Personal references – how to get it right

Abintegro: Career Management & Transition

Personal, or character references may not be something you’ve spent much time thinking about until now, but they could make all the difference when it comes to being vetted for a new role. 

They are commonly reserved for job applicants who are starting out in their careers or who possess limited professional experience, though there are exceptions to this rule. For example, you may be asked to provide a personal reference for a job that’s a little out of the ordinary, or if you’re returning to work after a long hiatus.

Whatever the circumstances, here are some useful tips on selecting the right candidates to speak on your behalf: 

1. Narrow down the candidates 

Technically, a personal referee can include anybody you know outside of a day-to-day (paid) work environment. However, they should ideally be people who know you well and can speak with authority on your behalf.

From this wide pool of potential candidates you need to narrow down and think about the specific skills and qualities you’re looking to showcase – who might be best placed to do this?

2. Find the right blend 

It’s a good idea to select people from different areas of your life who can offer different perspectives and a cross-section of your qualities and interests. A good mix might be an authority figure from your local community, an academic mentor, and a sports coach or leader from a volunteer programme.

3. Don’t make it (too) personal 

A personal reference doesn’t necessarily mean someone you’re very close to you. Avoid picking a relative or significant other – they won’t be in a position to provide a balanced assessment of your skills and personality.

4. Check in with them first 

While you may have an informal relationship, always ask the individual’s permission before listing them for a character reference. This is a common courtesy and if nothing else you need to check they’re available and not travelling overseas, for example.

5. Provide some background 

When reaching out to your contacts make sure to let them know who the role is with and what’s involved. Without being too specific you can point them in the direction of the areas you’d like them to talk about – for instance an IT project you’ve worked on if that’s relevant to the job in question.

Personal references aren’t always scrutinised to the same extent professional ones. However, it’s still important to approach the exercise, and those it involves, with respect. Their input could very well prove the difference in securing that dream role so, if requested, give this part of the application process the care and attention it deserves.


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