person at my current company who is a Facebook friend. IMO that really not what FB is for, connecting with colleagues is best left to the sterile environment of LinkedIn.

      1. BRR*

        Yeah I have a hard rule that there’s no crossover between any social media (besides LinkedIn if that counts) and work.

    2. TootsNYC*

      I would totally be a reference for people whom I might not friend on Facebook. I think of some of the people who’ve worked for me, and lots of them I don’t need on Facebook but I think they’re great and I’d be happy to chatter at length about their skills and office persona.

  6. AnotherAlison*

    I have found that simply being a LinkedIn connection is enough to reach out to a former manager (or non-manager coworker) when you need a reference or contact. If it’s the right person/relationship, other social media connections work, too. I haven’t had a one-on-one conversation, or even email conversation, with most of my former managers, but seeing each other’s presence online periodically keeps them from thinking, “AnotherAlison, from 2005???? Hmm. I don’t remember you.”

    1. Lil Sebastian*

      I second this! I work in a college setting, so many of my previous staff are student staff who graduate and leave the area. LinkedIn and social media provide a great way for us to keep in touch. A few have sent me happy birthday or congratulations notes and it’s always a pleasure to connect with them.
      Side note – I keep my social media pretty tame, so I have no problem with others following me. YMMV depending on how you use social media.

    2. Glitsy Gus*

      This is kind of how I operate. I make sure I’m on LinkenIn with former managers, then when I get a “this person has a new title!” or “this person hit an anniversary!” notification I send them a quick Congrats! message.

      I have a couple former supervisors I became closer with that I have more contact with, but overall that’s how I play it and it generally works out well.

  7. epi*

    I really liked this part of your advice: “Generally I think the reasons you reach out should be genuine ones, even if that means that quite a while goes by in between contacts.”

    Earlier in my career I would feel really bad about only reaching out to former managers occasionally, or only when I needed a reference. It took me a while to get that this is normal behavior and it resulted in us having about the frequency and intensity of contact that we both wanted. It’s easier if I think of past bosses as mini mentors. Expect them to be happy to hear your life and career are going well, to see references and other basic types of help as just part of the job, and to have that same relationship to a lot of people. Above and beyond that, there is room for as much or as little relationship as you both actually want to have, with no judgment implied.

    I also figure, if I wasn’t sharing a bunch of personal details, socializing a lot, or sharing general professional development stuff as an employee, my old bosses don’t really expect to see a totally different side of me as a former employee. If they liked you as a direct report, the “professional contact” version of that same behavior is going to be fine.

    1. Sloan Kittering*

      I wish more people heard this advice about networking in general! It’s better if you are being genuine in requesting someone’s input or suggesting a collaboration or whatever; it’s weird if you’re going through the motions of doing this when what you really want is “to network.”

      1. Oh So Anon*

        It feels weird to even reach out just for input, though. Like, I really hate hitting someone up for something without having anything to give back, even if that person did play a significant mentorship role for me when I worked for them. I’m struggling with this when it comes to two of my former managers – we got along great, we shared personal details and general professional development stuff, they gave me glowing references when I/they moved on, but I feel wrong to reach out because I’m not offering “being their star employee” in return anymore so they’re not contractually obligated to be helpful to me.

    2. TootsNYC*

      I had a stretch in my career in which I did a lot of looking for work (lots of layoffs). I tended to call people I’d worked with/for, and when they said, “How are you?” I would flat-out say, “I’m looking for work!”
      I always got a positive response, often offers to forward my resumé, and sometimes even flat-out job leads.

      Later, on one layoff, we were all set to an “outplacement” consulting firm, and they were telling us that “networking is supposed to offer benefits both ways,” and I thought, “what benefit do I offer someone?”
      It made me self-conscious until I realized that none of the people I was calling seemed to mind–and in fact, I was also now in a position to have people call ME and say, “I’m looking for work, would you keep an eye out for openings, and keep me in mind?” and my response was always, “Sure! good luck, I’ll help where I can.” Sometimes I couldn’t be helpful, but I never MINDED.

    3. Lily Rowan*

      Agreed! I have people who ask me for a reference every couple of years with no contact in between and it’s 100% fine! It’s better if they give me a little update about what they’ve been up to, why they are looking, and what the new job would be, but honestly, I am there to talk about when we worked together, and that hasn’t changed in the meantime!

      I love being a reference, BTW.

  8. HailRobonia*

    I work at a university and luckily most of my previous managers are still here as well (you know how us higher ed people tend to be “lifers”). I tend to run into them randomly around campus at least once a year, especially when the weather gets nice and everyone is out walking on lunch breaks, etc.

  9. Sloan Kittering*

    I use holiday cards for this purpose. The nice thing is that you can put a short note but not feel obligated to go on and on if you don’t have a lot to say – but it’s still very personal feeling because it’s hand written and hand addressed. The only difficulty is that you need a physical mailing address. I usually send to their current office in early December to add to the sense that this is more a business communication than a truly personal one.

  10. Colette*

    Totally agree that keeping it natural is important. Here are some reasons I have reached out to former bosses (other than the obvious reference requests):
    – “I had problem X, and I realized I knew how to handle it because of guidance you gave me when I worked together”
    – “I saw on Linked In that you have a new job, congratulations!”
    – “that musical you didn’t get to see last time it was in town is coming back, thought I’d pass on the info in case you haven’t seen it”

  11. hbc*

    I ended up putting a reminder in my calendar for contacting a few people like this. Maybe 6 months out at first to drop a “Hey, hope X is going well, I’m up to Y.” Then it gets pushed off to something more like a year.

    Not everyone needs this kind of scheduling, but I’m kind of an “out of sight, out of mind” person when it comes to socializing/networking, and I would end up talking to my own parents twice a year if we didn’t have a standing call.

  12. Daughter of Ada and Grace*

    I keep in sporadic contact with one of my university professors. The last time I reached out to him was to let him know I was speaking at an industry conference held on the university campus, and ask if he could tell his current students about the conference if he hadn’t already. I also got to talk to him during breakfast at the conference, and because of that previous contact, we were both prepared to have that 5 minute chat. This was last October or so, and I probably won’t reach out again until I have something else of mutual interest to share.

  13. What She Said*

    Here are samples of how I’ve stayed in touch with some former managers. I’ve had many managers over the years but truly only keep in touch with a few. Now keep in mind not all managers and direct reports have the same work relationships but this is what works for me and my former managers.

    #1: This one I see once a year or sometimes once every other year. We try to meet up for lunch with another colleague we worked with. We text at least 2-3 times a years to check in. We’re also on each other’s Christmas card lists. I genuinely adore this man like an uncle figure. He is a wonderful friend and mentor.

    #2: This one holds a twice a year reunion of sorts for our former team. We were all very close and love checking in with each other. It was at our request that we get together and the former manager offered up her house and to organize the events (usually just a drop in, eat apps kinda of deal). Not everyone goes each time she holds these events but I try to go at least once a year.

  14. TootsNYC*

    maybe I’m weird, but all the people from my past to whom I have ever said, “Keep in touch,” can totally pop up out of the blue and say, “Want to go to lunch?” or “would you be a reference?” or “can I bounce something off you? I need some advice.”

    I don’t need courting.
    If I ever cared about you, I still do, and I totally understand the “not being in touch” thing.

    For someone who worked FOR me, it would be nice to get an email that says, “Just got a job at X,” or “hey, i got promoted!”

    or, if you find out somehow that *I* got a new job, drop me a congratulatory email.

    Short, three sentences.

    oh, once I got an email from a copyeditor who’d worked for me who said, “Look in the new dictionary! “freelance” is now one word!” because I was always grousing about that comma.
    So any conversation point you’ve ever shared is a reason to drop someone a line (“they eliminated the process you hated so much when you worked here” or “our new VP loves your spreadsheet” or “they just tore down the building across the street and your old office has so much light now–at least until the new tower goes up”).

    I sometimes wish I had created a list of all the people who could be references for me (I have mastheads, but some industries don’t product those, so I have an advantage), and keep some level of contact info.
    LinkedIn and social media and email make this so much easier than it used to be. Use those–but remember that all of those are outside your control and might go away!

    1. TCO*

      I think this is a really great way of putting it. I care about my past supervisees/coworkers and want to be helpful to them if they ever need it! And like you said, I don’t need to be courted–if they want to catch up about other things, that’s fine, but I don’t feel bad if all they want is to ask me to be a reference. That’s a really normal part of being in the working world! And if they were good employees, I am always happy to be a reference because I want to support their continued professional success.

      I welcome occasional updates about what they’re up to, but I don’t get those often and I’m totally fine with that. I don’t forget about my former supervisees/coworkers just because we don’t regularly keep in touch. If they friend me on social media that’s also a fine way for us to feel connected even if we rarely/never directly interact through it. But again, not required.

      As far as how I’ve kept in touch with former bosses, it really varies. Some of them I continue to cross paths with professionally, either by seeing each other in person or hearing about each other’s work (and then me sending a quick note to say something like, “I was at a meeting with X and they were really singing your team’s praises about that initiative you were partners on!”). Some of them I turn to for advice and connections. Some of them I might interact with on social media, or see in my neighborhood. But some aren’t as interested in proactively keeping touch, or I might not care as much about having an ongoing relationship with them, and that’s okay too. I’ve still never had any of them turn me down when I needed a reference or connection. Again, it’s part and parcel of being in the working world and it’s totally fine in most fields to keep the contact really minimal yet still go to them for a reference or favor.

      One really easy and genuine way I’ve found to keep in touch is to follow up after they’ve been a reference to let them know how my new job is going. That can be as simple as, “Hey, I realized it’s my one-year anniversary at this job and I’m still grateful that your reference helped me get here. I’m learning about Y and enjoying Z. I hope you’re well.”

    2. KarenT*

      “If I ever cared about you, I still do”

      I love that way of framing it! It’s very true. Enthusiasm and closeness can dampen over time, but if I’ve ever offered to be a reference or to help someone out with a job search, I meant it. And if someone worked for me and I was happy with them, that doesn’t go away.

    3. Oh So Anon*

      “If I ever cared about you, I still do”

      You’re good people, just wanted to say that.

  15. Renee*

    I stay in touch with former managers and co-workers with birthday cards. It’s something that happens once a year and is a good way to let people know you are thinking of them. If they are not into birthdays you can also send Christmas cards.

  16. LaDeeDa*

    I only have one former boss I want to stay in touch with. About 1x a year I ask if she is going to attend a professional organization event, and if I have a free ticket, I will offer it to her, and then we will meet for lunch or dinner before/after and attend the event. This allows me to engage with her, but still do it on a professional level.

  17. Environmental Compliance*

    I usually stay in touch over LinkedIn through the articles we share. It’s just a lot of status-liking, to be honest. But that’s all it really has to be. It doesn’t have to be a process!

  18. This Old House*

    I had primarily kept in touch with a couple former supervisors through Facebook, but recently realized I appear to have been unfriended by one (who remains friends with another coworker from the same time, so it’s unlikely she decided to go strictly personal and unfriend anyone she’d ever worked with). I had used her as a reference a few times, and now I feel like that’s no longer an option, even though I don’t know what inspired her to unfriend me. Since I feel like I’ve also aged out of using my student jobs as references (it’s been 8-10 years since I was in college/grad school), I’m worried that I won’t have enough professional references the next time I’m job hunting – but I’m not sure exactly what I could have done better.

    1. Abigail Plumb-Larrick*

      One of my old bosses, with whom I thought I had a great rapport even, unfriended me on Facebook, and we’ve had pleasant conversation since. I choose to believe he was winnowing down his friend list, but the nagging thought persists that he secretly hates me.

  19. mythopoeia*

    I like to include those people on December card lists (and to avoid questions about which holidays people observe by wishing them a happy new year in the card). I find that New Year’s cards are a good excuse to get back in touch with anyone, really–old bosses, friends I haven’t seen in a few years, and so on.

    I also follow a few of them on Twitter, as a very low-key way to say “I still maintain interest in your professional presence.” If both you and your old manager(s) are on Twitter–with relatively professional presences!–that’s another option.

  20. MicroManagered*

    I work with a lot of college students (who then move on on good terms and stay in touch) and AAM’s advice is spot on. To “stay in touch” you don’t need 2x a week email contact. A couple times a year, particularly if you have a life event, is plenty!

    Recently, one of our ex-students sent maybe the 3rd or 4th email since she graduated to say she was moving to another state for a job and to try for a music career. My ex-boss shared it with me, I shared it with our other ex-coworker, so this young lady is maintaining a network just by a simple update. We will remember who she is if someone calls for a reference.

  21. Hey Nonnie*

    And what can / should you do, if anything, if you don’t (ever) get a response when you reach out?

    I’m never sure if they just don’t think it requires a response (which could make sense in some cases, but not when I say things like “hey I’ll be in your neighborhood soon, mind if I pop by to say hello?” or “wanna get coffee?”), or if they genuinely have forgotten me. Plus continuing to nudge after getting silence seems a lot like those “gumption” fatal errors we hear about so regularly here.

    I’d keep in better touch with folks if I could have some reassurance I’m not just typing into the void.

    Signed, someone who got resounding silence to a “wanna catch up?” email just last week.

    1. mythopoeia*

      My first, second, and third hypotheses are that it is all about whatever is going on in their life/their email management practices, and has next to nothing to do you with you. Even if someone fails to respond to multiple contacts, it’s more likely that they are bad at email than that it has something to do with you personally. Or that they feel too awkward and shameful to respond if some time has passed since you emailed them.

      It still sucks! There is no way it doesn’t suck. But I strongly suspect it’s not that they have genuinely forgotten you.

      1. Hey Nonnie*

        It still pretty much puts the kibosh on the idea of having a professional network. I don’t have one if they won’t talk to me, make introductions, or refer me for jobs. What am I supposed to do about that?

        1. Oh So Anon*

          Well, you have other people to reach out to, right? Invest in your connections with them, whether they’re peers, or senior or subordinate to you.

          I’m with you on how difficult it feels to not be able to maintain connections with someone even when they’re probably on Team You. Much like you, I’m also wary of putting the effort into connecting with someone if I have a strong suspicion that they’re not good at responding. Something to think about is that it’s sometimes easier for people to respond to someone who has a more concrete request for them or doesn’t (accidentally!) come across as needing all the things. Reaching out for a reference can be easier to respond to than a more general “let’s catch up sometime” or “please help me figure out what to do with the rest of my life”. You don’t need to get people to respond to coffee invites to get your next job – you just need them to agree to a positive reference, which is much less of an ask. Best of luck.

  22. Mellow cello*

    I keep in touch by sending update emails whenever I have a relatively big new career development – that’s ranged from 6 monthly to 5 years between emails. I find it’s useful because it gives them accurate current information of where I’m at professionally and shows them how I’m building on skills / knowledge they helped me develop.

  23. JobHunter*

    I keep contact with a few of my colleagues through ResearchGate and Facebook. I help out one person once or twice a year with manuscript editing, as English is his second language. I enjoy editing scientific papers and feel ‘normal’ again while discussing the content (I am not currently in a research position). The exchanges don’t feel forced and we both get something out of it. It wasn’t a conscious effort to keep in touch with my colleague. It just happened.

  24. IDK How To Keep In Touch Either*

    OldBoss, “Lara” friended me on FB years after I had left OldJob (it’s been almost 5 years), probably because my profile came up in her “suggested friends” list. I’m guessing this because her profile kept coming up on my suggested friends list as well but I won’t add coworkers to FB unless they add me first.

    About 2 years ago, something came up at CurrentJob that reminded me of Lara. I gave the same advice to someone else, “Melanie” at CurrentJob, that Lara had previously given me. I wanted to message Lara on FB to let her know that even though I was resistant to that advice when Lara had given it to me and Melanie reacted the same way towards me, I really valued the advice even if I didn’t see it back then. I didn’t know if that would be strange so I didn’t go for it.

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