a guide to personal references

When pursuing that very first job, it can be hard to have many (if any) professional references to call on. So many employers will accept personal or 'character' references, instead, which are written to endorse you as an individual.

In this guide we’ll explain the ideal referees you can ask to provide your character reference and the form it should take for maximum impact.


People you should ask for references

Good referees tend to be people who have been relatively close to you as you’ve grown up. So typically, this might be a neighbour or family acquaintance that you’ve got a positive relationship with.

Held a trusted position in your local community? Employers will definitely be impressed by that. Roles like scout leader, junior council member or sports coach are all great examples as it shows a good and practical attitude. Similarly, if you have had any casual work or taken part in volunteer schemes for school, these are superb people to ask for personal references.

The key here is to select someone who has a genuinely positive impression of you as a person. It will also impress employers if their own credentials are trustworthy and if they can communicate your reference effectively.


People you shouldn’t ask for a reference

The first rule for a personal reference is they can’t be a direct family member. This is because a personal reference needs to be as independent as possible under the circumstances. Clearly your mum or dad has a vested (and most probably financial) interest in furthering your career, which affects the impact of their testimonial.

Additionally, you shouldn’t ask people who barely know you for a personal reference. Although they might have your best intentions at heart and feel confident enough in their assertions, their lack of real depth can prove problematic.

If the tone feels vague or generic then the employer will sense it, while any attempt to bluff or guess details could come back to haunt you later.


What should a personal reference say?

A personal reference is a chance to describe your in more detail than your CV or cover letter. So it needs to focus more on your character, attitude and personal skills rather than work.

Your referee should address it to the employer’s name if specified, otherwise "To whom it may concern" is a typical standard. Then they should explain how they know you and for how long.

The reference should then elaborate about your relevant skills – perhaps in communication, aptitude, responsibility and general personality. It could also briefly suggest why these qualities would be valuable to their business.

Referees should be open to further questions, and provide contact details before signing the reference accordingly.

Want to know how to lay the reference letter out? Here's a character reference template to help you out.


What form should it take?

References used to be in the form of a letter, but modern employers may expect an email or alternatively, provide their own special forms.

Paper letters are often best as they can be printed and hand-signed. This adds a level of background credence, although the same principle can be applied to emails.

Occasionally, employers may wish to talk to your referees to verify their statements. Therefore your chosen referee should be prepared for this when providing contact details.


What happens if they provide a bad reference?

Just like work references, a negative character reference could be subject to legal action if proven harmful – although in reality, this is extremely unlikely given your freedom to select a suitable referee.

However, do bear in mind that although character references are expected to be favourable, they are never considered bad by not being favourable enough. In fact, those that are more measured in terms of endorsement are more trustworthy than those offering unqualified praise.


Lasting impressions

Given the role personal references tend to play at the formative point of your career, they aren’t generally scrutinised as heavily as working equivalents. However, both you and your referee should always approach them with identical care and respect.

Embracing this chance to formally convey the best aspects of your personality and your optimistic outlook for work could be pivotal in securing that dream opportunity.


Need more advice on references? Click here .


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