How To Keep In Touch With Former Coworkers Without Being Annoying

Photographed by Eva K. Selvi.
Office life is full of rituals: the act of secretly passing around a birthday card, the overnight bags littering the office on a Friday before a long weekend, the airing of the grievances about the thermostat temperature. And, of course, the time-honored goodbye email. Having worked in eight different offices doing various internships and jobs over the past nine years, I’ve already received (and sent) my fair share of goodbye emails. You know the drill — it almost always includes a personal email address and the promise to stay in touch.

When I've written one of these emails, I'd always meant it. I genuinely don’t want to lose contact with (most of) my old coworkers. But, as a recipient, I’ve found myself doubting the email’s sincerity. Do they really want to hear from me? Surely they have a social life that both predates and postdates their time knowing me as the coworker most likely to spill Diet Coke on her keyboard. Besides, if I actually maintained that kind of in-person interaction with every former coworker, I’d have a full social calendar built entirely around caffeine or cheap booze. And that doesn’t sound so appealing.

So what exactly is the best method for staying in touch once you, or someone you’ve worked with, has moved on? Looking for an alternative to the awkward catch-up drinks, I went to the experts.

First, I got in touch with a verified etiquette expert: Lizzie Post, host of the weekly podcast Awesome Etiquette. Post emphasizes that it’s perfectly acceptable to keep contact with former coworkers strictly professional — and electronic.

She stresses that these contacts should be kept to the people you actually worked regularly with, and doesn’t have to include everyone in the office. And the contact doesn’t need to be complicated. Post says the interns she’s worked with who have stayed fresh in her mind often do something as easy as sending the occasional text saying they think back fondly on their time working with her.

She also mentions that once you’ve reached out with an email, you might not hear back, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try again in a few months. A simple, short email can do wonders as far as reminding someone you exist.

A simple, short email can do wonders as far as reminding someone you exist.

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When I asked career coach Lauren McGoodwin of Career Contessa exactly what these check-in emails should say, she emphasized what she refers to as “low-hanging fruit” — easy messages you can get in the habit of sending to your contacts on a regular basis, like a quick hello email at the beginning of the New Year. It should go without saying, but please don't send a mass email with all your contacts bcc'd. You don’t want it to be too generic, And, as Post emphasizes, make sure your spelling and punctuation are correct — nothing sucks the “professional” out of the professional email like a typo.

“The trick of good networking is to make it as easy as possible for the other person, and eventually it becomes really easy for you as well,” McGoodwin says. She suggests trying out different things — asking how your contact’s business is going, updating the person on what’s going on in your life, or maybe just passing on an article the person might like — to see which works for you.

You shouldn’t be asking for anything when you send these emails. The act of just keeping in touch will help you stay fresh in people’s minds, so that when you do send an email requesting a reference or seeking some career advice, it doesn’t seem to come out of the blue. And the door swings both ways — keeping in touch with former coworkers can also mean being a reference or making an introduction for them.

You shouldn’t be asking for anything when you send these emails.

I felt relieved after talking with Post and McGoodwin: My instinct to want to keep in touch was correct, and there’s a way to do it without bugging the person. I’ve actually been following McGoodwin’s advice since I left my internship at a public radio program, occasionally passing on topics I think the staff might want to cover on the show, or dropping them a note to let them know I enjoyed a particular segment. It helps that I was a fan of the show prior to working there, but I hadn't thought of what I was doing as particularly special. Only recently did I learn that this "low-hanging fruit" had been a big career boost: I listed one of the producers as a reference when applying for jobs, and he told the hiring manager these emails showed an investment in the show that set me apart from other past interns. It boosted my reference and impressed my future boss.

I’ve always hated networking, because it struck me as tiring and, frankly, kind of phony. But the idea of a network being built out of your organic contacts is something I can get behind — especially if I don’t have to blow my budget on coffee to maintain it.