Don't Slam the Door on Your Way Out

By Dan Rafter
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 4, 2009

When former Big Five accounting firm Arthur Andersen closed shop in 2002 following the Enron scandal, IT professional Darpan Gokharu of Natick, Mass., found herself out of work. Instead of panicking, she kept in close contact with her former co-workers and supervisors and relied on their help to find a new position.

They helped point her toward new opportunities, kept her morale up and kept her abreast of changes in the IT field, she said.

With so many people losing their jobs, not because of poor performance but because of the bad economy, workplace experts say it is important to stay in regular contact with former colleagues. They can provide invaluable information about the current job market and may even point laid-off workers to job leads.

Laid-off workers face a challenge, though: How can they keep in contact with former bosses and co-workers without becoming a burden or a nuisance in the process?

With the help of her former colleagues, Gokharu landed in the IT department in the Foxborough, Mass., office of management and consulting firm BearingPoint.

Now, with Gokharu's current employer also going out of business, (BearingPoint filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection early this year) she will be looking for work once again. Gokharu plans to tap the expertise and industry knowledge of her former supervisors and co-workers as she tries to find her next job in the IT field.

Doing so gives her an edge, she said. "What if I get to a point where I'm negotiating salary for a position that I haven't held before? I can ask one of my former bosses for an opinion. They can be neutral, honest and open with me," Gokharu said.

Ruth Schimel, a career and life management consultant in the District, said workers must first decide if their former co-workers and bosses will be receptive to their outreach efforts. "Can you do it gracefully? That's the key," Schimel said. "I don't think it's ever a bad thing to stay in touch with anyone with whom you've had a good connection. The questions, though, center on how often you do it and what you discuss when you get in touch."

Gokharu has long made it a habit to stay in touch. Every year, she sends a New Year's card to the members of her professional network. Every three months she calls her closest former workmates and bosses to discuss the IT field. She'll also send occasional e-mail messages when she has questions or even if she wants to share good personal news.

Karen James Chopra, a career counselor in the District, said efforts to stay in touch with a former boss may be as simple as getting together for coffee every two months.

Job hunters can make a good impression on their former bosses by occasionally sending them links to a news story in which they think their ex-supervisors would be interested. Other job hunters ask their former bosses to serve as career mentors, James Chopra said.

It also makes sense for laid-off workers to invite their former bosses to relevant career events and workshops.

"Former employers should be a big key of your professional network," James Chopra said. "You want to have a plan for how you are going to stay in touch with them. They are a source of information outside your own sphere. They are an intelligence source of what is going on in your business."

To ensure that former bosses want to stay in touch , job hunters have to remember one thing: Their communication with former workmates and supervisors needs to bring benefits not only to the job hunters, but also to their former bosses.

"Keeping in touch should be about giving as much as it is about getting a benefit," said Maggie Mistal, a career consultant in New York. "Keep in mind the needs of your former employers. What are their challenges? What are their goals? Send them articles that can help them meet these challenges. Send them information on conferences and courses. Send them a new Web site they might be interested in. Send them something that demonstrates that you're not only going to talk to them when you need something."

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