why do employers ask for personal references rather than professional ones?

A reader writes:

I’m applying for a job that requests I send “three references other than previous employers or relatives.” Does this mean that I can’t use anyone I’ve worked with in the past? I’m several years out of school and nearly all of my references are work-related. Should I list friends? Old classmates? I don’t really feel comfortable asking clients/vendors who I work with to provide a reference, and I don’t think anyone from organizations I’m involved in outside work know me well enough to give anything particularly strong. Help!

Ugh, I don’t know why some employers insist on doing this.

Sometimes it means that they want “personal” references — people who can vouch for you being a generally upstanding member of the community. Other times it means that they want professional references who aren’t managers (such as peers or clients). Bizarrely, it’s more often the former than the latter. But it’s fine to ask them for clarification by saying something like, “Are you looking for personal references or references who can speak to my work?”

For personal references, you can use people like a landlord, contacts at organizations you’ve volunteered for, professors if your graduation was within the last few years, and people you have not-too-intimate relationships with in your community (someone you served on a board with would be ideal, or a teammate if you’re on some kind of sports league). I say not too intimate because they’re not looking to talk with someone you dated or someone so close to you that they can’t speak reasonably objectively about you.

But in my opinion, it’s silly. You’re not going to be their roommate; you’d be their employee, and they should be talking to people who know you as an employee.

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