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

Plus, we also included two personal reference letter samples you can use as writing aids. 

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 someone who has worked closely with you and really knows you as a person.

Personal Reference Letter vs Letter of Recommendation: What are the Differences? 

A letter of recommendation provides a detailed assessment of your professional abilities. Essentially, the recommender explains what makes you a strong contender for a position you are pursuing. The objective of a letter of recommendation is to emphasize the candidate’s knowledge, skills, and experiences. 

A personal reference letter is more general in terms of content. It delivers a cursory scan over both your skills, work ethics, and personal attributes. The reference person “vouches” for your abilities and confirms certain facts about your past employment. Unlike a letter of recommendation, personal reference letters are not written for a specific opportunity, but rather obtained and presented when requested. 

manager holding a document

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’s 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 

Sample Character Reference Letter 

To Whom It May Concern,

For the past 5 years, Joanne Davis has been a private tennis instructor at Swishers Country Club. However, I am personally acquainted with Ms. Davis for a much longer period as we have graduated from the same High School.

Joanne is proactive, energetic, and very empathetic. She has strong interpersonal skills and is an excellent mentor. During the course of her employment, Joanne developed a reputation as one of the most thought-after coaches in our Club thanks to her personalized training approach to each customer. 

She is very amicable and can easily resolve a possible conflict at the onset. Recently, one of our clients wasn’t happy about the new health safety protocols in place and Joanne stepped in to help the reception staff handle the issue graciously without upsetting anyone. 

If you are looking to hire a skillful instructor with a positive demeanor and stellar work ethic for your club, Joanne Davis is the person I can full-heartedly recommend.

Sam Swithers 
General Manager at Swishers Country Club

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 know that you will want to leave the company within the next six months to a year, then you should approach your boss with your request with a reasonable amount of notice. 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.

having a discussion with the manager

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.

How Do You Write a Personal Reference for Yourself?

Let’s be real — many employers are extremely busy and would thus rather have you write your personal character reference and hand it over for their approval. If that’s what someone has requested for you, here’s how to write a personal reference for yourself:

  1. Explain the connection between you and the referee in the introduction paragraph.
  2. Highlight the core skills and personal attributes that you’d like to be referenced for. 
  3. Add extra context to back up the earlier-made claims.
  4. Provide a specific example or two-sentence story about one of the attributes you have.
  5. Round up with a short, highly positive statement of recommendation.
  6. Bring the written letter to the reference person and ask for their further feedback. 

FAQs About Personal References 

Below are some common questions many job seekers have about personal references with quick answers! 

What is an example of a personal reference?

A personal reference is someone you have a close, ongoing relationship with — either personal or professional. Some of the good examples of a personal reference include your direct supervisor, colleagues, mentors, professors or educational advisors, teachers, counselors, volunteer supervisors, business partners and associates, neighbors, and past clients.

How do you format a personal reference list?

A personal reference list is typically formatted as a standalone second page to your resume. It should feature the following as a numbered or bullet-point list: 

  1. A title  — personal reference list
  2. Reference person full name and title 
  3. Short note on a relationship (e.g. former employer)
  4. Contact information — phone and email mostly suffice. 

Can a family member be a personal reference?

Technically yes, but it’s not the best personal reference to select. Why? Because most employers will understand that a family member may be biased and non-objective in their assessment. Plus, family members can rarely provide an assessment of your professional abilities (unless they also happen to be your employer). So if you are not employed by your family or run a joint business with them, it’s best to look for another personal reference. 

Who should write a character reference letter?

A character reference letter should be written by a person who knows you well on a personal level but also has some understanding of your professional abilities. This can be someone like your coach, teacher, advisor, mentor, long-term friend, or another person with whom you have a meaningful, verifiable, long-term connection. 

Can you fake a letter of recommendation?

Sure, but that’s a very bad idea because it takes one phone call or email to verify the authenticity of a letter of recommendation. Surely, you can include some phony contact details or ask your buddy to pick up the phone, but it’s very likely that the employer will uncover your hoax at some point. Then you’d be out in no time, plus your professional reputation will get badly bruised. So don’t risk this! 


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!

Updated on September 2021.


  • Elena Prokopets

    Elena runs content operations at Freesumes since 2017. She works closely with copywriters, designers, and invited career experts to ensure that all content meets our highest editorial standards. Up to date, she wrote over 200 career-related pieces around resume writing, career advice... more

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