When Is It Appropriate to Use a Personal Reference in a Job Search?

personal reference in a job search

Job searching is hard work as it is, but when an application or recruiter asks for references, it’s another step required to prove you’re worth hiring. The most prominent person to list as a reference is a current or former supervisor, but what if you’re not on great terms with them, or what if you’ve been on a career pause and have lost touch with them? What do you do? 

Depending on the situation, it may or may not be appropriate to list a friend or relative as one of your references. On the surface, it seems to make sense. After all, who can speak to your character better than someone who loves you? However, sometimes hiring managers want to hear from someone who is more objective, and your BFF from college probably isn’t exactly unbiased in their opinion of you. Unfortunately, it isn’t always clear which type of reference will be best for every position, so the best thing you can do is to maintain a healthy mix of personal and professional relationships so that you always have someone to call if you need a reference. 

Types of References & When to Use Them


A professional reference is someone you’ve directly worked with over the course of your career. This is going to be someone who, when they’re called, can speak to who you are at work. For instance, they’ll be able to provide insight into your work ethic and performance. A professional reference will be able to verify some of the bullets on your resume and will most likely be able to share some highlights during your time working with them. 

Typically, references that are strictly professional will be past supervisors or someone in leadership in a department that you worked closely with, even though they weren’t your direct manager. When you list someone like this on your resume, they will be speaking as a representative of the organization the two of you worked for, and you can reasonably expect them to provide a positive (or at the very least neutral) review, as many companies have strict rules against providing negative references unless hiring the employee would cause serious risk to employees or clients. 

If at all possible, it’s always a good idea to include a professional reference when you’re job hunting. While they may not provide warm-fuzzy descriptions of you, they can speak to the person you are when you’re at work, which is what a lot of companies (especially large-scale corporations) are looking to find out. 


Personal references are people who know you well but have never worked with you. This can be anyone from your friend, to your cousin, to your own mom. They can really speak to your character and what you care about. They can tell a hiring manager about what’s most important to you outside of the office and whether or not you’re a moral and/or ethical person when you’re not at work. 

There are times when listing a personal reference makes sense. First, if you’re applying to work for a mission-driven non-profit organization, then a personal reference can speak to how much the mission matters to you in your personal life. Another time it might be a good idea to include a personal reference is if you’ll be working directly with people (or clients) who are at-risk or in sensitive situations, such as survivors of domestic violence or refugees from another country. 

Finally, if you’ve been on a career pause and you no longer have a relationship with people you’ve worked within the past, it’s smarter to include a personal reference than to leave the line blank. In this situation, though, try to pick someone who will talk about how important getting back into the workforce is to you and how something you do well in everyday life will carry over into your work and help the company. 

Professional & Personal Hybrid

Some references fall in the middle of these two categories, so they’re basically professional-personal hybrids. A good example of this would be your workplace friend who you’ve collaborated with on projects or serve on the same team, but they’ve never actually supervised you. They’ll be able to speak to how you carry yourself at work as well as who you are as a person. Another example of this is someone in your personal life who happens to work in the same industry as you (ideally, they hold a position that is equal to or higher than the job you’re applying for). In this case, they know who you are outside of work really well, but you’ve likely also discussed your jobs and the industry even though you don’t work with each other directly. 

Professional-personal hybrid references are great to include on most job applications because they’re the rare people who can give a recruiter or hiring manager a good overview of who you are and what you bring to the table both in life and at work. In some cases, it may be better to include these references with a job application than a strictly professional reference, especially if that reference is a boss with who you don’t particularly work together well.

It’s important to keep in mind that, if you’re asked to provide multiple references for a single job, a good mix of people will look really good. There are benefits to every type of reference, and providing a potential employer with a diverse group of people who can speak to who you are and what matters to you will help paint a picture of what it would look like if they brought you on as an employee. 

Asking Someone To Be A Reference

The best way to go about asking someone to serve as a reference for you depends a lot on who they are and what your relationship with them is. For instance, if you’re asking your dad if you can list him, you can probably send him a quick informal text to get his OK before hitting submit on your application. On the other hand, a professional reference or possibly even a hybrid reference will require more formality. Here are a couple of ideas for wording your request:

Professional-Personal Hybrid Reference:

Hi, [Name],

I hope you are doing well. I’m reaching out to get your permission to list you as a reference for a job I’m applying for. The position is X at Z company and I’m hoping you’d be willing to vouch for me as an employee as well as speak to my character. Let me know if this is a problem and if there’s a specific number or email address you’d like for me to use.  


Your Name

In this case, the note can be pretty casual because you have a personal relationship of some type with them. Just make sure that you’re taking what your relationship looks like into consideration when drafting the message (you may need to be more formal or you might be able to be even more casual than this) and that you provide them with the information they need in order to serve as a useful reference. 

Professional Reference:

Hi, [Name],

I hope you are doing well. I’m reaching out because I am a candidate for X job at Y company and they have asked for me to provide them with references who can speak to my work. Given how closely we work(ed) together, I’d like to include you on that list if you’re willing. Please let me know if I have your permission as well as what contact information you’d like for me to include. 

I look forward to hearing back from you and thank you for your help. 

Your Name

As you can see, this note is going to be a bit more formal. It’s always a good idea to ask any reference what contact information they’d like for you to list, but it’s especially important in this situation, particularly if it’s someone in the organization you’re currently working for (they may request you use their personal information rather than company email or phone number). Additionally, if you haven’t been in touch with this person in a while, you might want to include a small personal touch, like asking them how a project is going that you know they’re working on or including a small compliment such as, “I always enjoyed working with you and look up to you as a leader.” 

Any Reference Is Better Than No Reference At All

If the only references you have for a corporate job are personal, that’s okay, and the same is true if you only have professional references for a mission-driven type of position. A reference that may not be exactly perfect for the job you’re applying to is still better than not listing anyone. More than anything, these companies or organizations just want to know that you work well with people and that you’re reliable, which is something any reference you choose can verify - because you’re awesome and a good reference knows that any company would be lucky to have you. 

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