What Is a Character Reference?

FT Contributor
A man receives a handshake and a card from a person he has asked for a character reference from.
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While a good portion of the hiring process revolves around professional references and measurable elements such as work history, hard skills, and educational prowess, another factor that often comes into play is a job candidate’s character references.

Character references focus on personal qualities. They typically come from individuals who know the candidate intimately enough to provide an opinion on their moral fiber, ethical behavior, and soft skills. Character references can be essential, as they provide insight into areas that may be difficult to address in the workplace. Training someone how to use a spreadsheet, for instance, is easy. Teaching them how to work hard, communicate well, or simply be honest can be a bit more difficult.

Character references are often used interchangeably with personal references, but the two terms are actually different. A character reference focuses on the personal qualities and soft skills of the candidate. A personal reference refers to the person providing the reference, implying that they know the candidate from outside the workspace — a professor or church board member, for instance. While the two terms may coexist, e.g. a personal reference can provide a character reference letter, they are not synonymous.

Who Needs Character References?

There are multiple scenarios in which a character reference may be required, including:

  • Job applications.
  • School applications.
  • Membership applications for organizations.
  • Certification applications.

People You Should Ask for a Character Reference From

If you find yourself needing a character reference, don’t just call up the first person that comes to mind. Carefully consider who is your best option. You can do this by asking yourself a few questions, such as:

  • Can you trust the individual to represent you well?
  • Do you know their own character intimately?
  • Will associating them with yourself look good in the eyes of the employer?
  • Does the individual have genuine, positive things to say about you?

It’s best to have a diverse pool of candidates you can go to for character references. It’s also good to find referees that are as unbiased as possible. A few common people you can ask include:

  • Business acquaintances.
  • Teachers and professors.
  • Clients.
  • Neighbors.
  • Fellow board members in a church, nonprofit, or other organization.

People Who Should NOT Be Your Character Reference

There are certain people who should generally be avoided when looking for character references. Friends and family typically make the top of the list — especially direct family members such as a parent or sibling.

In addition, take into account the kind of reference you might get even from a “qualified” option. For example, a professor may not be a good choice if you spent time sleeping in their class. An old boss who wasn’t sorry to part ways or who thought your work was mediocre probably won’t have great things to say about you either. In short, always consider the kind of reference you’re going to get when choosing someone.

How to Politely Ask Someone for a Character Reference

No one is obligated to provide a character reference. For instance, a professor may decline the request simply because they’re too busy. If this happens, make sure to respectfully accept their decision.

While you shouldn’t press the issue, you can still boost your chances of getting accepted. Make sure to be as polite as possible when submitting your initial request. This can be done by:

  • Respecting the individual’s time: Don’t wait until the last minute to make your request. Try to ask them several weeks ahead of time whenever possible.
  • Considering the communication method: If you know the person intimately, you can ask them in person or over the phone. If you don’t have a close relationship, an email is a respectful way to allow them to think it over.
  • Being informative: A vague or open-ended request can be unsettling. Remember that you’re asking for the person to vouch for your integrity. Provide the details about why you need the letter, the job or jobs you’re applying to, when it will be needed, and any other relevant details.
  • Phrasing your words carefully: Don’t simply ask for a character reference. Ask if the individual can provide you with a strong or quality reference. This leaves them the option to respectfully decline rather than write a sub-par recommendation.

As an additional note, make sure to keep track of any character reference letters you receive so that you can send a thank you letter once the hiring process is over.

What Goes Into a Character Reference Letter?

If you’ve been asked to give a reference, a good character reference letter should be formatted as a professional business letter. It should also include five basic elements:

  • Open with your relationship to the candidate and why you’re qualified to provide a character reference.
  • Include how long you’ve known the candidate as well. The longevity of the relationship can naturally add to your trustworthiness.
  • List at least three positive qualities and characteristics of the candidate and reinforce them with illustrative examples.
  • Conclude with a brief, strong recommendation.
  • Include your contact information as this reflects your willingness to stand by your statements.

These five elements written in a clean, concise, and professional manner should equip the candidate with a high-quality character reference that attests to their work ethic, soft skills, and any other laudable characteristics.

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