Professional References Are the Only Ones That Count

It's sweet that mom and dad think you're great, but personal references don't matter in a job search.

Professional References Are the Only Ones That Count

Call on former co-workers and bosses to vouch for you.

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a hiring manager. You’re on the cusp of sending a job offer your top applicant’s way when you receive the following reference letter:

Dear sir or madam,

I’m writing on behalf my thoughtful and handsome grandson, Dave. Dave flies out to Sarasota twice a year to visit his grandfather and me, and never forgets to call us on our birthdays. Last year, he bought us both a subscription to Southern Living. Do you ever read that magazine? They have some wonderful recipes.


Esther Smith, AKA “Gram-Gram”

PS Please hire my grandson.

We all know Gram-Gram means well. Gram-Gram loves Dave. She wants Dave to land the job. Gram-Gram, in this particular scenario, has done nothing wrong.

But we also know that Gram-Gram should really, really, really not be writing job references.

Separate personal from professional

While there’s a limited time and place for personal references—namely, when you’re just starting your career—job seekers with even a brief professional history should rely on colleagues and previous bosses to talk them up, not friends and family. Hiring managers want to learn how you’d perform as an employee, not how good you were in your high school’s production of Bye Bye Birdie. That means your mom, dad, former classmates, and dog groomer are a no-go.

The issue with personal references is that they fail to get at the things that really matter in a job search. Unless you’ve worked together at some point, a letter from a friend or relative can’t speak to how you handle deadlines, the quality of your work product, or how you perform on a team. Ultimately, all it can speak to is your character—and not in a way hiring managers can readily trust, since your mom is a lot less likely to be objective than, for example, your old boss.

Safe bets for references

When deciding who to use as a reference, focus instead on the people who can make the best case for your abilities as a professional, the ones who can provide concrete, job-specific details beyond “she makes a mean frozen margarita.”

Use the close former colleague who was there the night you stayed until 11:30 working to meet a project’s deadline. Use the manager who helped you grow from a fresh-out-of-school hire to the creative, driven professional you are today. Even a friend from a previous job is fair game, as long as they can vouch for your professional comportment and not just your go-to bagel order.

Whoever you choose, just remember to make a point of asking them first—it’s unfair (not to mention risky) to expect someone to write you a glowing reference on the basis of a cold email from a mystery employer.

In the end, the purpose of a job reference is to make sure the person you’ve presented in your resume and interview reflects your authentic professional self. While we’re sure your mom, your college roommate, and yes, your Gram-Gram have no shortage of lovely things to say about you, employers care more about the skills you bring to the table than your status as grandson of the year.

Want more tips to help power you through the job search? Join Monster for free today. As a member, you'll get career advice, job search tips, and interview insights sent right to your inbox so you can be a standout candidate (and employee). And don’t worry—we still know you killed it in Bye Bye Birdie.