When, Why, and How to Use Personal References in a Job Search
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Wouldn’t it be great if you could walk into your ideal company, tell them about yourself, and score your dream job right on the spot? Unfortunately, a job search takes a bit more effort than that, and employers want to know not just how you present yourself, but also what others say about you—meaning that the right personal reference just might get you a step closer to that dream job.
Whether you’re a new grad just starting your career or a seasoned professional with lots of experience, you might need to provide personal and professional references during your job search—typically toward the end of the hiring process after you’ve completed one or more interviews.
As a Muse career coach, I work with a lot of clients who have questions about personal references. Some of those questions are about what a personal reference is and when to use one. Others are about who to select as a personal reference and whether providing personal references can really help them secure the job they want. Read on to find out the answers.
What Is a Personal Reference?
A reference is someone who gives a potential employer information about you to help them learn more about who you are. There are two types: professional and personal. A professional reference—such as a manager or team leader—shares information about who you are at work, including your work ethic and performance. A personal reference is someone you know outside of work who can share information about your character and skills you’ve used in your non-work life.
As you navigate your job search, you may hear that professional references are more important than personal references, but this isn’t always true. Even though you haven’t worked together, personal references can still offer valuable insights to a potential employer about what you can do in the workplace. In fact, a personal reference is someone who can speak to your ability to add value at work and can highlight key skills and strengths you'd bring to the role you’re going for, says Muse career coach Nekpen Osuan Wilson, cofounder and CEO of WomenWerk. For example, if you’re being considered for a job in project management, your personal reference could (and should) be someone who can talk about related skills such as planning, timeline management, and scheduling.
Employers also rely on personal references to learn more about who you are beyond your professional qualifications. “A good personal reference shows whether you’re well-rounded,” Wilson says. For example, she’s often listed fellow board members or partners on social impact projects she’s completed to help give hiring managers a full picture of who she is as a person.
When speaking with your personal references, employers may ask about a range of topics, including your:
- Work ethic
- Ability to work with others
- Relevant skills you’ve gained outside of your work environment
- Personality traits
Potential employers often ask about your soft skills. Active listening, relationship building, conflict resolution, time management, and decision making are all examples of soft skills you’re likely using at work as well as in personal settings. “When you’re well-rounded and you’re trying to communicate that and bring those soft skills to life, personal references help you,” Wilson says. So choosing a personal reference who can talk about these skills allows you to demonstrate that you can be successful in the workplace.
When Should You Use a Personal Reference?
Some employers will ask for a personal reference directly, and you should always follow those instructions. But even when you’re not specifically asked for a personal reference, you can still use one. Basically, whenever you don’t have enough professional references (say, if an employer asks for three professional references and you only have two) or you don’t have a professional reference who can speak to a certain aspect of your qualifications for a job, you can use a personal reference to fill in the gaps.
Entry-level job seekers might use a personal reference to show off skills and qualities they possess that are related to the job they’ve applied for—particularly if they don’t have the number of professional references a company is asking for. A strong personal reference for an entry-level candidate can take the focus off their lack of career experience and put it on why they’re the right person for the job—for instance, someone you’ve worked with on a personal, side, community, or school project or someone who’s participated in a hobby alongside you.
You can also use a personal reference if you’re changing careers, applying for a job that would require you to work with certain populations (such as children or individuals with special needs), or trying to show what you would bring to the company outside of completing your day-to-day tasks.
What’s the Difference Between Personal and Professional References and Who Can You Ask for Each Type?
Personal references are people you know from settings outside of work, such as community organizations or social groups. When choosing a personal reference, try to go with someone who can provide useful, firsthand insights into how you operate—even if it’s not in a formal professional setting like a job or internship. Examples of people who can serve as personal references (depending on your situation) might include:
- College professors
- People you know from networking or professional membership groups
- Leaders of social clubs, hobby groups, or community service activities
- Coaches or instructors from extracurricular activities
- Faith leaders (such as a pastor or priest) who can speak to your job-related skills
- Friends who have worked with you on a project or assignment
Meanwhile, a professional reference “has to be someone who’s worked in your professional environment,” Wilson says. I advise job seekers to request professional references from people they know from their jobs, internships, or fellowships. For example, you’ll often ask a manager or supervisor you’ve reported to at work, but you can also turn to a peer or colleague from your own team or another team if you’ve worked with them frequently. If you’re pursuing a leadership role, you can list your own direct reports or even other coworkers you’ve managed as part of a work project. The key is that “you both had a goal that was tied together,” Wilson explains. A shared goal helps your case because your reference can tell the employer in detail how you work—specifically, how you helped meet objectives and positively impacted the team or project.
People who can serve as professional references might include:
- Direct managers, supervisors, and bosses
- Other managers and leaders at your company
- Coworkers on your team
- Colleagues in other departments
- Direct reports
- Managers and leaders at organizations you’ve volunteered for
- College professors
- Business partners
- Academic advisors
You’ll notice that college professors are listed as both personal and professional references; this is because the nature of your relationship with them can vary. If you had a close relationship with a college professor and perhaps even looked to them as a mentor, you can cite them as a personal reference. If you worked with the professor outside of class (supporting their research or serving as a teaching assistant, for example), you can cite them as a professional reference. One caveat: Don’t pick a college professor for either type of reference if you only know them from class and didn’t build a relationship with them. Most professors have a lot of students over the years and may not remember you well enough to serve as a reference if you were one of 100 students in their lectures and didn’t interact otherwise.
Can I Use a Family Member as a Personal Reference?
When personal references come up during coaching sessions, my entry-level clients often ask whether they can use family members. And while you can if you absolutely need to, I advise my clients to exhaust all of their other options first. (I also provide examples of people they can ask before reaching out to a family member.)
In Wilson’s experience, however, it’s totally OK to use family as a personal reference, as long as one condition is met:. “It’s OK if you have a significant meaningful project with that family member,” Wilson says. “Did you build a business together? Did you start an initiative or a new project together? It needs to be something that shows meaningful impact, whether that’s social or business-related.” Whether you choose to exhaust all other options first or not, citing a family member as a personal reference works best when you’ve started a venture together, such as a small business; a volunteer project in your community; or a podcast, blog, or YouTube channel.
You may find yourself in a situation where you feel a family member blurs the line between personal and professional reference. For example, “I have a friend who started an orphanage in East Africa with her uncle,” Wilson says. “That’s an amazing personal reference because he can speak to how she overcame challenges and her passion for others.” Although it may sound like Wilson’s friend could use her uncle as both a personal or a professional reference, I would only advise using him as a personal reference. Employers often worry that family members won’t provide as objective of a reference as an unrelated manager or coworker would, so I suggest only using family members as personal references—if you’re using them at all.
How Do I Ask Someone to Be a Personal Reference?
How you ask for a personal reference can be as important as who you ask. Even if you’re reaching out to someone you know well, it’s still important to be professional about it. You should always ask someone to be your reference before sharing their information with a potential employer. When exactly you ask is up to you as long as it’s you’re giving them ample time to respond and prepare. Confirming that someone wants to be a personal reference for you demonstrates respect and consideration for them.
Asking ahead of time also gives you an opportunity to share relevant information and prepare your reference. If they don't have the information they need to provide a glowing review, that could potentially hinder your chances of getting the job you want.
So when you ask someone to be a personal reference, consider providing the tailored resume you submitted to the job you’re applying for, a link to your portfolio, and any other materials that can help your reference prepare to talk with the employer about you (such as a summary of your key accomplishments on the project you worked on together). In addition, you should provide a copy of the job description so that your reference knows about the job requirements and expectations and can mention why you’d be a good fit when talking to the employer. In my own coaching experience, I work with job seekers to identify their soft skills and ensure they provide their personal reference with specific examples of how they’ve exercised these skills so they can be brought up in a reference conversation or letter.
In most cases, you’ll want to send the request in writing via email or LinkedIn. A formal reference request might look like this (just make sure you swap in all your own personal information!):
Dear Ms. Adams,
I hope you’re doing well! I am reaching out to ask whether you would be a personal reference for me. I enjoyed working with you at XYZ Animal Shelter as a volunteer during the summer of 2019 and learned a lot from you as a more experienced volunteer who was kind enough to show me the ropes.
Since then, I have continued building my experience working with animals and am currently applying for a veterinary assistant position with Pacific Animal Shelter. I believe that a positive reference from you would help show the hiring manager how dedicated I am to helping animals and how hard I am willing to work on the job. I need to provide a list of references to the hiring manager by the end of next week and kindly ask that you let me know by Saturday if you’d be willing to speak on my behalf.
I have attached my resume in case you’d like to see some of my more recent experiences. I can also send you the job description to give you more information about the position and share a summary of some of the skills and experiences from XYZ Animal Shelter that I think might be helpful to highlight. In the meantime, I hope you have a great week!
With gratitude for your consideration,
If you’re asking someone you know in a more casual context—for example, a friend or social group leader—you could go with something less formal. The tone will be a bit more relaxed and conversational, but just like in the last template, you will clearly state the request, use professional language, and provide an actionable next step that your reference can take. Here’s an example:
I hope you’re doing well! The last time we spoke, we were both job searching and I’m glad to share that I’ve found a few great project coordinator roles that I can’t wait to apply for! Would you be willing to be a personal reference for me if any companies request them?
If so, the hiring managers would contact you by phone or email to ask about your experience working with me. Since we worked so closely on our sociology group project, I think you would be a great person to tell them about my teamwork, problem-solving, and project tracking skills. If you agree, I’ll give them your contact information, and I’ll give you a heads up as soon as I know when you’re likely to hear from the hiring manager.
I’ve attached my resume for your reference and you can check out my LinkedIn profile. I’m hoping we can catch up soon as I’d love to know how you’re doing and if there’s any way I can support you in your job search. Enjoy your weekend!
Using these examples for guidance can help you craft a solid reference request. If the person you reach out to agrees to be your personal reference, be prepared to follow through on everything you said in your email. Confirm the best contact information for your reference and provide any materials they might need to prepare. Then, let them know once you’ve completed your interviews and provided their name to the recruiter or hiring manager—and whatever information you have about when the hiring manager plans to reach out.
After your references are called, follow up. If the employer spoke with your reference by phone, they may be able to provide you with insights on what the employer asked about and how the conversation went. Keep in mind that employers rarely share information about the search with references, so they’ll likely only be able to tell you what their impression of the conversation was or which questions came up.
Be sure to thank your references for their time, even if you don’t get the job, Wilson says. Email is a basic place to start for your thank you note, but you can drop off or mail a handwritten note if you want to make it more personal. You might also consider sending a small gift to thank your reference for their time. “It depends on the relationship you have and their personality,” Wilson says. For example, “If it were my priest, I would send them something.” You might send an eGift card, a coffee mug, or an item you know they like to collect. You don’t have to send a gift, but make sure you don’t forget the thank you note—after all, they may have just helped you land an amazing new job!