Personal References: Who You Should and Shouldn’t Use

FT Contributor
The references section of a job application, prompting the applicant to list previous supervisors and work references.
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If you’re actively looking for and applying to jobs, you may have been asked to provide a personal reference. This is someone who can talk about your character and ability to perform the duties required of the job you’re applying for.

In today’s job market, requests for personal references are becoming more common. In some cases, the employer may require you to submit three references with your initial application. Personal references are an important part of your application and an aspect that you should not take lightly.

There are certain people you will absolutely want to use as a personal reference — those who will give a glowing recommendation for you. But there are also individuals who you should never use as a personal reference — those who don’t know much about you or those who might speak ill of you.

Discover who the best choices are when listing personal references and the people you should steer clear of for a personal reference, as well as what you can do if you feel you don’t have any personal references at all.

Who You Should Ask as a Personal Reference

Below, you’ll find some of the most common types of people that job applicants use for a personal reference, as well as why they’re a good choice to ask.

Former Employer

A former employer is an excellent source for a personal reference because they’ve seen what you’re capable of in the workplace. They may have already written a character reference for you or provided you with a letter of recommendation, but listing them as a reference can’t hurt. Make sure you only list former employers with whom you still have a good relationship.


A former colleague is another excellent reference source, as long as you got along well at work. This could be someone you managed, worked with on a big project, or simply shared an office with. Regardless of who it is, they should have some sort of direct experience working alongside you. You can’t control what they say, but having a positive relationship with this person will help when it comes to using them as a reference.


Teachers and professors, whether former or current, can also be a great source for professional references. These individuals have seen your work ethic and can talk about your drive to succeed in an academic setting. Again, you may have already asked your professor for a professional letter of recommendation, but listing them as a reference gives them a chance to speak further as to the relevant courses you may have taken.

Academic Advisor

Similar to teachers and professors, academic advisors make excellent references. Advisors have seen what you’re capable of in class and in extracurricular activities. In some schools, academic advisors are tasked with giving students personality tests; if that was the case with your advisor, they’ll be able to speak to that information as well.

Organizations You’ve Volunteered for

If you have ever volunteered for a group in your community or religious institution, the people you have worked with there can be a great reference. These individuals can attest to your character outside of work as well as the interests you have and are passionate about.


If you have worked previously in an industry where you maintained a relationship with clients, they can be a great reference. They can speak to your ability to work on client-facing projects, as well as your ability to communicate and meet a client’s needs.

Who You Shouldn’t Ask as a Personal Reference

There are certain people you should never ask for a personal reference, as doing so could ruin your chances of getting the job.


Asking family might seem like a good idea, but it appears extremely unprofessional to a potential employer. Family members have inherently biased opinions. Even if you think a family member isn’t biased and can provide valuable feedback on your work ethic or previous job performance, there’s no way for the employer to know that. It’s best to steer clear of listing family as a personal reference.


Friends are another poor choice for personal references. Again, the problem of bias rears its ugly head. For all the employer knows, your friend would recommend you regardless of your qualifications. Your friends might not have any relevant experience working with you or witnessing you in a professional setting. If you’re going to list a friend, make sure they’re a former colleague who can speak to that experience exclusively.


Your spouse is another poor choice. They will most likely only have good things to say about you, and once again, they probably lack unbiased information on your education and experience.

People Who Don’t Know You That Well

Listing someone you may have worked with but didn’t know all that well can be detrimental to your application. They may not be able to accurately answer the questions your potential employer has, which could jeopardize your chances of landing the job.

Those Who May Not Like You

Listing people who don’t have a favorable outlook of you can completely ruin your chances of getting a job. If a potential employer reaches out to someone who doesn’t like you, they’re given an opportunity to destroy your good name and any chances you had of getting the job, as well as any future roles within the company.

What If You Can’t Find a Personal Reference?

If you feel like you don’t have anyone who would be a suitable professional reference, do not lose hope. This is why networking is so important. Building strong, lasting connections with a network of people in your industry can provide you with a wealth of references to tap into when you need them.

If you list someone as a reference and they’re able to help you out, be sure to write them a thank-you letter for their recommendation.

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