Don’t Burn Your Bridges

For some people, leaving a job is like closing a door. A friend of mine recently quite a pretty fancy job to free up time to return to school, but when her manger emailed her a few weeks later to say hello and check on how things where going, she was utterly confused. Why would she want to maintain contact with someone she hadn’t been all that close to and now no longer worked with? For her there is no looking back.

It makes sense that many would want to focus on what lies ahead, and in some cases may even hope to forget certain aspects of their past, but this idea of burning your bridges and cutting off all ties and connections to former work places is often not in your best interests. Of course asking a company you no longer have anything to do with for a recommendation can be awkward and insincere at best. But the impact goes beyond this.

The networking connections from previous places of employment (be it a coffee shop, or a Fortune 500) can be invaluable in a number of ways. If you met someone at a networking event, had an interesting conversation, exchanged contact information and discussed potential collaboration, you would definitely follow up. Even if things didn’t work out with this new connection they may be able to connect you to others who will prove helpful. That is how networking works. So why would you give up the connections you have made at previous jobs just because you are moving on to something else?

Two years ago I spent a “transition” summer in Los Angeles. During this time I responded to a job post I had found on the internet and met a creative entrepreneur that had spent the last few years working to fine tune his project while trying to build and maintain buzz. I loved the concept of what he was doing and offered to help in anyway I could, even though my schedule was incompatible with what he was originally looking for. We only worked together for about a month before I moved to London to begin my MA, but I made sure that we kept in touch.

Occasional emails contained updates on his project and my studies, as well as ideas for trickier parts of development and the like. He also proved an invaluable source of knowledge when I interviewed him for an assignment. Then, a few months ago, I moved back to Los Angeles. Within 24 hours of informing him that I was back in town he offered me a job producing a one-off event with him. It was perfect timing; he had bitten off more than he could chew and needed someone familiar with the fast approaching project who could jump right in.

Since then we have worked together on two other projects and through him I have made numerous other connections that have lead to work. For many, working with someone for such a short time would be a passing thing, easily forgotten and ignored. But in the time since we first worked together, this casual employer has turned into both a consistent source of freelance work opportunities, and an invaluable mentor. But this isn’t the only time something like this has happened because I chose to maintain contact with people from a previous job.

When I was 16 I worked as a PA for a film being shot in my hometown. I was about 8 years younger than the next youngest person but also one of the only people familiar with the dangers of the Arizona desert in summer. I knew that my both age and gender meant that I had to prove that I could take care of myself, so I put my youthful energy to work. I was also quick to correct the mistakes of my co-workers. “Scorpions don’t bite, they sting.” I informed the producer’s assistant one afternoon. My bold interjection was enough to get the attention of the higher ups and I quickly was moved to be an office PA, working directly with the producer and the assistant I had corrected.

I had no idea what networking was, but I knew these people were doing something I wanted to do. So every year or two I sent out an email reminding them of who I was and checking up on their careers. That assistant went on to be a producer in his own right, and I had sent enough emails that when I moved to LA years after I had last seen him in person, he still remembered me. Turns out he needed and assistant editor, and while I had no experience in that particular field he remembered my past work ethic and was willing to take me on and train me. Through this connection I had made at one of my first ever jobs, I managed to get both a job and free specialized training nearly a decade later.

And these are just a few examples of this. I have a former boss who made a list of key phrase and places to visit when she found out I was moving to Germany, and a co-worker from London who keeps me updated on office gossip, and the current creative environment in the UK, as well as potential projects I may want to get involved with. The benefits of staying connected to previous jobs are numerous and can influence both personal and professional aspects of your life, long after you would have expected.

The diverse possibilities that these connections can allow for stem from the fact that these are people you have actually worked with who can vouch for your abilities and help you build a solid reputation even when you are living in a another city. This is especially important for project based workers such as entrepreneurs, freelancers and creatives who often don’t have long term employment to list on their resumes. Sites like LinkdIn promote ‘knowing’ a lot of people, but having a vague connection to someone who probably doesn’t even remember meeting you is going to be a lot less helpful than having a maintained connection to someone who is well aware of your work ethic. In a creative economy often ruled by “it’s not what you know, but who you know” quality is still far better than quantity.

Someone that you met at a massive networking event and spent ten minutes talking to is going to be significantly less emotionally invested in your success than someone you actually worked with, so don’t burn your bridges. Try to leave on a good foot and be sure to keep in touch with at least one or two people from each job. Worst-case scenario? You can ask for a recommendation without that awkward tension of ‘do they even remember me?’ Best-case scenario? You set yourself up for future success as your connections build their own careers and expand.