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It's just as important to update your network of colleagues and work friends as it is to update your computer.
When Steven Spenser, 52, was laid off from his Seattle-area software company in 2001, he decided to become a stay-at-home dad. Seven years later when he started looking for full-time work, he faced a problem: All his old contacts and job references were seven to 12 years old.
"Tracking down my previous references proved problematic since many of the companies were Internet start-ups that have gone out of business," Spenser says. "I've found that two are willing to sing my praises again, but I have no one to direct to them."
The process of his network outdating was gradual, he says. Spenser continued to see old colleagues and work friends socially for a few months after his layoff, so he didn't foresee any point in which he would fall out of touch with them. Eventually, his former co-workers stopped calling and he was too busy to notice.
"Being a first-time father kept me so preoccupied for a few years that I didn't really bother thinking about the downstream effects of not keeping in touch with anyone," Spenser says.
Many people these days are in Spenser's same position: After working at the same business or for only a few companies throughout their careers, workers are finding themselves unemployed with an outdated Rolodex and no job references in sight. Though experts recommend networking constantly, many professionals find it difficult to maintain business relationships and keep up with everyday life.
"After a while goes by of being out of touch, the withdrawal takes on a life of its own and it can seem harder to get back into touch than just do nothing and let the status become quo," Spenser says.
To avoid running into this problem, the idea is obviously not to let your network get outdated in the first place.
"People need to keep their network alive long before they are laid off and in search of a job," says Thom Singer, author of "The ABC's of Networking." "To wait to contact someone until you have a major need, like needing a job, will make you look like a taker: 'Hi, I have found you useless to keep in touch with for five years, but now I am hoping you will drop everything and help me,' just does not fly."
So how do you go about finding contacts that have fallen off your radar?
To begin renewing his network, Spenser did Google searches, looked on online white pages and checked directory assistance. He finally found one former supervisor through his son's company Web site. He was able to track down a former client by finding his new business information online. Both contacts were very willing to help Spenser and serve as a continued reference.
Not all people are accepted so openly, however, when trying to refresh cold contacts. If you find yourself needing to contact someone you haven't spoken with in a long time, you should own up that you dropped the ball, Singer says.
"Tell people that you never understood why networking mattered and thus had not done a good job of keeping up," Singer suggests. "Admit that this stint of being unemployed and in need of help is humbling and that you've learned a lesson. People are more likely to want to help someone who is honest like that than one who calls up expecting assistance after not ever calling before."
If you're looking for ways to update your network, here are some ways to get the process started:
1. Make a list
Create a list of everyone you know and have known, whether or not you know where they are today, suggests Duncan Mathison, an author, speaker and consultant on companies and professionals impacted by layoffs. Circulate the list to people you have stayed in touch with and they can often fill in the blanks, reintroduce you and even remind you of others who would be worthwhile to connect with.
2. Perform a Google search
Start by typing in the full name of the person you are searching, says Melissa Cassera, publicity specialist. Try searching for his or her full name + the state in which they live. If you find a name but no contact information, try typing in the full name + the word 'e-mail' or 'phone.'
3. Contact your undergraduate or business school
You may score current contact information by responding to requests from your alma maters' alumni association, says Debra Condren, business psychologist, coach, author and founder of AmbitionIsNotADirtyWord.com. Update your own contact information and professional biography and stay visible to your former classmates, she says. "Let folks know what you're up to and they may surprise you with a blast from the past phone call or e-mail, just when you were wondering how to find them."
4. Use social networks
Look up old colleagues on LinkedIn, Plaxo, Jigsaw, Brightfuse and Facebook, Cassera suggests. Many of these sites have search functions where you can search by company -- even if someone has left the organization, there's a good chance they've listed it in their previous work history.
5. Fill in the gaps
If you are missing links in your network, you must replace or renew them. Revisit your trade organization, attend local networking events and use your current data base to get connected to new contacts, says David Hults, author of "From Cornered to Corner Office." If you're laid off, ask people who would be good contacts to know. Some will surely know the 'movers and shakers' in your industry.
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