Some time ago, I wrote a blog about the difference between personal and professional references. I’m told that it was one of the more popular blog’s I’ve written. Apparently, there is still some misunderstanding about the difference between the two, and in all honesty, there may be some overlap, depending on the circumstances. But let’s start by being very clear about the technical differences between a personal and a professional reference.
To start with, a personal reference is really more like a character reference, and that’s quite different from a professional reference. Technically, a personal reference is, by definition, someone with whom the candidate has never worked in the strict employer-employee or co-worker sense. As I’ve written before, a personal reference is your sixth-grade teacher, or a scoutmaster, or somebody on your bowling team—someone who is not a co-worker, superior, or subordinate. A personal reference is not anyone you’ve ever worked with. You may have served on a civic committee together or on the church board, but it’s not a current or former employer or employee!
Here’s why the distinction is important: a personal reference—say, your sixth-grade teacher—will have no idea what your management style is like on the job, nor will she know what your particular job skills are, or what your career development needs may be. What causes confusion, I think, is that some people consider a co-worker with whom they have worked on a daily basis for at least the last six months, who is also a good friend, not only on the job, but also in other capacities, like serving on the church board together, to be a personal reference because of the close nature of their multiple associations. Technically, however, that co-worker is a professional reference, not a personal one, because he will know what your management style is like on the job, what your job skills are, and probably what your career development needs are!
Some employers want both professional/business references and personal references to find out not only if the candidate has the professional qualifications for the job, but also if s/he is also a good citizen. Hopefully, the distinction between professional and personal references is more obvious—a professional reference will be able to talk about job skills and performance on the job. A personal reference will be able to talk about other qualities, like being a great coach of a youth football team.
Sometimes candidates for employment will list somebody like the company president as a reference. While it may be nice that the company president agreed to be a reference for the manager six levels below him on the organization chart, the president will probably know next to nothing about the actual job performance of the candidate. If there are too many layers of organizational structure between the candidate and the reference, the prospective employer might as well be talking to the candidate’s sixth-grade teacher!
Finally, let me add that candidates for employment may occasionally list a long time co-worker as a personal reference because the prospective employer has only asked for references, without specifying whether professional or personal references are really preferred. The only way for whoever’s doing the reference checking to find out into which category the references falls is to ask, right at the beginning of the conversation, “How do you know so-and-so?” If the answer is, “Oh, we’ve worked together every day at the XYZ Company for the last five years,” then it’s a professional reference. If the response to the same question is, “Oh, we’ve worked together on the school board for the last five years,” then it’s a personal reference.