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I've worked with some people who said it's ok to use them as a reference, but I haven't spoken to them in 4 years. Is this normal? And if yes, is a brief e-mail next time you want to use them as a reference, making sure it's still ok, all that is needed?

How should I approach using someone as a reference if it's been 4 years?

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If you flip this upside down, you see what makes sense.

Imagine that you worked with a highly respected colleague from the time you graduated from college to you're late thirties - say 15 years. You are now 53 (fifteen years later) and you've met this individual a few times either personally or professionally - in other words you've kept up your conversation. Giving this to a prospective employer is pure gold.

Now imagine that you worked with someone four years ago, but the project was only for six months, and the two of you barely paid attention to each other. If your employer calls this person, they're going to hear 'huh?' at the other end of the line.

A good rule to follow, give or take, is the longer you worked with someone, the longer the interval before they're probably no longer a meaningful reference. This is another danger in frequent job hopping, no one 'knows who you really are' - other than you are transient.

If you have a four year old reference, it would be good if you worked with them for a period of three to five years - particularly if the two of you transitioned through multiple projects - or multiple employers.

If I were a prospective employer with your reference, I would ask the reference 'What did (upthehill) do?'. It would not be 'is he a good person?' or 'would you work with him again?'. If the reference said 'reports design and database work' then I will follow up with 'what were some of the more complex or exotic reports that he wrote or maintained?'. In short, does this reference give me the ability to gauge your appetite for challenge? That being the case, the duration of your work interval with your reference will matter as much as how long ago the two of you worked together.

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    That definitely sounds like a good rule of thumb, and this is a great answer. Just to clarify another scenario, what do you think about people you've worked with briefly that you formed a solid relationship with? Let's say you and I worked together for 4 years, it's now been 10 years since we last worked together, but we live in the same city and have done lunch together just about every week? Just out of curiosity, would you still consider that reference to be no good or would this be one of those exceptional circumstances? – jmort253 Dec 2 '13 at 21:21
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    @jmort253 - that would be a good reference, because they know what you've been doing. If you periodically trade war stories, s/he knows you're current with industry developments. – Meredith Poor Dec 4 '13 at 23:34
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I've worked with some people who said it's ok to use them as a reference, but I haven't spoken to them in 4 years. Is this normal?

Is it typical? Maybe. Is it optimal? No.

It's not optimal because you want your references to speak from the heart when prompted by a hiring manager. If you stay off of their radar screen for too long, your references may forget specifics about why they enjoyed working with you.

[Should you simply] send a brief e-mail next time you want to use them as a reference, making sure it's still ok?

Yes, but asking someone who you haven't spoken to in four years to act as a reference is not an ideal situation.

Let's review your original question.

How do you stay in touch with people you use as references?

By staying interested in them.

  • Every now and then, send them an email.**
  • Ask "How are thing since we last spoke?"
  • Recall what you last spoke about and ask if anything has changed.

  • When they respond, make a mental record of what they say.

  • Track how things change/evolve in their personal and professional lives.*
  • And plan to stay interested in them in the future.

** "Every now and then" should be interpreted to mean no less than twice per year. But you shouldn't be fixated on the number of communications and it shouldn't be a chore, Also, asynchronous electronic communication (i.e. email) is, by definition, an impersonal mode of communication, but it's also less intrusive/disruptive than a phone call. More personal modes of communication like a phone call or a lunch date are preferable, but not 100% necessary if circumstances or relationships don't make it possible or convenient.

* Again, your relationship with the reference may be such that you don't trade details about your personal lives. If so, that's perfectly fine, but if you do, then you should definitely incorporate these into your semi-frequent communications.

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How should I approach using someone as a reference if it's been 4 years?

While some employers prefer more recent references, it's occasionally useful to use an older but more-targeted reference. For example, if you are now a .NET programmer but need a reference from a Perl job you held several years ago, that's certainly a great reason to dig through your older contacts.

However, if you haven't remained in touch with that person over the years, the contact information you have may no longer be valid. You should definitely reach out to them to ensure that the contact information you have is still good, and that they are still willing to provide a positive reference for you.

Even if you've stayed in close touch, and have received carte blanche to use them as a reference without checking in first, it's generally good etiquette to give the person a heads-up that you've recently put them down as a reference. It may also be useful to tell them the name of the company that may be calling, the role you applied for, and the name of the person (if you know it) who is likely to be calling to check the reference. The more information your reference has, the more likely it is that they will be mentally prepared to extol your virtues when called, instead of being caught by surprise or (worse yet) ignoring an email or phone call from some stranger that they don't know and weren't expecting.

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