Character references – a candidate guide

You’ve found the perfect role, been invited to interview, and passed with flying colours but now your potential future employer wants references. If you’ve been employed in the past this should be pretty straightforward, you just offer your line manager or HR manager’s details and wait for the reams of adoring feedback to arrive. But if you’ve been self-employed, unemployed or are just starting out in the world of work, a character reference might be requested. But what is a character reference? Who should you ask to be a referee and what questions will they be asked?

A character reference is a personal reference that discusses your personality traits. It won’t provide a work evaluation, but can discuss your related experience. You may list family members (not adoring parents or doting Grannies), friends or other associates as personal references. In the case of self-employed applicants you could list clients, where appropriate. If you don’t have employment references, you should provide 3-6 character references dependant on the role you are applying for. If you are asked for character references alongside employment references the names of 1-2 character referees should reinforce your employment references. But who do you ask? What are the rules?

Who should you ask?

Good character referees are people who have been relatively close to you. If you are just starting out in the world of work, this could be a teacher or mentor. If you have been self-employed this could be a past client. Previously unemployed? Why not ask your Job centre contact or a neighbour or family friend you have a good relationship with. Equally, if you have taken part in volunteer schemes this is a great place to go to ask for character references. It’s a good idea (not to mention courteous) to ask your references permission prior to passing across their details. It also allows you the opportunity to give them a heads up on your career aspirations and the reasons you’re applying for such a role so they can tailor their responses.

Who should you avoid asking?

A character referee can’t be a direct family member. Of course your Mum thinks you’re brilliant and Dad can vouch for your negotiation skills but a character reference should be as objective and impartial as possible. At the same time, you shouldn’t ask people you are barely acquainted with for a character reference. If the reference comes back to your potential future employer and sounds ambiguous or lacks depth then the employer may feel uneasy about the validity of the reference.

What information should be included?

A character reference needs to focus more on your attitude and personal characteristics and skills rather than work experience. It is common for a potential employer to send a standard reference request form which should make your referee’s task fairly straightforward. If appropriate, the reference should then elaborate about your relevant skills and qualities. These could include; honesty, integrity, trustworthiness, work ethic, communication skills, initiative, dependability and general personality. If your referee wants to go right to the top of your Christmas list they could also suggest why these qualities might be valuable to your potential employers business.

What should a character reference look like?

Most employers will provide a standard template but if you really want to knock an employer’s socks off you could prepare your character references in advance. In this instance, employers might wish to talk to your referees to verify their statements. As such you’ll need to provide contact details. However, if the potential employer doesn’t provide a template you should ask your referee to include the following details:

Confirm what capacity they know you in. Your character referee should be a solid acquaintance; family friend, sports coach, volunteer coordinator, teacher. Pete down the pub or the smiley lady on reception at the gym will not cut the mustard.

How long they have known you for. This should be at least 3 years. That chap you met last week who said you were witty and charming, though lovely I’m sure, doesn’t fit the bill here!

An overview of your character – it goes without saying but the employer will be looking for information about you and your character. Are you reliable, dependable, and hard-working?

A recommendation relevant to the role you have applied for. ‘Helen is always up to speed with the latest gossip’ is only relevant if you’re applying for a role as columnist at Hello Magazine. Otherwise, try to ensure they stick to the standard qualities employers looks for; reliability, trustworthiness, honesty.

How to get in touch if they have any further questions. It’s best to provide email or telephone contacts. The world moves a lot quicker than the postal service these days!