What is a Personal Reference?

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A personal reference, also known as a character reference, is a reference provided by an individual who knows you and can vouch for your character and abilities. When you are applying for jobs, you will undoubtedly be asked for references at some point during the hiring process.

Depending on the type of position and your circumstances, personal references can be an excellent choice to support your candidacy.

If you’re a recent grad or are changing careers, character references may be able to provide insight into your work ethic and capacities specific to the position you’re seeking that a former employer or colleague wouldn’t be familiar with.

Make sure you read the job posting carefully or pay close attention to the hiring manager in regards to the type of references they are asking for. Sometimes, the application will specify that you should provide professional references, in which case you will need to be certain that your referrals act in that capacity.  

The Difference Between Personal and Professional References

There is an important distinction between personal and professional references. Unlike professional references, a personal reference does not necessarily need to be an individual that you have worked with directly in a corporate setting. A personal reference should be someone who knows you well enough to provide good insight into your personality and overall character.

If the terminology in the job listing is unclear and you have already established contact with the employer, it’s acceptable to ask, “Are you looking to speak with an individual who can attest to my character in general or someone who I have worked with in a business capacity?”

A character reference will include basics like the relationship the writer has with you and how long you have known them.

The letter should include a positive endorsement, and illustrate your strongest skills and characteristics so you can stand out amongst the crowd. In general, anyone who can vouch for your work ethic, reliability, and your ability to achieve in an employment or academic setting can give you a personal reference.

Who to Ask For a Personal Reference

Business acquaintances, teachers, professors or academic advisors, volunteer leaders, religious workers, friends, coaches, and neighbors can all provide a personal reference. You should not, however, ask a family member or spouse to provide a personal reference.

If possible, do not select someone who you’ve had limited or casual interaction with. You need your personal reference to be able to provide specific and genuine testimonial to your character. After all, the employer’s intent is to get a comprehensive understanding of your personality and ability to succeed on the job. If your reference’s response is vague, overly general or brief, this goal will not be met.

In some cases, you may not have a personal reference outside of your family or spouse, in which case you could ask a coworker who knows you on a personal level. Keep in mind that when an employer explicitly requests a character or personal reference, they may be more interested in hearing about your interpersonal skills rather than your specific achievements in a professional setting.

If your reference is coming from a coworker, the personal or character testimonial should be more about how you did what you did rather than what you did. For example, an employer would rather hear, “Jim has a strong set of interpersonal skills that made him a great asset to our sales team: for example, he is an excellent listener, a strong but empathetic negotiator, and always ‘shows up,’ both mentally and physically.” rather than just, “Jim was always the top salesman at our company.”

Request Permission Before You Use Someone for a Reference

Be sure to contact your potential references before you give out their information to ensure that they are comfortable and willing to take on such a role. You should be sure that they have enough information and the time and interest to provide a strong endorsement for your candidacy for the job.

It’s a good idea to forward them an updated resume and the job posting, especially if you haven’t talked in awhile, to make sure that they can speak to the specific skills that the job requires.

Follow Up With Your Reference

Remember that giving you a referral takes some time, consideration, and thought on the part of your reference. Sending a thank you note or email to the person who took the time to endorse you is a nice gesture to show your gratitude. 

Letter Of Recommendation Samples
Reference letter and email message samples including academic recommendations, business reference letters and character, personal and professional references.

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