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Should You Evaluate Personal Or Professional References?

A man at his desk talking to a reference while taking notes.

Conducting reference checks as part of the hiring process can help employers make more informed decisions about job candidates. But should you check personal or professional references—or both?

Read about the different types of insights you can get from personal vs. professional references, the pros and cons of each, and what to be aware of when conducting both kinds of reference checks.

When looking for well-qualified candidates, hiring managers often perform thorough screenings, like criminal background checks, employment verifications, and drug screenings. But there’s another crucial aspect of the screening and hiring process: Reference checks.

Why? Reference checks help you make more informed decisions about whether to hire certain candidates or eliminate unqualified ones. In fact, 34% of senior managers decided not to hire a job candidate based on a reference check, according to a 2019 survey by Robert Half.

Reference checks also allow you to get insight into candidates that other screenings can’t reveal. For example, an employment verification check can confirm details like where a candidate worked, for how long, and their job titles during that time. But a reference check reveals more than that based on reference check questions around soft skills.

You can learn detailed information like: 

  • Strengths
  • Performance
  • Characteristics (e.g. honesty, trustworthiness, adaptability, etc.)
  • Communication style
  • Work ethic and more 

What’s more, you can learn much of this information from people who know the candidate personally. However, when it comes to reference checks, hiring managers may ask themselves: Should I check personal or professional references?

The short answer? Potentially both. But there’s much more to consider when sorting through personal vs professional references. That’s why GoodHire is breaking down the pros and cons of each.

Personal vs Professional References: What’s The Difference?

Before deciding whether to check personal vs professional references, it helps to better understand what each one entails. That’s because performing reference checks can take up a lot of time, and hiring managers want to ensure they’re arming themselves with the best information possible to choose the right candidates. Additionally, different types of references offer different perspectives on each candidate—some that may be useful (and some that may not).

Personal References

First, personal references are typically people the candidate is close with but has never worked with. These may include people like: 

  • Long-term friends
  • Mentors
  • Fellow committee or board members
  • Teachers
  • Advisors

Professional References

Professional references typically include people who have worked closely with a candidate for at least six months. These may be: 

  • Co-workers
  • Supervisors
  • Managers
  • Leadership executives
  • Team members
  • Employees the candidate managed or manages currently

At the end of the day, both types of references may prove crucial in the screening and hiring process and can even be the deciding factor about whether to hire a candidate.

Pros & Cons Of Personal References vs Professional References

As with most decisions, there are pros and cons to personal and professional references. And, depending on your company values, culture, and overall work style, you may find that one type of reference may benefit you more than the other.

Personal References: Pros

Ideally, personal references will know candidates on, well, a personal level. Because of this, hiring managers may get to learn details like a candidate’s values, personality, and character outside of the workplace. All of which can help you better understand: 

  • How they may fit into a company’s work culture
  • How they may function in a leadership role
  • Whether the candidate’s ideals, morals, and values align with the company’s

Also, it’s important to consider the candidate’s recent work and education experience. If they’re new to the job market, they may not have any go-to professional references and have to rely solely on personal ones.

Personal References: Cons

The most obvious drawback to evaluating personal references is you won’t gather much insight into how the candidate performs in a workplace. In some instances, personal references may also not be as close to a candidate as professional references might be. For example, if a candidate has listed a previous teacher or advisor, that reference won’t have a good idea of who the candidate is now; only what they knew and observed when they taught them.

On the other hand, personal references may be too close to a candidate, potentially lacking unbiased information that would prove more helpful in a hiring decision. An example of this might be if a candidate lists a close friend or a roommate as a reference. You may only get information about their close relationship or other unnecessary details unrelated to the job or the company.

Professional References: Pros

Professional references ideally will have worked with a candidate for at least six months and have a close working relationship. These references may know about the candidate’s: 

  • Day-to-day responsibilities
  • Work performance
  • Work ethic
  • Strengths
  • Attitude
  • Challenges
  • Management style
  • Communication style and more

All of this information is more than ideal for a hiring manager to know when screening candidates. After all, you want to get the best possible idea of how that person performs in a workplace and how they contribute to their company overall.

Another advantage is that professional references may give a more unbiased view of the candidate. If their relationship with the candidate is strictly professional, they may not feel as inclined to hold back when it comes to discussing potential struggles or unflattering characteristics. This gives you a better holistic view of candidates to make more strategic, informed decisions about whether to hire them.

Professional References: Cons

On the other hand, candidates likely won’t list professional references who will give them a poor review. This is especially true if a reference didn’t work directly or as closely with the candidate, such as a higher-level manager.

Additionally, candidates may not list any professional references from their current employer to tip anyone off that they’re job-searching or seeking opportunities elsewhere. In this instance, you may not get an accurate read on how a candidate performs in their current position—along with their responsibilities, work style, and more. This may also be a drawback if a candidate has been with their current employer for several years, as a lot can change over time. As a result, hiring managers may be left with a blind spot when making hiring decisions about particular candidates.

Conduct Thorough Reference Checks With GoodHire

The answer to the question of whether you should evaluate personal vs professional references? It depends. 

At the end of the day, professional reference checks are more likely to arm you with the most relevant information to make the best hiring decisions for your company. With them, you can learn more about the candidate’s reputation and trustworthiness and get a realistic viewpoint about how they perform in the workplace, their ability to work with others, and much more.

One tool that can help along the way? Professional Reference Checks through GoodHire. That’s because reference checks—personal or professional—typically require more in-depth phone interviews, adding a lot more time to your already full list of to-do’s. 

With GoodHire, you can have a professional background screener conduct reference checks for you, then access to full written transcripts of all interviews in your GoodHire dashboard.

Our team asks a series of open-ended questions to get you the details you need to make the most informed hiring decisions—all while helping you comply with fair hiring laws should you decide not to move forward with a candidate based on the results of a background check. A win-win for you and your company. 

Looking For Professional Reference Checks?

Let GoodHire manage the process for you.

Illustration of professional reference checks

The resources provided here are for educational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. We advise you to consult your own counsel if you have legal questions related to your specific practices and compliance with applicable laws.

About the Author

Ashley Blonquist is a former news journalist. She writes about GoodHire’s employment screening services and how employers use them to make informed hiring decisions.