Character reference – What is it, and how do you get one?

You’re probably very familiar with work references, but you may not know what a character reference is, or the value of having one.

You’ve created a sterling CV that got you the interview, because you prepared well. You have some great work references to supply, but the employer has come back with a request you haven’t prepared for – a professional character reference.

What is a character reference?

A character reference differs from a traditional job reference in that it’s not about work performance, but rather a brief assessment of you as a person, based on somebody who knows you well.

Work references are usually enough for an employer, which means the need for a character reference is relatively rare. But there’s always a chance they can be requested, especially for jobs that require a high level of ethics and trustworthiness.

While it may not be the norm, for graduates without any work experience, a character reference may bolster your chances and is certainly worth having when you’re first starting out.

Character reference – What is it, and how do you get one?

Who can be a good character reference?

Finding the right person to do a character reference for you can be tricky. This is because the referrer will need to know you well, but not be close enough to make the recruiters suspect bias. A good character reference could be from someone like a teacher or mentor.

It may sound obvious, but you must also ensure that the reference isn’t negative, as that could wreck your chances of getting the job.

James Innes, Chairman of the CV Centre and author of The CV Book said,

“Close friends and family are best avoided as their reference may be biased and recruiters will be looking for something objective and impartial.

“Someone who has known you for a long time is usually a safe bet – but make sure that they know you now. Someone you haven’t been in contact with for some time won’t be able to provide an up-to-date reference.”

Character references work just like personal references in terms of legal implications – the referee could be subject to action if it’s defamatory, or turns out a glowing reference for somebody who’s completely incompetent and dishonest. However, considering you get to choose who the referee is, that’s highly unlikely.

Anna Skelton, Senior HR Business Partner at Jobsite said,

“Although character references are expected to be favourable, they are never considered as being bad for not being favourable enough. In fact, measured and qualified praise could work much better for a future employer, who wants an honest appreciation of your skills, rather than just fawning.”

How should I ask for a character reference?

How you contact referees is up to you, but you may want to call in person for something as personal as a character reference. However, if you want to email, Emma Plummer of Anne Corder Recruitment has supplied a template for an email along these lines:

Hi [first name]

I hope you don’t mind me getting in touch – we worked together previously [on a volunteer project]. I am in the process of changing jobs and have recently been asked to provide some character references. I was wondering if you would be okay with providing a character reference for me? I would greatly appreciate it.

If you are happy to provide a reference, please could you let me know a number and email address that [name of potential employer] could contact you on at a later date? They will be calling from [name of company] and they will ask for a few details on where you know me from and my character.

Yours sincerely,

[Your name]

Character reference – What is it, and how do you get one?

What should be included in a character reference?

With a character reference letter, the focus should be attitude, personal characteristics and skills rather than work experience. Often employers will send over a reference request form, which should mean it’s simply a matter of filling it in.

The referee should think about soft skills – attributes of the job candidate’s character which could help them in the workplace. For somebody in a pharmaceutical role for example, useful skills include emotional intelligence, trustworthiness and approachability. A salesperson role might work for somebody that had good communication skills, initiative and dependability.

If the employer hasn’t provided a reference request form, then it might be harder for a referee to structure an answer that works. Amy Stephenson, founder of Human Business Services, recommends a reference structured this way:

  1. How they know the job candidate
  2. How long they’ve known the job candidate
  3. An honest overview of the job candidate’s character
  4. How the candidate’s character suits the role they’re applying for
  5. How to get in touch with further questions – through email or phone

Job candidates should take every opportunity to make themselves more attractive to an employer, especially early on in a career. A personal character reference can make all the difference, so make sure you’re prepared to have one ready.

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