Sometimes, when applying for a new job, someone might be asked to provide a character reference letter. Someone might also need one in court, for immigration, or if a potential landlord asks you to provide one when you are house-hunting.
In all these cases, the reason for requesting for a character reference remains the same – the requester wants to know you better.
The employer wants to know you better to figure out if he/she should give you the job. The court wants to find out if there are grounds for softening your punishment. The landlord wants to find out if you are a trustworthy or reliable individual.
One of the differences between a character reference and other documents like your resume is that unlike these documents, you don’t write your character reference letter yourself.
You have to look for someone else who knows you well to do the honors. When writing the character reference letter, this person will describe you, with a particular focus on your good qualities, especially the ones that imply you are suitable for the job you are applying for.
If a friend approaches you and asks you to write a character reference letter for them, where should you start?
In this article, we are going to cover everything to do with writing character reference letters.
WHAT IS A CHARACTER REFERENCE LETTER?
A character reference letter is a letter written by a third party to give their opinion about the subject’s character. The character reference letter is sometimes referred to as the personal reference letter.
The person who writes your character reference letter has to know you personally. In this letter, they focus on your personal qualities rather than your professional skills and qualities.
The character reference letter helps a potential employer determine whether you are a good fit for the position or not. The character reference letter acts as a complement to a resume.
Why is character important when employing for a job? While things such as job skills can be taught on the job, it is next to impossible to teach someone the kind of character they want.
They have formed their character over the course of their whole life, and therefore, this is not something you can expect them to change on a whim.
If an employee has poor character, there is not much an employer can do about it. Therefore, employers might want to know a person’s character before making the decision to hire them.
WHERE IS THE CHARACTER REFERENCE LETTER USED?
1. In Job Applications
Like I have already mentioned, character reference letters are offed used when someone is looking for a job. Employers may ask you to include a character reference letter with your application.
They may ask for a character reference letter before or after an interview. They may also use it as the last step of the interviewing process, to decide if they will give you the job.
There are also some job application situations where you might want to provide a character reference letter even when you have not been asked for one. For instance, if you feel that you have a weak resume, you can use a character reference letter to bolster your application.
If you don’t have enough job experience or if your professional references are not outstanding, a good character reference letter can also make the employer or headhunter pay closer attention to your application and consider you for the job.
A character reference letter provides useful additional information to the employer, especially if you are new entrant into the job market (hence lack zero professional references) or if you have been unemployed for several years.
2. Legal Reasons
Someone who has been accused (in court) might also need a character reference. The letter is, in this case, used to reduce or mitigate the penalty the accused might be handed by the court.
Mitigation through use of character reference letters is one way the court system ensures it does not mete out a punishment that is unnecessarily harsh. Witnesses are called upon by the court to testify about the lifestyle or character of the accused.
For example, if you are guilty of a driving offense, witnesses (who know you personally) might be called upon to give testify whether it is true that losing your license will severely disrupt your family’s source of income. Instead hearing these witnesses directly (on the stand), the court might accept letters from these character referees (that is what such witnesses are called).
The best character referee in this case is a person who has known the accused for long time. Alternatively, it could be someone who knew the accused for a short period but who had a lot of contact with them in that time. It could be a friend, a fellow worker, or an employer.
In such situations, it is up to the accused individual to seek you out as his friend or acquaintance to provide a character reference. You (the character referee) will then write a letter to the court.
In some cases, a landlord may ask you (as his/her potential tenant) to present a character reference before they hand over the keys to you. The character reference is in this case used as a part of the background check.
They use the character reference to confirm that you are a low-risk tenant. Qualities such as financial responsibility and income stability are particularly attractive to landlords.
You can also be asked to provide a character reference letter during the immigration process. You may be required to support your applications with character reference letters from your colleagues and from the members of your community.
Judges and other government officials will then use the character letters to determine if you are an individual who has good moral character.
HOW TO SELECT A CHARACTER REFERENCE
The key to a good character reference letter is in the selection of your character reference. Be very careful about who you pick to be your character reference.
Rule number one is that they must be part of your personal network and can therefore attest to your best attributes.
It is also possible to pick someone in your professional network, but they should know you on a personal level (not your former employers, though).
The following is a list of people you can pick as character references:
- Professor or academic advisor
- Personal or professional mentor
- Client or customer
- Fellow student or graduate
- Vendor or business acquaintance
- Co-volunteer or volunteer leader
- Neighbor or friend
Note that we did not include relatives or spouses or in-laws. That is because family members are too close to you and therefore references from them are not considered objective.
On the other hand, if a professional mentor or a coach or teacher says you are a hardworking person, this carries more weight.
The other thing is you must ensure the person you select can speak to your attributes in a way that is relevant to the industry or position you are seeking.
Talk to them about the job you are seeking and share your current resume – they can then figure out, based on what they know about you, which qualities of yours are relevant for the position.
After someone writes a character reference for you, be sure to show gratitude to them. You can at least send them a thank you note or an email expressing your thanks.
HOW TO PREPARE FOR WRITING A CHARACTER REFERENCE LETTER
Once someone asks you to write a character reference for them, these are two things you need to do before writing the letter. These are:
1. Find Out Who You Are Addressing
Before you start working on the character reference, it is important to know who the intended recipient is, so as to figure out how to address them. For instance, if the character reference is intended for court, you would address the judge as “Your Honor”.
If it’s for a job candidate, you can ask them how to address the recipient.
Knowing the recipient of the letter also informs what you write. You should customize the character reference for the particular recipient you are targeting. For instance, if it’s the corporate world, you should list qualities that are in high demand in the corporate world, such as resourcefulness, diligence, initiative, team player, and so on.
If the letter is intended for a volunteer organization, then you should list qualities that are in high demand in volunteering, such as integrity, dedication, commitment, empathy, selflessness, and so on.
Note that the personality traits to focus on depend on the recipient of the letter. For instance, empathy and selflessness are likely to be out of place when recommending someone for a bank job, but they are perfect for recommending someone to a volunteer organization. This brings us to the second point…
2. Find Out Why the Person Needs a Character Reference
The other thing you must confirm from the beginning is why the character reference letter is necessary. Why do they need it? Are they looking for a job? Are they trying to move into a new apartment? Are they applying for citizenship? Knowing why the letter is required will help you figure out what to put in the letter.
5 KEY ELEMENTS OF A CHARACTER REFERENCE LETTER
In case a friend, colleague, or someone in your network asks you to write a character reference letter for them, it is important for you to know the key elements that you need to include in the letter to make it effective. Generally, a good character reference letter should include the following five elements:
1. Relationship Between You And The Person
The value of your information will be determined by the nature of your relationship with the person you are writing a reference for. If it is your brother, your opinion will be considered too subjective to be taken seriously. If it is a work colleague or a former classmate, it is more likely to be taken objectively.
Therefore, start by explaining the relationship between you and the person you are writing. How and where do you know the person from? For instance, you could say, “I am Rachel’s colleague at Walmart. We have been working together for the last seven months when she joined us.”
2. Length Of Acquaintance
How long have you known the candidate? The longer your acquaintance, the more valuable the information you provide. For instance, in the example above, “I have known Rachel for the last seven months, which is when she started working at Walmart” note how the writer mentions the length of their relationship with the subject.
3. Specific Positive Personal Qualities
Ensure you mention at least three positive personal qualities about the individual that will help the employer understand them better. Where possible, make sure the qualities you provide are relevant for the position they are applying for. Remember the employer is keen to find out exactly how the candidate will be of benefit to the company.
Examples of positive personal qualities include being a team player, grit, initiative, leadership ability, self-motivation, communication skills, strategic mindset, and so on.
4. Statement Of Recommendation
In the final statement or the character reference letter, declare your recommendation. For instance: “Having worked with Rachel and seen her commitment and grit, I know she would be of great value to any organization lucky enough to have her.”
5. Contact Information
Provide at least two pieces of contact information to ensure you can be reached to confirm your recommendation. For instance, you can include your phone number and your email address.
TIPS ON HOW TO WRITE A GOOD CHARACTER REFERENCE LETTER
The following are some things to keep in mind when crafting a character reference letter:
1. Use the Appropriate Format
Structure is key when crafting a character reference letter. The reader expects certain information to be in certain sections of the letter.
The character reference letter typically follows a three-part structure. It opens with an introductory paragraph, which is where you describe the relationship you have with the person you are recommending. When did you meet them and where and in what capacity?
In the second paragraph, you get to the meat of the matter: the positive qualities of the individual. It is this paragraph that the employer is most interested in.
This is where you list all the admirable traits that you have observed in this particular individual. Where possible, ensure the traits are relevant and useful for the position they are applying for.
The final paragraph is where you directly state that you are recommending the candidate for the job. It typically goes something like, “I fully recommend Regina for the sales rep position because I’ve witnessed her ability to connect with customers. She will definitely be an asset to your sales team.”
The last sentence of the character reference letter is usually an invitation to the recipient to feel free to contact you.
Finally, you close with “Sincerely, [your name]”, followed by your contact details, such as your phone number and email address.
2. Keep It Positive
A character reference letter is not about balancing the individual’s good traits and bad traits. Don’t say, “Don is a hard worker and takes initiative, but he is not a team player.”
That goes against the point of writing a character reference letter in the first place, which is to present the individual in good light. Listing their bad qualities will only reduce their chances of getting whatever they are applying for.
That does not mean you should lie about them, however. If you say they are hardworking but they turn out to be lazy, this might devalue your word in the marketplace.
Your word should be worth something, and if your lie just to get someone a job, your reputation might get tainted a little bit when the truth comes out, especially if it happens more than once.
You must therefore be very honest. Think back to when you had the relationship with this person. Which positive attributes do you remember? Provide an honest yet upbeat appraisal of the person’s personality, talents, accomplishments and goals.
Here are some tips that will help you keep the character reference positive:
- When describing the person, use positive adjectives. For instance, you might say they are hardworking, dedicated, diligent, creative, and so on.
- To make your account more vivid and effective, include a few relevant accomplishments of the person you are writing about, particularly ones that you witnessed yourself. For instance, if you were volunteer partners together, you can list some of his or her achievements during your volunteering time. If you know each other from a military background, cite on or two of their acts of valor. Be brief, though – there is no need to go overboard and make the letter excessively lengthy.
- When you are unsure about an accomplishment you want to include, ask yourself, “Is it relevant?”
3. Edit And Proofread
Don’t submit your letter immediately after you are done writing it. Take some time to comb through it carefully in case there are any mistakes of grammar, spelling or punctuation.
If you are not so savvy with grammar, you can use tools like Grammarly or the Hemingway app or a similar tool that will help you streamline your writing into something fluent and that says what you want to say effectively.
That is not all. Typos are ugly, but what is even worse is incorrect facts. A typo here and there can be overlooked, since everyone can generally figure out what you are saying.
Factual errors, however, can make the reader doubt everything you have written. If you are wrong in one instance, they think to be themselves, then what else could you be wrong about? Can your opinion be trusted?
Therefore, to ensure you do well by the person you are recommending, ensure that every claim you have made in the character reference letter is factual. When you are done, send a draft copy to the individual for their perusal. If there are any incorrect facts, they will let you know and you can edit accordingly.
SAMPLE OF THE CHARACTER REFERENCE LETTER
In the spirit of “show, don’t just tell”, let us look at a sample of a character reference letter:
To Whom It May Concern,
My name is Dave, and I have known Daniel Ericcson for close to five years now. When we first met, I was the Finance Manager at Hobart and Steve Investment Bank and Daniel was an intern who wasn’t even in my department, but we became friends. I admired his get up and go attitude, his enthusiasm, and pure grit. Quite naturally, I found myself playing the role of mentor to this enterprising young man. Once his internship was complete, Daniel was offered a job at the company (my recommendation played a role), and he stayed with us for three years before he resigned to try his hand at entrepreneurship (with my blessing).
It was his ambitious spirit, full of initiative and the desire to do solve problems that led him to entrepreneurship. There was this one time when he was still an intern that he came up with a radical solution out of the blue, shocking everyone – it was at this point that I took note of him and decided to make his acquaintance. He is also a hard worker, has an ability to see the big picture, and in spite of his independent streak, he is a team player. The combination of these qualities makes him a good leader – I have seen him lead a marketing team effectively and efficiently to smash targets no one expected them to hit.
It is for these and many other reasons that I wholeheartedly recommend Daniel for the Marketing Manager position. Any organization he works at is lucky to have him. I write this as the current CFO at Hobart and Steve.
In case you have further questions, do feel free to contact me.
To summarize, when writing a character reference letter, start by finding out who the recipient of the letter is, and tailor it to suit the purpose. Be honest when writing the letter – avoid the temptation to lie.
That said, list only the best qualities about the individual you are recommending. Provide a list of their most positive traits, and ensure you follow the format we have provided here when writing a character reference letter.
On the other hand, if you are the one who actually needs a character reference letter, make sure you pick the right person for the job. Pick someone who knows you well and has seen your good attributes.