why do employers ask for personal references rather than professional ones?

A reader writes:

I’m applying for a job that requests I send “three references other than previous employers or relatives.” Does this mean that I can’t use anyone I’ve worked with in the past? I’m several years out of school and nearly all of my references are work-related. Should I list friends? Old classmates? I don’t really feel comfortable asking clients/vendors who I work with to provide a reference, and I don’t think anyone from organizations I’m involved in outside work know me well enough to give anything particularly strong. Help!

Ugh, I don’t know why some employers insist on doing this.

Sometimes it means that they want “personal” references — people who can vouch for you being a generally upstanding member of the community. Other times it means that they want professional references who aren’t managers (such as peers or clients). Bizarrely, it’s more often the former than the latter. But it’s fine to ask them for clarification by saying something like, “Are you looking for personal references or references who can speak to my work?”

For personal references, you can use people like a landlord, contacts at organizations you’ve volunteered for, professors if your graduation was within the last few years, and people you have not-too-intimate relationships with in your community (someone you served on a board with would be ideal, or a teammate if you’re on some kind of sports league). I say not too intimate because they’re not looking to talk with someone you dated or someone so close to you that they can’t speak reasonably objectively about you.

But in my opinion, it’s silly. You’re not going to be their roommate; you’d be their employee, and they should be talking to people who know you as an employee.

{ 34 comments… read them below }

  1. Sarah*

    I’ve run into this also. I find it really odd and I end up offering co-workers and good friends.

  2. Anonymous*

    Yeah, that is pretty odd. Usually I get requests for a mix of professional and personal references.

    But in this case, use good friends, family friends that you’re on good terms with and former co-workers.

    1. Anonymous*

      But I think many places do this because they want to find someone who has the personality for the work. So talking to personal references, they’re the ones who know more about your personality and demeanor. I’m not saying managers and coworkers don’t see it, but usually good friends have a better grasp on who you truly are when you’re not working. And that can be valuable.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        But they really only need to care about your work personality, so they should be asking work references about that. Your personality outside of work isn’t going to be a factor, unless it’s a rare situation where you’re going to be a high-profile, very visible representative of the company. It’s what you’re like at work that matters, so they should focus on that.

        1. AnotherAlison*

          Hey, I’d welcome the opportunity to show employers more off-hours me. I’m much more of a badass outside work, lol.

          1. Jamie*

            I’m the opposite. I am sure the people with whom I work have a very different impression of me than people with whom I’ve volunteered at the animal shelter.

            I so rarely willingly clean up poop or rub tummies while crooning in baby talk about “who’s my pretty baby…you’re my pretty baby!” on the job. :)

            Seriously though, people who know me personally would have a far less competent view of me since I can never get myself from point A to point B without someone on the phone talking me in and believe it or not I’m actually less chatty and smiley in real life since I’m only comfortable with strangers in work related discussions.

            And strangers in my personal life – no one cares about IT. No one. Ever.

            1. AnotherAlison*

              “And strangers in my personal life – no one cares about IT. No one. Ever.”

              Really? They don’t want you to come over and fix their computers?

              And I think you ought to start incorporating baby talk on the job. . .Show your softer side. Women are supposed to do that, no? ; )

              1. Jamie*

                I meant they have no interesting in a discussion about it…but yes, being IT is like being an accountant at tax time…except it’s all year round for us.

                Since I limit my tech support to two categories of people – those who pay me and those who share DNA or a home with me the conversation ends quickly with the others.

                And if I start baby-talking at work I’d probably be sent home and need a doctor’s note to return to work – so out of character would that be. And I am not rubbing anyone’s tummy!

        2. Arista*

          I wonder if a request for “personal references” may be for the kind of scenario where the job is tied to a particular cause, something that requires absolute commitment to a particular issue. If not commitment, then speaking to expertise.

          For example, I might be a foremost authority on chocolate teapot design, and the chocolate teapot community knows well my qualification. But perhaps my current or other professional day-jobs have nothing to do with chocolate teapots. (Instead, my expertise is known for speaking at conferences, writing books, etc. – things that don’t fit into a resume neatly. And, if it’s an online application that doesn’t allow for resumes (seeing this more and more, where the online program “creates” a resume) the fill-in-blank questions leave no place to put this info.

          Sure, I can say in a cover letter that I am a chocolate teapot expert, but who can better attest to this – the head of the chocolate teapot society (or maybe a professor at the local university who cites me often in her work)? Or the head of the accounting or construction firm I may work at, who would be wholly unqualified to judge my expertise on the subject?

          I’ve often been surprised to learn that someone I work alongside is an authority in a really unexpected area. It may be one where jobs are hard to come by, or its a newly popular area of interest. Meanwhile, they may work in something else because the money or the hours, etc., are better. If I wanted to hire someone for that special expertise, the last person I would ask would be a Senior Accountant. I’d wanted to know what the chocolate teapot field or community thinks of him or her.

  3. Mike C.*

    It feels like a great way for an over-bearing employer to weed out people that aren’t living their personal lives in a manner the employer sees fit.

    Unless the job you’re applying for is for some kind of moral/political/religious leadership role (or a representative thereof), there’s absolutely no business case for this sort of request.

    1. Jane Doe*

      Yeah. This is why I’d be wary if a potential employer asked for personal, non-coworker references, and unless I had no other options for employment I’d probably withdraw from consideration.

  4. Marmite*

    Three seems like quite a lot to ask for, especially if you’re supplying professional references as well. I’m not sure I know three people of the type Alison suggests that I could list if I found myself in this situation.

    1. Jamie*

      I was thinking the exact same thing. Even if I didn’t have an issue with it (and I think it’s pointless at best, intrusive at worst depending on their motives) I couldn’t come up with three non-workrelated/non-relatives.

      I’m glad it’s not just me.

      1. Liz in a Library*

        Me too. If former co-workers were off limits, I have no idea. What do you do if you don’t regularly volunteer or belong to a civic/social/church group? It just seems inappropriate to bring in friends who know nothing about my work…

        1. Marmite*

          Yeah, exactly. I have a pretty active social life, but I don’t belong to a sports team or church and, although I do volunteer it’s not in a role that often involves interacting with other volunteers. I’ve filled in applications that have asked for one “character” reference, which I’ve always interpreted as non-work reference, and I’ve used the mother of a friend, who I’ve helped out with various projects like computer set up and house clearing since the friend has moved overseas. Three versions of her would be a stretch though!

        2. Jane Doe*

          A bartender is a community leader, right? Because I always tip and I never start fights.

  5. Nichole*

    I once got a job in mental health/social services partially on the strength of a personal reference that would *never* fly for a job in my current field (academia). I listed my cousin as a reference (I know…I was new to the workforce, didn’t have 5 job related references-my list was a disaster). She told them that not only am I all-around awesome, but I was fantastic with both interacting with and advocating for our elderly grandmother, who was disabled and in the early stages of dementia. Because this was important in the work I would be doing, the reference was probably what tipped the balance in my favor. However, they didn’t ask for personal references, that was just all I really had. I wonder if the type of work the OP is applying for is why the specific request for a more character based reference.

      1. Nichole*

        Nepotism is favoritism due to a connection between the employer and a family member of the employee. In this situation, there was no prior relationship between the employer and my cousin. Her statements mattered because of the content, not because they trusted her personally, per se.

        1. Jamie*

          Yeah – this isn’t nepotism. Nepotism is if Nichole married my nephew and I get her a job without due consideration for other applicants because she’s got an in. Nothing here indicates she got in “regardless of merit” which is a criteria for nepotism.

    1. Marmite*

      That’s a good point, it may be that the type of work means personal references could be useful. For example, any work that has a live-in component (nanny, camp counselor, support worker, cruise ship employees etc.) might want to take how you are as a person outside of work into account as you’ll be in close quarters with other employees in your off time too.

      I still think three is too many to ask for though.

  6. darsenfeld*

    Depending on the job, they may require a character reference, to know what kind of person is applying.

    I don’t see it as “bad” per se, as it would depend on the firm’s culture and the kind of people they seek to recruit and attract. If I were a recruiter, it’s not something I would use as a selection method, in honesty.

  7. ThursdaysGeek*

    “references other than previous employers or relatives” can be personal references, but I would take it to be professional, non-managerial references: my co-workers. People I work with, either on a team or providing a service for can provide a type a reference that a manager sometimes cannot.

    And I know AAM seems to prefer the manager reference over the co-worker reference, but there are just some things a coworker sees that many managers may not have an opportunity to see. My coworkers see how I treat them and others; my coworkers can tell if I’m helping or hurting the team; my coworkers know if I speak respectfully of managers and other coworkers; my coworkers know if I’m stealing their work and calling it mine, taking responsibility when things go wrong, sharing kudos when things go right; my co-workers know if I write readable code. My manager sees some of that.

    The slimy brown-noser who is great at politics and stealing credit can fool her manager but won’t fool her co-workers.

  8. Sniper*

    I don’t know why employers ask for references of any kind. If you have a pulse, you generally can find three people to vouch for you.

    Besides, by the second or third week, people are going to have a good idea what your personality is and what you are like to be around anyways, regardless of what those references said.

  9. Vicki*

    I _want_ to be asked for references among my former co-workers. Those people were my internal customers. I provided internal support and custom application development. For the sort of work I’ve done for the past 10 years, my co-workers have a much better idea of what I did, how well I did it, my speed & accuracy in fullfilling requests, etc, than my managers did (at the time or now that I’ve left.)

    I didn’t work for my managers. My managers didn’t assign me tasks.

  10. Yvi*

    “three references other than previous employers or relatives.”

    That doesn’t sound like co-workers are out to me. Am I missing something?

  11. Anonymous*

    I recently filled in an a very lengthy application on line (of course!) and at the end it asked for three professional references other than the 8 supervisors listed on my employment history going back many years. It also asked for three personal references, including one that must have known you for at least ten years. So this would make: 8 + 3 + 3 = 14 references.

    This was for a good organization in a predominantly Mormon community. Now, I have LDS friends and have lived in similar communities and also in predominantly other religious/racial/ethnic communities and so normally the community is not a big deal. But I really balked at the invasive and overcontrolling questions.

    Finally I just called and said: this is really alot of references and I am having a hard time figuring out who to use. When would you actually call them? She said only if I was chosen for the final applicant and I would be notified of that. So – figuring I had nothing to lose I just put people down and figured what the heck! I am sure that not being Mormon, I will not get the job.

    But it was an interesting process to go through and I learned some things about it. I am sure I would not be who they are looking for personally, although my training and experience are very good. But – I did it anyway for the experience. Seeing this posting made me feel alot better about my internal decisions. Looking for a job I have to just keep applying and it is a very interesting ‘personal growth’ experience for sure.

  12. steffie*

    This is an impossible feat for me because I keep people out of my personal business as they will steal a good work opportunity or say something negative out of jealousy or competitiveness.
    Some people don’t want to be bothered or are too busy to wait for that call, others lack the mental maturity to handle a reference request or are serial exclusionist in the workplace. (I’m not exaggerating).
    So if you cannot get a reference, they just choose another candidate unless they trust their own judgement. This takes some serious concerted effort, for me it means frequenting Target on my laptop and Starbucks till the entire staff knows my name. I regularly order my breakfast at the same deli and chat with the staff. Human behavior becomes an interesting thing to observe. Some make rude comments an choose to act foolishly when I come in everyday as a regular customer and screw up my order deliberately. Can’t ask them for a reference, or suspect you are up to something and are afraid of trusting my intention for asking for a character reference as if they would become an accessory to some secret crime I must have committed can’t get it there. Or I get the why should I help you? Nobody helped me speech. Or people pop their eyes out and walk off sideways resenting that you picked them to approach. I roll my eyes and say “…college graduates…Sheesh!

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