How could your sixth-grade teacher, next-door neighbor, or golfing buddy comment on your management style, responsibilities or the quality of your performance on the job?
The answer: They can't.
Often, job seekers think a "personal" reference is someone they've worked with who also happens to be a personal friend. In my book, that's a business or professional reference because of the work association. Personal references are people with whom you've never worked in a traditional job setting. They include everyone you know, except the people with whom you've actually worked on a day-to-day basis! While that may seem like splitting hairs, there is a difference.
So what's wrong with providing strictly personal references? Nothing, if you're applying for a scholarship, but quite a lot if you're applying for a job. Personal references can only comment on general topics. They might, for instance, be able to say what a nice person you are, what a wonderful sense of humor you have, or how much fun you are at parties, but it is extremely unlikely that a personal reference could possibly be familiar with the sorts of things most employers who check references want to know.
As more and more employers thoroughly check references, everyone who contemplates the possibility of making a career move, regardless of when, should be developing work relationships with superiors, peers, and subordinates who, when needed, can be called upon to serve as references for you.
The dramatic increase in negligent hiring litigation has caused many employers to be far more thorough in checking references. For some employers it is admittedly a perfunctory exercise so they can demonstrate that some sort of minimal effort was made to check a candidate's background before offering a job. However, far more are taking reference checking seriously in terms of carefully evaluating past job performance as it relates to the position the employer wants to fill. That's why your choice of references is more important than ever. Appropriate references can not only enhance your chances for employment, but they can also confirm what you've said about yourself during job interviews.
It is true that many job seekers are willing to take the chance that a prospective employer won't bother to check references. So they provide personal references, references with whom they are barely acquainted or, worse yet, names of people they don't even know but look impressive on a resume. They're hoping they won't get caught and will be able, on the basis of personality alone, to get the job they want. That's a game I wouldn't recommend playing.
During my 20-plus years in the reference checking business, I've repeatedly heard alleged references say things like, "I don't know why so-and-so listed me as a reference, I barely knew him." Or, "I've never worked with so-and-so, but we play tennis together every week." Those types of responses never enhance employability. Neither does listing an old college roommate who has no clue what you've been doing since graduation. All it does is make your preparation for a career change look sloppy and poorly thought out.
The best way to enhance your future employability is, obviously, to do a good job for every employer. Then, identifying coworkers who can confirm the quality of your job performance should be a relatively simple task. Business and professional references are the ones who will help advance your career. Don't waste a prospective employer's time listing personal references.