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Personal references: how and when can you use them for a career change?

Artwork by: Alexandra Shevchenko

  • The difference between professional and personal references
  • Who to ask for a personal reference
  • How to ask for a personal reference
  • What a reference should say about you
  • Key takeaways

A personal reference from a trusted colleague or respected figure can be very helpful when you’re searching for a new career. Here are ways to request references from people you know well and present them properly to hiring managers.

As a job seeker, gathering professional references is a given. However, in the right situation personal references can also be very useful. 

To learn how to get personal references and when to submit them during your job search, read on about the following topics:

  • Comparing personal and professional references

  • Who to get personal references from

  • How to request a personal reference

  • What a personal reference should offer

The difference between professional and personal references

Both professional and personal references are individuals you approach when you’re thinking about a career transition or job change. If a hiring manager contacts them in some way, each type of reference will act as a witness for you, sharing what they know about your qualifications as an employee–one from a business perspective and the other from a personal perspective.

A professional reference can be a current or former boss, supervisor, colleague, client, or teacher–in short, someone who you’ve worked closely with. Whether via letter, email, or phone call, these references will talk about your skills, education, and work experience, describing times where they saw you excelling at tasks, mastering lessons, etc.

If most professional references are people who worked with you at a business or center of learning, then a personal reference is often someone who knows you as a friend rather than as a professional colleague. Instead of praising your skills or accomplishments, letters of recommendation written by a personal reference tend to praise your strength of character.

Statistical Insight

According to a recent CNBC article,  78% of an interviewed group of job applicants admitted that they lied or considered lying about their professional qualifications in order to get a job. Additionally, 66% of interviewed hiring managers said they would still consider hiring an applicant who made inflated claims (though HR staff in technical industries are much less likely to tolerate self-misrepresentation).

Who to ask for a personal reference

The person you approach to be your personal reference should be respectable–someone with a good reputation that potential employers can trust. At the same time, they should also be someone you trust and greatly respect. Finally, they should know you well enough on a personal level to provide insights into areas such as your personality, work ethic, and ideals.

Expert Tip

If you’re thinking about approaching an old teacher to write a personal reference, reach out to the person who pushed you to new heights. If you’re planning to reach out to an old boss, connect with one who looked out for your well-being at your current or former job. If you’re planning to contact an old client, solicit someone who can vouch for your integrity and professionalism in business dealings.

On a practical level, your personal reference should also be a good communicator with the strong interpersonal skills needed to get and keep a job. The letters they write and the phone conversations they have need to convince potential employees that you’re competent, hard-working, and dedicated. 

If your reference can’t muster up eloquent language or clear arguments, hiring managers won’t be as impressed as you want them to be.

How to ask for a personal reference

In decades past, you could ask people to be your reference then add their contact information to the end section of your professional resume. This way, employers could contact your references directly to verify the claims you’ve made or request a great, well-written letter of recommendation.

Nowadays, fewer people are comfortable sharing their contact information with unfamiliar companies or responding to unsolicited phone calls. Modern companies are also less likely to request professional or personal references in their job postings or during the first stage of the application process.  

For these reasons, you should always ask a trusted colleague if they’re okay with being your personal reference for a specific job. Even if they shared their contact information or wrote a recommendation letter for a previous job application, they may not want to do the same for another job opening.

Always get their approval well before you submit their names as references so they aren’t contacted without warning or preparation time.


A sample letter asking someone to be your personal reference

Hello [Name here],

I hope things are going well for you at [location here]. I’m currently applying to a [job name here] position at [company name here]. Could I use you as a personal reference for this job application?

If you’re interested in being my personal reference, [company name here] would probably want to reach out to you via [medium here] during business hours. Naturally, I’d only share your contact information with your permission and with that company alone.

I’ve attached the job posting and my most recent resume below if you’re interested in learning more. 

Thank you for considering my request. Feel free to reach out if you have questions or just want to catch up.

Best regards,

[Your name here]

After they agree (or decline) to be your personal reference and/or write a letter of recommendation, always reply back with a thank you message and ask about their own lives and professional careers. 

Helping someone get a new job is an impressive feat that should always be acknowledged, and communicating with associates even if you don’t need something from them is an essential part of career networking.

What a reference should say about you

If your trusted associate agrees to be your personal reference and you haven’t already provided it, your next message should always contain information about the job you’re applying to, the skills it requires, and the questions hiring managers are likely to ask.

Feel free to share helpful documents such as your up-to-date professional resume, particularly if you need them to write a letter of recommendation. The more information they have, the less stress they’ll go through trying to promote your qualities.

When your personal reference makes contact with the company you’re applying to, their goal should be to talk about you as a person rather than coldly listing off what you know and what you’re good at. How they got to know you, what they respect about you, moments they witnessed where you went above and beyond the call of duty…your personal reference can  use these anecdotes and others to show potential employers that you share their values and have a strong personal character that could mesh well with the company culture.

  • Ask your personal reference to share their impressions about these qualities:
  • Your personality traits
  • Your work ethic
  • Your creativity
  • Your dedication to self-improvement
  • Your ability to solve problems
  • Your communication skills
  • Your empathy
  • Your initiative and leadership skills
  • Ask your personal reference to share their impressions about these qualities:
  • Your educational background
  • Your professional skills
  • Your previous careers
  • Your hobbies or interests

Key takeaways

  1. Personal references, unlike professional references, should be people you trust who knows you well on a personal level.

  2. Your personal reference should also be someone who communicates well and can earn a hiring manager’s respect.

  3. Always ask someone if they’re willing to be your personal reference before sharing their contact information or asking them to write a letter of recommendation.

  4. When communicating with your prospective employer, your personal reference should talk about your character, personality, work ethic, etc. and not your technical qualifications.

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