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References make the job-hunting world go round. Professional references tell your potential employer about your past job performance. A personal reference talks about your character and your abilities, rather than your work life. When you're looking for a new job, professional references are more important.
Professional vs. Personal Reference
A professional reference is someone who's seen you on the job and knows what you're like to work with. When you're asked to name references, choose someone you've worked with on a day-to-day basis within the past five to seven years, for at least six months. This could be a former employer or supervisor, or a colleague or client. You want someone who can go into detail about your skills, strengths and performance.
Even if the application form asks for personal references as well, they won't carry as much weight as professional ones. They're most important when you're starting out in your career and you don't have significant work history to share, or you're returning to work after a long hiatus. These references can discuss your personality, people skills, intelligence and your ability to carry out tasks.
Picking Your References
Put serious thought into the people you name for either category. You need to have the right type of acquaintance for a reference. When you have a list of several people, ask them if they're willing to answer questions from your prospective employers. For professional references, you want people who know your strengths, and will paint a positive picture of your abilities. Lukewarm comments from a former supervisor won't land you a job offer. Tell your references the details of the job they're going after, so they know the kind of skills and success stories to emphasize.
For personal references, you don't want someone who's very close to you, such as your spouse or your sibling. Employers know better than to assume that they'll get an unbiased view. Ideally, list several authority figures who can discuss different parts of your personal life. Good choices here include a teacher, a pastor, or the head of a volunteer program you participate in.
Give Advance Notice
Let your references know when you've had an interview and when you anticipate your references might be called upon. This will give them time to prepare. There are typical questions most professional references should expect from the prospective employer, such as the following:
- Tell us about the candidate.
- What are his strengths?
- What are her weaknesses?
- Why did he leave the job?
- Would you work with her, or hire her again?
This is one reason that it's important to give advance notice. A reference can't refuse to acknowledge that you have weaknesses. Everybody has weaknesses. At the same time, a reference doesn't want to say anything that makes you look like a bad investment.
Will Professional References Talk?
One problem with professional references is that they may not be willing to say anything beyond the basics. The firm you're interviewing with may get a professional reference letter that confirms the dates of employment and your position, but nothing more. This is particularly true with negative references, out of fear you or another employee will take offense and sue. Some states protect employers who give an honest but negative reference, but that doesn't prevent someone from filing a lawsuit.
Even positive references have risks. If a company gives one former employee a good reference, but another employee gets a mediocre reference, the second employee might claim discrimination and take legal action. The less said, the better.
Some companies have an official policy that they won't give you anything but a neutral, just-the-facts reference. If you were a good employee, however, your supervisor might give you a thumbs-up reference, despite the company's policy. However, if you know you can't get a positive recommendation, look elsewhere for a reference.
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What If You Do Not Want One of Your Previous Employers Contacted?→
- Barada Associates: What’s the Difference Between a “Personal” Reference and a “Professional” Reference?
- Abintegro: Personal References: How to Get It Right
- Northeastern University: How to Use Professional References to Your Advantage
- Inc.: Your Former Employees Want a Reference. Here Is What Your Attorney Thinks About That