What Is a Personal Reference?

Definition & Examples of Personal Reference

Two women in professional dress are seated at a table and having an animated discussion.
••• PeopleImages / Getty Images

A personal reference is a reference provided by an individual who knows you and can vouch for your character and abilities.

Review whether you need a personal reference and how to ask for it.

What Is a Personal Reference?

A personal reference is someone who knows you relatively well and can attest to who you are as a person. A personal reference is different from a professional reference, which is what employers are typically looking for.

A professional reference is someone you've worked with who can attest to your work skills and habits. A personal reference doesn't necessarily need to be someone you’ve worked with.

How Personal References Work

When you’re applying for jobs, you’ll typically be asked for references at some point during the hiring process. Make sure you read the job posting carefully or pay close attention to the hiring manager regarding the type of references they are asking for. In most cases, employers are looking for professional references.

If you’re new to the job market, you might not have enough professional references. In that case, personal references may be able to provide insight into your work ethic and capacities.

If you're not sure what type of reference a potential employer is looking for, it’s acceptable to ask whether personal or professional references are preferred.

Do I Need a Personal Reference?

While it’s a good idea to have references from people who have worked with you, it can also be helpful to have personal references. This is particularly true for recent grads, who may not have a lot of paid work experience in their field, but who probably have professors or casual employers who can speak to their qualifications as an employee. Someone you did babysitting or pet sitting for would be a casual employer.

More experienced workers who are changing careers may also want to include a personal reference who can recommend them based on familiarity with a different set of skills.

How to Get a Personal Reference

Business acquaintances, teachers, professors or academic advisors, volunteer leaders, religious workers, friends, coaches, and neighbors are all potential personal references.

If possible, don't choose someone who you’ve only had limited or casual interactions with. You need your reference to be able to provide a specific and genuine testimonial to your character. After all, the employer intends 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 won't be met.

You could also ask a co-worker who knows you on a personal level to serve as a personal reference. Keep in mind that when employers explicitly request a personal reference, they may be more interested in hearing about your interpersonal skills, reputation, and personal characteristics than your specific achievements in a professional setting.

Family members and significant others are not appropriate personal references.

Steps to Asking for a Personal Reference

You don't want to give someone's name as a personal reference without talking to them first. Here are the steps to ask for a personal reference.

  1. 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.
  2. Provide guidelines for your personal reference: Be sure that they have enough information as well as the time and interest to provide a strong, positive reference. It’s a good idea to forward them an updated resume and the job posting, especially if you haven’t talked in a while, to make sure that they can speak to the character traits that you're emphasizing and that the employer is looking for.
  3. Share your reference with employers when requested: Unless specifically mentioned in the job posting, wait until you are asked to provide references to your potential employer.
  4. Follow up with your references: Acting as a reference takes time, consideration, and effort on their part. 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.

Key Takeaways

  • A personal reference is a reference provided by an individual who knows you and can vouch for your character and abilities.
  • Most employers require professional references, but personal references may be acceptable if you don't have enough professional references or if the employer specifically requests one. 
  • Ask people who know you well, but who aren't family, to serve as personal references.
  • Ask permission and prepare potential personal references. 

Article Sources

  1. Northeastern University. "The Importance of Professional References." Accessed June 21, 2020.