I am a college intern, and I have noticed that if I do not have face to face contact with someone communication dies off. This has gotten me thinking about professional references. As I am beginning to start networking and getting references, I am unsure how to maintain them.

For me, if a friend messages me after years of no contact, I can pick up the friendship where it left off, but I am not sure if references work like this. Am I expected to maintain some level of regular communication with them, such as happy birthdays and holiday greetings? Or is it acceptable/professional for either of us to just contact each other when needed?

This article discusses how to be on good terms with your boss when you leave (future reference), and this one discusses how to seek a reference after no communication for awhile, but neither mention maintaining them. Is it not necessary?

In short, what do you expect in a professional contact/reference relationship? How do you stay in good standing with the reference and maintain the relationship?

4 Answers 4


References should be folks who have a great view of your current, impressive work. Using references who you have only stayed in contact with for the purpose of them being a reference sort of defeats the purpose of a reference.

Instead of thinking of a person as a 'reference' you should think of them as a peer or a contact. You should stay in contact with folks whose work and interests mirror, complement or supplement your own. That's not to say you don't send holiday cards to your old boss from 5 years ago. But that IS to say that no matter how influential or cool they may be, they're not a good reference if they haven't had meaningful interactions with you and your work within the last, say, year.

A year is a pretty arbitrary amount of time to be honest. What matters is that it is recent enough that that person can talk to your skills, strengths and experiences. If that person has the memory of a goldfish and can't say more than "Yeah FreakyDan was pretty cool" then that's not a great reference. If, say, you helped land a person on the Moon and that person can remember your contributions then a couple of years ago isn't unreasonable. But let's be honest, most of us and most of our accomplishments aren't as memorable as helping land someone on the moon. With that in mind, it makes sense to use as references those who are close enough to your work and to whom that work is fresh in their experiences.

The trick, then, to keeping cool and influential people in your list of potential 'references' is to stay engaged in projects, events or activities that involve those people beyond your time at a company. Consider open source projects, volunteer events or other non-work specific activities as a way of growing and maintaining your pool of potential references. This also opens things up a bit when it comes time to naming references...

I think it's important and valuable to have diversity in your references. What does that mean? If a prospective employee Bob has only references from one job/company and prospective employee Sue has references from several different organizations/companies/events. Then Sue looks and sounds more impressive. References aren't the end all be all. Honestly, most of the jobs I've gotten and most of the candidates I've reviewed - references are rarely if ever contacted. This is different depending on the job level(if you don't have a lot of experience references can be a bigger deal, also management jobs tend to be more interested in references) as well as field(my friends in the health care field get their references called way more often than I do) and region/customs where the company is located.

  • I always viewed them as someone who could vouch for past work (did a and b with employment from x to y), not as people who are in the know of your current work and skills. This has been very insightful, thank you!
    – FreakyDan
    Dec 30, 2014 at 15:11
  • @FreakyDan: That is the difference between an ok reference and a great reference. If I'm looking at hiring you I'm calling the companies/organizations you list to confirm your employment/basic past work. Your references are a chance for you to shine as a candidate. You don't want someone who will confirm you did some work. You want someone who will heap praises upon the awesome hard work/projects/interesting stuff you did while working with/for/around them.
    – Nahkki
    Dec 30, 2014 at 16:00

A reference—someone who would be willing to say good things about you to a potential employer—does not require much maintenance. So long as (a) you performed well at the company and (b) they remember who you were, they will be able to say good things about you. The main problem is that references are time-bound. "I just worked with him, his knowledge is recent and he was very talented" is a much stronger reference than "I worked with him ten years ago, at that time his knowledge was current and he was very talented." As you progress through your career, you always want a few recent positive references.

Maintaining relationships, on the other hand—people who you stay in touch with, network with, and share knowledge with—is much more difficult. This requires effort on your part to stay in touch, whether it be email, phone calls, face-to-face meetings, or whatever other method you use. For what it's worth, if you only call on birthdays and/or holidays, the relationship will feel cheap on both ends, and you won't get as much out of it.

You will want to cultivate both references and relationships, but for the sake of this question, you're just looking for references.


Although not exactly the same as a written reference that you would provide a potential employer; using LinkedIn to build your professional profile and gather references/recommendations should be standard practice for just about anyone in the professional workplace. Many HR people and hiring managers are going to be looking for your profile online anyway, why not take advantage of the tools available to you and make a habit of keeping it up to date.

As a general rule of thumb:

  1. Connect with your professional peers.
  2. Connect with immediate supervisors.
  3. Connect with other supervisors and management members where appropriate. (Obviously if you're a junior level developer and you've said only two words to the CEO during the course of your employment/contract it may not be appropriate to connect with them; use your judgment here.)
  4. Ask for recommendations from immediate supervisors or senior team members.
  5. Add skills and if needed ask for endorsements from those that can vouch for your skills. ( Again use common sense; an endorsement from the receptionist about your high level programming skills just doesn't carry any weight.)

Building your contacts, endorsements, and recommendations on LinkedIn has a lot of benefits for you. It provides the tools and means for easy contact with previous associates, a highly visible professional profile, a means of managing and archiving recommendations (even if not visible publicly).

For many professionals LinkedIn is the preferred means of business networking. Use it to stay in touch and maintain at least an online relationship with all of your contacts.


The people I use as references are first of all part and parcel of my network and I treat them as such. Their role as references is secondary.

If my network is alive and well, I don't have to worry about the maintenance of my references. And of course, I have more references available to me than I actually use or need at any time.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .