A character reference letter offers employers the perspective of a third party on a person's attributes and character traits. Supporting materials such as resumes highlight professional experience, while the reference letter may shed light on aspects of a person's character.
Whether you are a candidate seeking help from someone to endorse your skills and qualities or a colleague needs you to provide a reference letter about them, understanding what makes a good reference letter and how to write one is important. In this article, we discuss when to use a reference letter, how to write one and provide a sample that can be used to format your own.
When to include a character reference letter
Prospective employers will often ask job seekers to send them one or more personal reference letters with an application for employment. Sometimes, this request is made before an interview, other times it may be a final step before making a job offer.
Even if an employer doesn't request a character reference, you may still choose to provide one to them. Reference letters may provide prospective employers with valuable insights about your qualifications that may help them determine whether to consider you as a candidate. These letters may be especially helpful in demonstrating your skills and attributes if you're entering the job market for the first time, or you have been out of the workplace for a few years.
Choosing a character reference
Anyone in your personal network who can describe their experience of your personal attributes can serve as a character reference. Someone in your professional network who knows you outside of the office (other than your employer) can also be a resource. The important thing is that the person you ask knows enough about you to provide a meaningful assessment of your qualifications.
A few examples of people who make great character references include:
- A coworker
- Someone you volunteer with
- An athletic coach
- A customer
- A business acquaintance
- An educator
- A mentor
- A fellow student
- A close friend or neighbour
While family members and close friends may know a lot about you, they are generally not viewed as having truly objective opinions about your character. A reference from a teacher or colleague is more likely to have a bigger impact and show your skills in a professional manner.
It is important that the person you ask to write the reference letter has a good understanding of the way your attributes will relate in the context of the industry and the role you are applying to. Providing your current resume, the job description and any other relevant information they may need to refer to will help them create the right tone for the letter. Let them know as far in advance as you are able so that they will not feel rushed and thereby miss out on recounting some valuable information about why you are a good candidate. Always follow up with a thank you letter or email once the reference letter has been submitted. Express your gratitude for the time and effort your contact has contributed to helping you.
Writing a personal reference letter
When you are asked to write a character reference for someone in your network, be sure that you know the person well enough to comment about their qualifications for the position. You should be able to positively describe their qualifications and personal traits as they relate to the job.
When writing a reference letter, include the following these five elements:
- How you know the candidate. You should be able to provide details about your relationship with the candidate. For example, “I worked with Edith serving meals at a soup kitchen during the breakfast shift.' or 'Alan and I met while we were canvassing for donations during a charity event.'
- How long you been acquainted with the candidate. Have you known this person for years or months? For example, “Desmond and I have known each other for over a year now, including our six-month intensive first aid training.' or ' Sally has been working with me on a children's book for three years now. We are almost ready to publish it.'
- Positive personal traits and examples. Offer at least three personal qualities that relate to the job in question. This will help the employer discern whether or not the candidate is suitable for the position and how they might benefit the company. Determination, great communication, a cheerful demeanor, punctuality, efficiency and a commitment to excellence are all qualities that may describe a person's soft skills
- A recommendation. A concluding statement should make clear your recommendation. For example, “For all of these reasons, I would strongly recommend Larry for this kind of work. I believe he will be an asset to your organization.'
- Your contact information. Provide at least two ways for the employer to contact you. An email address and phone number are perfect ways for them to reach you should they want to follow up.
Sample character reference letter
A carefully written character reference letter will demonstrate a candidate's strongest traits as they relate to the job on offer. Make sure you provide concrete examples of your interactions with the candidate and keep the letter brief. Here is an example of a well-written reference letter:
To Whom It May Concern,
Dev Suliman and I have known each other for over nine years. We met when we were both starting our first shift at the local homeless shelter. Our work detail was the breakfast service and clean up afterward. Later, we collaborated on development and fundraising efforts to send one of the residents to college. Dev also helped me design a poster for my cabaret show, which drew a large crowd.
Dev is one of the most virtuous, diligent, considerate people I've ever have had the privilege of working with in any capacity. He is also knowledgeable about social services, yet willing to learn more at every opportunity. Once, while we were volunteering together at the shelter, a social worker became very sick while on duty. Dev stepped in to oversee the renovations of the bathrooms, making sure that the work was completed on time. The project came in ahead of schedule and under budget because Dev was willing to remain present in spite of having to give up other opportunities. Some people may not have thought much of this small project, but Dev knew it was essential to the improvement of the site and to the well-being of the residents.
Dev is the sort of person who remains calm in the face of any crisis. His optimism and fine sense of humour are contagious.
Without reservation, I can happily recommend that you hire Dev for the youth services management position. I know he will be a valuable member of your institution. Any organization, but especially one devoted to social services, would be fortunate to have him on their team.
Please don't hesitate to reach out to me for further examples of why I hold him such high regard.
Tips for a powerful reference letter
Whether you're asking for someone to write a letter for you or composing a letter for someone else, you'll want to keep these points in mind:
- Focus on the positives. When writing a reference letter for someone else, it's important to focus on the positives. Make sure what you write in the letter will be beneficial to them and help improve their chances of getting hired. If someone asks you to compose a reference letter for them, you should only agree to do this if you are confident you can speak to their best qualities.
- Be specific. Including a list of qualities may be helpful, but providing detailed examples that support and even illustrate these traits will help employers better understand why a candidate may be a good choice for the position they want to fill.
- Brevity is key. One page is sufficient except in rare cases. Employers are busy people often sifting through many applications. If the letter is descriptive yet still succinct the employer is more likely to read it in its entirety.
- Keep it professional. As you write the letter, it's important to describe the candidate's professional accomplishments and qualifications, not details about their personal life. While it may seem like a good idea to provide positive examples of a person's resilience to challenges that may have faced, this may be information that the candidate does not wish to share.