In Chapter 1 of my book, Reference Checking for Everyone, I make the point that there still isn’t universal agreement about the terminology used to describe the exercise of intelligently trying to ensure smart hiring decisions. There are still many job applications floating around out there that ask job seekers to list “personal references.” What the prospective employer ordinarily means is work-related references – people with whom the job seeker has actually worked. But the use of the term “personal” conveys the impression that people like Uncle Harry, or the parish priest, or even an old roommate would make suitable “personal” references.
The problem with the use of “personal” when referring to references is that the type of folks that come to mind ordinarily know absolutely nothing about the candidate’s performance on the job! And for job seekers who think that, despite a specific request for work-related references, they can list Aunt Harriet, or a distant cousin, or former teacher as references, they’re just wasting everybody’s time.
Regardless of whether the employer has mistakenly asked for “personal” references or whether the job seeker thinks that work-related references can include their old scoutmaster, personal references are essentially useless when it comes to the employment process. If a reference really is “personal,” the chances are slim at best he or she will be able to answer questions like, “Could you describe so-and-so’s responsibilities on the job?” or “What do you think so-and-so could have done to improve his/her overall job performance?” or “How did so-and-so got along with other employees on the job?” Well, I think the point is clear; personal references aren’t going to know the details about job performance that a prospective employer needs to make the best hiring decision.
Here’s an unsolicited tip for employers who check references: One of the first questions we always ask references is, “How are you acquainted with so-and-so?” If the answer is something like “Oh, we went to high school together,” or “We go to the same church,” or “We play golf together,” it’s going to be a very short conversation.
Never list anyone who can only be defined as a “personal” reference.