Career Advice

How to Ask Your Boss for a Personal Reference Letter

asking for reference letter

What can be more awkward than needing to ask your boss for a personal reference letter to help you land a new job, amiright?

But fret not, it’s not an unusual thing to do. Plus, we did some legwork for you already. In this post, you’ll learn:

  • What is a personal reference letter and when do you need one
  • What to include in a personal reference letter
  • How to ask for a reference and when to do so

Let’s jump in!

What is a Personal Reference Letter?

The name is a bit of a giveaway. A personal reference letter (also known as the character reference letter) highlights your personal qualities and traits, rather than speaks of your professional abilities like a letter of recommendation does.

Since a character reference letter describes you as a person, they are usually written by someone you’ve interacted with rather closely.  For instance, a seagull manager who wasn’t really involved in managing you (though they should have) obviously will struggle to write an objective letter.  So rather than asking the most superior person you know within ‘the command chain’, go to a person who has worked with you the most and really knows you as a person.

When Do I Need a Character Reference Letter?

A character reference letter is nice-to-have, but it’s not an obligatory document that you should submit along with your cover letter and resume (unless you are specifically asked to provide one).

Treat this letter as an extra asset that you can use to persuade someone to hire you. In general, character reference letters can give you an advantage in the following case:

  • If you are changing careers and want to draw the attention away from your lack of industry experience
  • Fresh graduates and high schoolers can submit a personal reference letter to showcase their seriousness and motivation
  • If you don’t have glowing professional references or lack some of the required skills for the job
  • Some federal jobs may require you to provide a character reference letter, among other documents.
  • Non-profit work and volunteering positions also often assume providing personal references rather than a traditional resume.

Use your personal references to strategically switch the HRs attention towards your personality and great interpersonal skills. After all, hard skills can be taught over time. But finding the right cultural fit and personality type is much harder. In fact, as one study found, 9 in 10 recruiters passed on a candidate due to their lack of cultural fit. Moreover, 84% of the study participants said that they view cultural fit as a primary decisive factor for hiring. So yup, those personal reference letters can make a difference!

What to Include in a Personal Reference Letter?

So how do you make sure that someone writes you an impactful personal reference letter? Easy! You provide them with a quick personal reference letter sample, plus some pointers on what information they should highlight.

Here are several important elements of a great personal reference letter:

  • An introductory statement, explaining the relationship between you and the referee and how long you have known each other.
  • The body, highlighting two or three specific traits that you possess, backed by relevant examples.
  • A concluding paragraph with the referee contact information and professional sign off.

Short Personal Reference Letter Example

Dear Mr. Smith,

I’d like to recommend Eliza Milford as a new nanny to your household. Over the past three years, she has become a dear member of our household thanks to her extraordinary communication abilities, empathy, and excellent language teaching skills. Unfortunately, due to relocation, we are forced to let her go.

Eliza is friendly, diligent, and has strong tutoring abilities. She has helped our younger daughter raise her proficiency levels in French from basic level (A1) to intermediate (B2) in a year and a half. Her teaching style is friendly, and her overall personality and charisma made both of our kids very attached to her within the first several months of employment. Honesty, discreteness, and politeness are other key qualities that I’d like to remark on. 

Based on our experience together, I’m certain that Eliza can become an asset to your household too. 


Dafna Ginko 

How Do I Ask For A Personal Reference Letter?

Asking for a reference can feel uncomfortable. After all, you are asking for a big favor, plus disclose your plans to quit soon. Asking a superior can get even more daunting. So it’s best to approach the matter very tactfully.

Here are several quick tips to help you out here:

  • Secure a one-to-one appointment with the person you’d like to ask for a reference
  • Don’t beat around the bush. Speak clearly and calmly with confidence about your ‘ask’.
  • Explain the reason why you want a personal reference letter and a rough timeline for when you will need the letter to be in hand.

Flattery and appreciation can usually help mellow things about. So try something like this:

“I am applying for a job with XYZ and know that a personal reference letter from you will carry a lot of weight in helping me to secure the role. Since you have been my [manager/superior/mentor] for a long while now, you are in a good position to be able to highlight my personal strengths so I would appreciate it if you could write a personal reference letter for me”.

If you are asking your direct boss, rather than a colleague or a mentor, for such a letter, you should also mind the timing. After all, you don’t want to catch them off guard with your decision to leave, neither you’d want to pick this conversation just too early (aka when your chances for getting that job are too slim). And this brings us to the next point…

When Is It A Good Time To Ask For A Personal Reference?

Most superiors won’t have an issue with writing you a personal reference letter if you have good working relationships with them.

A big no-no, however, is trying to mislead your boss into writing a personal reference without them knowing your intent for using it. If you need one for a volunteering position, say so. If you are seeking a new job, but don’t want your boss to know just yet, it’s best to ask a colleague or someone else in the company to author your letter.

In any case, plan ahead. Give the other party enough time to prepare and write the letter. Springing your request on them just a couple of days before you need to submit the letter to your potential new employer may result in a sharp refusal.

If you are in the position at work where you know that you will want to leave the company within the next six months to a year, then approach your boss with your request with as much notice as you feel is workable. By giving your boss some padding time, they will have the time available to be able to sit and reflect on your performance so that they can draw up an honest review for your letter.

Asking for a personal reference with plenty of notice also allows your boss to look at sorting out a suitable replacement for you without having to rush the recruitment process.

Your boss may ask you why you want to leave, so the last thing you want to do here is to moan about your job or highlight any negative issues you have with the company. Try not to go down the path where your talk turns into a complaining session. Instead, keep the conversation focused on how much you have grown while you have been in your role.

To help your boss pen a positive personal reference letter that is going to help you in securing your next job, take the opportunity to remind them of all your good work and achievements. Make some notes about specific projects or outcomes that were particularly successful that you had a major hand in.

Good luck with your next career move! Remember that once you land your new job, you will need to write a good resignation letter that doesn’t burn any bridges and keeps your communication lines open with your old contacts!

This post has been originally published on February 18, 2019 and has been extensively revised and updated on June 22, 2020.

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