How to deal with an out-of-date reference

Q. I’ve been wondering about this question for a while. One of my colleagues left my firm a few years ago (maybe 3-4?) and asked if she could list me as a personal reference. I told her it was OK and willingly spoke with potential employers about her. Fast-forward to the current time, and she’s still listing me as a personal reference. I haven’t kept contact with this person, and I’m no longer comfortable being a personal reference. I’d appreciate hearing any hints on how I can relay that information to potential employers. I don’t know anything negative about this person, I just haven’t been in contact with her for a few years (and have no way of getting in contact with her now). Thanks.


J. C., Fairfax, VA

A. When all else fails, a little benevolent honesty goes a long way to solving a problem. Rightly so, as you have lost contact with this former colleague, your comfort level for providing a reference has diminished with the passage of time.

You have two options to solve the problem. Wait for the next company to call asking for a reference. Explain the situation to the caller, “Jim, while I’d like to give you some insight into Jane’s capabilities, the fact is I haven’t been in touch with her since she left ABC Corp four years ago. It’s been long enough since then that I’m uncomfortable answering your questions now. Would you please provide me with her current address so I can contact her to discuss this?” Or, you could contact the last company that called you and in a similar manner ask for Jane’s address so you can contact her. It’s important you make the effort to find Jane or you will continue to have to respond to companies seeking a reference from you about her.

As individuals build a network that includes people who are willing to provide references, it’s important to stay in touch with the people in the network. Do so not only when seeking a job, but also while you are on the job so your network participants know what you are doing and can speak about you from a position of current knowledge.


If, over time, you are still providing a person’s name as a reference, do yourself and the person the courtesy of re-asking their permission before simply providing their name as a reference. Otherwise you risk having the person tell the company he or she is no longer willing to give a reference, and that is not what you want your prospective employer to hear about you.

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