A Guide to Identifying and Prepping Character References
It's an increasingly common practice for interviewers to ask for a character reference before they make the final decision to give you a job. Often this is the last hurdle to clear - you may have already been through several successful rounds of interviews.
A character reference is something you can plan in advance so that, whether you are the candidate or their referee, you can make sure the reference you give to the recruiter is as positive as possible. You may also be asked to provide one or more professional references from past employers - we'll look at the difference in detail below.
Like a CV, it is often better to slightly adjust a character reference, to make it more directly relevant to the job you are applying for. In this way, you can go beyond the bare minimum in order to maximise the positive impact of the character statement on the recruiter.
But this should not require a lot of work by the referee, so it is helpful if the candidate can provide their referee with some simple pointers as to the kinds of things they would like their character reference to mention.
In this guide, we look at some of the basics of character references for candidates and for referees, so that if you are asked to provide a reference for a future job application, you know where to start in order to have the best possible positive impact.
What is a character reference?
A character reference is a description of the candidate’s personality, work ethic and soft skills, provided by someone who knows them in a personal setting. It’s important to note the difference between this and a professional reference:
- A character reference should be from someone who knows you outside of work
- A professional reference should be from a former manager or senior colleague
Because a character reference is from someone who knows you on a non-professional basis, you will sometimes hear it called a personal reference. In those cases, remember that a reference is from a third-party referee, and not written by yourself as with a personal statement.
Recruiters might be more likely to ask for a character reference if you don’t have relevant work experience. For example, when applying for a graduate position, you may be asked to provide a personal reference from a tutor in place of a referee from a former job.
In general, the interviewer is looking to find out useful information about your individual character, which can include:
- Communication ability
- Personal ethics and work ethic
- Personality and creativity
- Problem-solving skills
- Transferable ‘soft’ skills
The end goal for the interviewer is to confirm that a promising candidate is a good fit for the company’s culture. This is often the last stage in the hiring process for candidates who have impressed in multiple interview rounds.
For the candidate, it’s important to make the right impression. If possible, try to understand what you think the recruiter is looking for from your reference. For the referee, if you want to help your friend or former student, again try to understand what the interviewer might be hoping to hear, and make sure you provide a positive reference.
What should you write in a character reference?
A lot of the best practice for a character reference is the same as good practice for writing a CV, and that’s partly because the same restrictions apply in terms of using formal language, putting your point across in a concise way, and impressing the potential employer.
In general, it’s good to choose 3-5 attributes of the individual and give a medium amount of detail about each, including real-world examples and appropriate (brief) anecdotes. The employer can always ask for more information if there’s something they’re really interested in.
Be specific: Like a CV, you need to stand out, so try not to be too generic in your choice of characteristics, or too general in the way you describe them. Explain what makes the candidate particularly strong in each area and not just as capable as any average applicant would reasonably be.
Make sure you choose personal or transferable attributes that are still relevant to the workplace, for example:
- Customer relations and external communications
- Leadership attributes and ‘stepping up’ in a crisis
- Patience, understanding and empathy
- Teamwork and supporting others
- Timekeeping (and commitment to deadlines)
You don’t have to give the same amount of information about each attribute, just enough to make it worth including, and you can vary the number of characteristics you include if you think the individual has a longer list worth covering in full.
Who is a suitable referee?
Choosing the right referee for a job application can be almost as important as what they say about the candidate. It’s crucial to choose someone who knows the candidate well and can speak genuinely about their positive attributes but without the reference coming from a friend or relative who is likely to be biased.
Because of this need to be both positive yet also unbiased, it’s often good to ask someone who has experience of providing personal or professional references – or both – and who understands how to speak highly of your character while still sounding impartial.
Some ideas of who to choose – both because they might know you well and also because they are likely to be considered trustworthy by the interviewer:
- Academic advisor
- Career coach
- Life coach
- Religious leader
Although a personal reference is not about your professional attributes, it’s still OK if your referee is a former line manager or a colleague who knows you on a personal level and can therefore provide a reference about your character.
Who should I ask?
Remember that nobody is obliged to provide a character reference for you just because you ask them to. Personal references are a little more ‘above and beyond’ than professional references, which employers are used to providing as a matter of course.
If you know you will be applying for jobs where you’re likely to need a character reference, approach potential referees in advance. Make sure you know if they are going to be busy during the time when you are jobhunting – for example, a university lecturer might be asked to provide a lot of references just after graduation, at a time when they may also be very busy preparing for the new academic year’s intake of students.
You could even have a shortlist of different referees to call on, depending on how personal you want the reference to be – a past educator, a former employer or manager (even from your part-time student job, if appropriate), and someone from your personal life such as a mentor, life coach or religious leader.
Keep in contact with your referees, whether by telephone, email or face-to-face, so you know they are still willing to speak to interviewers on your behalf. Again, this helps you to know when someone is too busy, so you can call on someone else from your shortlist of referees. It’s also a good way to network with all your listed referees, and could lead to unexpected opportunities.
How do I ask someone for a reference?
Approaching someone to act as your referee depends on how well you know them. If you see the person regularly in a personal or informal setting, e.g. at church or because you socialise with them, then you can mention it to them initially quite easily and without obligation.
If you’re approaching someone who you don’t commonly socialise with, e.g. your former tutor, remember they will be doing you a favour by providing a character reference. Make clear that they’re allowed to say no, but that you would be grateful if they’d be happy to be called upon in the event of an interviewer asking for a character reference.
Once you know someone is willing to provide a reference – and especially if they’ve never done so before, for you or other people – it’s a good idea to talk through the kinds of things they might say about you.
We’ll go into more detail below, but this can range from contextual information, such as how long they have known you, to specific examples from your shared past of times when you acted generously, compassionately or just proved to be a decent human being.
When asking someone to provide a reference for a specific job or application, make sure you send them a copy of the job advertisement or listing, so they can tailor their reference to suit the position you are applying for.
It’s good to be professional in your communications, even though you might know the person well. This sets the right tone, which you can carry forwards throughout the process so that you can increase your chances of receiving a professional-sounding reference free from typing errors and spelling mistakes.
How should I start and end a character reference?
A character reference is usually structured like a letter and should have a header and footer accordingly.
Character reference header content
There are some standard items of information you should include at the top:
- Top-right: The sender’s full name, job title (if relevant), and contact details
- The date on which the reference was sent (also usually at top-right)
- Top-left: The recipient’s full name and relevant contact details
- Introductory line: Dear [full name] or Dear Sir or Madam
- First paragraph: Contextual information about the relationship
Opening paragraph and main body
Your first paragraph can be quite short but should include enough information to prove that the referee knows the candidate well enough to give an informed, unbiased opinion about them.
Some of the data points you might want to incorporate here include:
- Where/how you met
- How long you have known each other
- Whether you are still in regular contact
Avoid becoming overly personal – for example, it’s fine to say you have regular contact, but you should resist saying you have become “good friends” as this may throw doubt on the referee’s ability to give an unbiased assessment of the candidate’s character.
From there, you can move on to the main body of the reference, including the kinds of personal characteristics we looked at earlier in this article.
Sign-off and footer content
It’s good to end with a summary that puts the individual’s attributes into the context of the current job application.
Example: “He/She has the transferable skills to work well as part of a team, in an organisation that values personal motivation and a desire for career development.”
Follow this with a further closing statement from the referee, offering additional information if the recruiter needs it.
Example: “Please feel free to contact me if you would like to know more about any of the points I have mentioned, or the other attributes that make him/her a good fit for your company.”
Sign off with a formal, professional and traditional option just as you would when closing a formal letter:
- Yours sincerely (or traditionally ‘Yours faithfully’ if you don’t know the recipient’s name)
- Kind regards or Warmest regards
- Some other business-appropriate equivalent of your own choice
It’s good to include a signature. If you will be sending the reference via email, you can either include the referee’s full name simply typed, or paste in a scanned or clearly photographed copy of their ink signature.
What are employers looking for in a reference?
A character reference (unlike a professional reference) should be personal, positive but unbiased. It should focus on transferable skills (also known as ‘soft skills’) and individual characteristics, rather than job-specific experiences.
Employers want to see evidence that you are a motivated, committed individual who works well with others, whether that’s as a subordinate, a manager, or part of a team on an approximately equal footing.
This is often the last step in the recruitment process and maybe little more than a formality, so don’t fall at the last hurdle – make a lasting positive impression on the employer and really maximise your chances of landing that dream job.
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