A character reference letter provides employers with a third-party account of a candidate’s personal attributes and character traits. While application documents like resumes highlight professional qualifications, the character or “personal” reference letter focuses on characteristics that help someone perform well in a job.
Whether you’re choosing who to ask for a character reference or looking for advice on how to craft a useful character reference letter for someone else, consider the following tips and examples.
When should you include a personal reference?
In some cases, employers may ask candidates to include a personal reference with their applications. Employers might also ask for references before or after interviews, or as a last step before they decide to make a job offer.
If you’re applying for a job and an employer doesn’t request a character reference, you have the option of offering it to them. Additional information can come in handy if you’re entering the job market for the first time and don’t have professional references to share or if you have been out of the workforce for a few years.
Selecting a character reference
A character reference can be anyone in your personal network who can speak to your best attributes. You might also choose someone in your professional network who knows you personally (other than an employer).
Here are a few examples of people who make great character references:
- Co-volunteer or volunteer leader
- Client or customer
- Vendor or business acquaintance
- Professor or academic advisor
- Personal or professional mentor
- Fellow student or graduate from an educational program
- Neighbor or friend
It’s best to avoid choosing anyone with whom you share a direct relation, including a spouse or in-laws. Often, references from family members are not considered objective and are unlikely to be taken as seriously as one from a teacher or colleague.
Also, be sure the person you choose is able to speak to your attributes as they relate to the position or industry. To help them prepare, provide the job description and your current resume, and let them know as far in advance as possible. Once someone has submitted a character reference for you, show your gratitude with a thank you note or email.
How to write a personal reference letter
If you’re asked to provide a character reference for someone in your network, only accept the request if you know the person well enough to speak on their behalf. It’s also essential you can speak positively about the candidate’s personal traits that relate to the job.
Here are five elements all personal reference letters should include:
- The relationship of the reference to the candidate
How do you know the candidate? Be as specific as possible. For example, “I volunteered alongside John building homes for Habitat for Humanity,” or “Mandy lives next door to my family and is my children’s babysitter.”
- How long the reference has known the candidate
How many years have you known this person? For example, “I have known Roberto for more than six years, including two years together in business school,” or “Julia and I have worked together for four years.”
- Positive personal qualities, including specific examples
Share at least three personal qualities that would help the employer better understand the candidate and how they’d benefit the company. These qualities could include things like dedication, communication skills, leadership abilities, positive attitude, efficiency, commitment to quality and other relevant soft skills.
- A statement of recommendation
Your final statement should declare your recommendation. For example, “For these reasons, I recommend Susan for this position and feel she would be a worthy asset to any organization.”
- The reference’s contact information
Include at least two pieces for contact information, such as your email address and personal phone number.
Tips for a powerful reference letter
Whether you’re asking for someone to write a letter for you or composing a letter for someone else, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Reference letters should be positive. This is not the place to list someone’s personal or professional shortcomings. Candidates should always select references they’re confident can speak well of them, and references should only agree if they feel they can authentically speak to the contact’s best attributes.
- Specific examples are important. While a list of qualities is helpful, detailed examples that support and illustrate these qualities help employers better understand how a candidate might perform in various real-life scenarios.
- Concise letters are best. In most cases, personal references should not exceed one page. Remember, recruiters and hiring managers are busy and may have several candidates to consider. Keeping letters descriptive but brief will ensure employers read them entirely.
- Avoid private details. The reference letter shouldn’t go into detail about a candidate’s personal struggles or other intimate matters they may not want to to be shared with their prospective employer.
Sample character reference letter
Here is an example of a well-composed character reference letter that highlights the candidate’s best qualities with a concrete example while keeping the message brief and impactful:
To Whom it May Concern,
I have known Manish Patel for more than seven years. He and I met while volunteering as mentors for the local chapter of the Boys and Girls Club and he also offered his consulting services to my small business, helping me improve my website and increase web traffic.
Manish is one of the most dedicated, hardworking and innovative people I’ve had the pleasure of working with in any capacity. He is also compassionate, kind and never misses the opportunity to help others. Once, while we volunteered together at the Boys and Girls Club, the events coordinator became very sick. Manish stepped in to finalize plans and ensure the children’s holiday party wasn’t canceled — even working late into the evening and sacrificing an entire weekend.
Manish is the type of person you can count on to keep a cool head in a stressful situation, and his positive attitude is contagious.
For these reasons, I recommend Manish for the Marketing Manager position and believe he would be a valuable asset to any organization fortunate enough to have him on their team.
If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.
Choosing the right character reference can be critical in determining whether an employer advances you in the hiring process. If you’re chosen as a reference, carefully compose your message to highlight the positive qualities your contact could offer an employer. While the professional skills and job experience shared through a resume is important, a candidate’s personality, character and soft skills are certainly part of an employer’s final decision.