Make sure your character references help you shine.

A guide to identifying and prepping character references

When the job interview is done and you're almost to the finish line, there may be one last thing for you to do: provide a character reference. Don't wait until the last minute to find someone who can vouch for your character. Instead, be proactive and compile a list of character references before you start your job search. When asked, you can respond promptly, which will bode well for getting the final offer.

Discover everything there is to know about character references, from what it is to how to choose one, before getting started.

What is a character reference?

Not to be confused with a professional reference, which refers to someone you've worked with in a professional setting, like a manager or colleague, a character reference is someone who knows you personally, outside of work. You may have also heard this referred to as a personal reference.

Typically, hiring managers will request a character reference rather than a professional reference if you have little or no work experience. For example, recent graduates who have yet to land their first job or internship are often asked to provide character references. 

A character reference gives hiring managers more insight into an applicant's work ethic, personality and soft skills, such as communication, problem-solving and creativity. Not only does this help employers determine whether the job seeker possesses the necessary skills for the job, but it also helps them gauge if he or she is the right cultural fit.

How to choose a character reference

Identifying the right character reference can be harder than it seems, especially if you have little or no work experience. When choosing a character reference, it's important that you pick someone who will speak highly of you and is able to vouch for your hard-working, reliable, trustworthy character.

Hiring managers look for references who are objective and impartial to the individual, so, it's best to avoid using friends or relatives ‒ these individuals won't be able to speak to your skills and personality without being biased. Below is a list of potential character references to consider as you compile your list:

  • Teacher

  • Academic advisor

  • Coach 

  • Supervisor

  • Mentor

  • Religious leader

If you have work experience but aren't allowed to use references at your current place of work, consider asking a former colleague or manager who no longer works at the company.

How to ask for a character reference

Once you've identified a few character references, the next step is to reach out to ask if they are willing to be a character reference for you. The best method is to call or meet with them in person. If you know the person well, this is also a chance to get coffee and connect for potential opportunities in the future ‒ remember, it always pays to be networking. 

If you're unable to call or meet, the next best option is email. Below are some tips to help you craft your email:

  • Be clear with your ask. Outline all of the information that the person needs in order to give you a proper reference. For example, prepare them to write about the capacity in which they know you and for how long they've known you. Don't assume the individual has written a reference before.

  • Include a copy of the job listing for the role you're applying for so they can understand what type of skills the employer is looking for and tailor their reference accordingly.

  • Be professional. While you may know this individual on a personal level, it's important that you're always professional in communications. Read through the email to make sure there are no grammatical or spelling errors, and keep it informal and casual, but avoid slang or potentially offensive wording.

Now that you know how to identify and request a character reference, start the process now, before you begin the interview process. Make sure the letter is ready when the time comes ‒ you don't want to rush your references or keep your potential new employer waiting, both of which make you look bad and can keep you from getting the job.

Just like you need good character references, you need a strong CV. Find out how yours stacks up by getting a free CV critique.

Editor's Note: This piece originally ran on Glassdoor UK. It is reprinted with permission.

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