Is it okay if you write your own recommendation or reference letter and let your boss sign it? What does that say about you? About your boss?

Since it’s appeared in two recent editions of the Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, the volume of reader mail has pushed this topic to the blog. I want to make it easier for everyone to talk about it. The pertinent newsletter editions are:

A boss who — when asked if he’ll write a recommendation — tells the individual to write their own reference letter so the boss can sign it, is an irresponsible jerk. He’s dissing his own company, dissing the employee, and dissing the entire business community. Who’s going to read that reference and base a hiring decision on it — at least in part? (Is this where crummy hires come from?)

There are some legitimate ways for an employee to make the task a bit easier for the boss, and to reasonably influence the result, and I discuss those in the newsletter. But, a manager signing someone else’s judgments as one’s own — that undermines business at a fundamental level.

Most readers got their hackles up over this one. One said his former boss did this routinely, and called him “a feckless loser.” One called the failure of managers to actually take the time to write a reference “another example of the general malaise that exists in Corporate America; it is like a cancer that is spreading exponetially.” Consistently, readers focused on the bigger underlying management problem. One put it very simply: “Not only is it deceitful, it’s also lazy and bad management practice.”

One reader explained that this is just how business is done and chided me for not accepting it. Bob Hooson wrote (and gave me permission to print):

I spent 25 yrs in Corp roles, including leadership at VP levels and 10 yrs in my own recruiting company. I would venture to guess that from what I have seen, 90% of reference letters are written by the person for their boss who then edits and signs it.  This is neither counterfeiting nor is it fraud……it is in actually, how a great amount of this type of business gets done in a timely manner. I personally believe your inflexibility and perhaps arrogance is showing in your response to the individual or perhaps, you have been a bit far removed from the corporate world.

Maybe bosses who play this game with references have been in the corporate world too long. If 90% of people write their own references, then 90% of people are behaving unethically. I wouldn’t care if it were 100%. Take a good look at the condition of American business. Little frauds enable big frauds. Do we really need any more examples than those in the daily news?

Either we have managers with high standards who uphold the value of their word, or we don’t.

Managers who rationalize the little stuff graduate to misrepresenting the big stuff, and that’s how bad stuff happens. Maybe that really is how 90% of business is done.

When you hire someone, do you know where their references come from?

  1. When I check references on a candidate I am submitting to a client, I call the references. Written references are nice, but I don’t place a lot of value in them. I feel that you need to talk to the reference to understand how they feel and to get a true picture of the candidate.

  2. Gary – I agree, calls are the norm. But lots of people still use written references, especially in certain fields including education and public sector. Also remember that references and recommendations aren’t just for job hunting. They’re used internally in orgs, when people apply for promotions, transfers, etc., or for school applications, and the like.

  3. While this is definitely a sign of a lazy manager, it is neither unethical nor does it put someone on a slippery slope to criminal behaviour (as you implied in your last article).

  4. Of course it’s unethical to misrepresent that you wrote something when in fact you didn’t. Just the fact that some people don’t consider it unethical shows you just how far corporate (and personal) ethics have slid.

  5. Nick,

    I don’t disagree with any of the reasoning behind your disgust with folks who won’t write their own reference letters. But, I do take issue with this comment: “Sorry, but I’m not going to answer the rest of your question. I have a lot of trouble with putting words in people’s mouths. I’ve got an even bigger problem with devaluing references and recommendations by writing your own. you, If I were you, I’d go look for another reference.”

    The job seeker may have only one Manager they report to, or a limited number of relevant (according to the type of reference a company typically desires) reference options, and not have the luxury of going elsewhere for references. Yes, the ideal is a great reference written by the true author, but I wouldn’t advise a job seeker to turn down one from a manager who wouldn’t write their own, especially if other options are limited. In turning it down, it could offend the manager also, then making it difficult for them to get a verbal reference – if they are the type not to write it, they’re not that considerate anyway – so could be consequences. I’m all for taking a stand on business ethics, although I don’t want a job seeker penalized for an unseemly, but not illegal practice.

  6. Hi Nick and others. I was rather shocked when I read this post. I think someone who is required to write his or her own reference letter would be considered rather self-serving by a potential employer and therefore, the employer wouldn’t really consider that applicant to be a good hire. What if said applicant wrote something about him or herself that wasn’t even true? Criminal records come to mind here. I’d think that the person would be in for a rather unpleasant surprise if that happened. Just my two cents.

  7. The real problem with ethics is that everyone has their own view on what is ethical and what is unethical and in a few cases it can be a matter of opinion. But when you look at what message this reference writing activity sends out, I don’t think it is too complicated to see what side of the ethical debate it sits on.

    The simple fact of this style of reference writing is that the employee gets a good reference whether it’s true or not because surely, even the worst employee is not going to write themselves a bad reference are they? If you’re using a self written reference signed by your Manager, you’re now the one misleading a future employer because they will not think that it’s self written and why should they seeing as the old Manager has signed it and falsely implying that they wrote it.

    To the potential employer at least, it is not worth the paper it is written on. They just don’t realise it at the time because they are being misled by you. What would happen to you if they hired you based upon the strength of the reference and then found out who really wrote it? You might be job hunting again sooner than you think so is it really worth it?

    Think about what it should really say to you as the employee when you have to write your own reference. It means that the Manager doesn’t have to waste 15 mins of their time on someone they clearly don’t value or care about and they probably consider it good time keeping rather than bad management. The message from the Manager to the Employee is “I’m not interested in you and can’t be bothered wasting any of my valuable time on you. I certainly don’t think you are good enough for me to write a reference for you so you write what you like and I will sign it and then hopefully you will leave me alone.”

    Some of the responses here are clearly from employees but how would you feel if you were the employer? Would you be happy interviewing the candidate knowing that the candidate themselves had written their own reference being presented to you?

    It might be borderline legal but it certainly is unethical to any honest person and its worth remembering that if you go down this road it’s both the Manager and you who are acting unethically.

  8. In respond to: Some of the responses here are clearly from employees but how would you feel if you were the employer? Would you be happy interviewing the candidate knowing that the candidate themselves had written their own reference being presented to you?

    The “employer” routinely participates in this practice also. I know of some companies who forbid their employees from giving/writing references for fear of liability, but most companies are aware of this practice and there is no consequence for it. By having the job-seeker write his own reference, doesn’t mean the manager thinks poorly of the candidate, and I think it is understood (at least the companies I’ve worked for), that by signing it they agree and confirm what is written, and will often add edits.

    I have helped my clients write their own reference letters from their bosses who have been President’s, CEO’s, CFO’s, HR Director’s (YES–HR!), so this is not a covert practice. To reiterate, it is not an ideal situation, but I believe it is understood that when the manager,etc. signs the reference letter they are confirming the content. In my almost 20 years of business I have never heard of anyone being fired over this.

    Yes, I would like this practice changed, but the job seeker should not be penalized because of it until a change occurs.

  9. The job seeker is not being penalized for not writing there own reference but are being asked to lie to their next employer if they do which I think is far worse.

    Signing the reference does not mean the Manager agrees to it but rather it gets it out of the way for them. They would probably sign anything that was written.

    And if they wouldn’t, what really baffles me in your arguement is that if they have time to read it, verify it, presumably ammend it and then sign it, why not take the few minutes it would take to write the thing in the first place?

    It’s laziness.

    My point I was trying to make that you picked up on incorrectly I think is “What if YOU were the person interviewing someone knowing that the reference was self written? Would you accept the reference as unbiased and truthful?

    I know Employers participate in this practice because thats what the discussion is about but the employer I am referring to is the one on the receiving end of the scam.

    Your experience clearly shows that this poor practice goes to the top of the pile which is the real problem. Bad practices at the top will always lead to bad practices further down the company.

    What is the point of references if they are self written?

  10. Nick,
    I understand and value your high ethical standard. I was planning on writing my own reference, but now I am trying to find other options and I want to know if it would be acceptable to have a co-worker write the reference and have the president of my company sign off. I work for a medium sized family owned company and report directly to the owner. The problem is this person is a terrible writer. Help.

  11. Matt H.,

    Ask your boss if he’d be more comfortable providing references on the phone. (“It might mean a few phone calls in total, but that might actually require less of your valuable time…”)

    And don’t forget you can get references from lots of other people. Other mgrs in your company, co-workers, customers, vendors, even competitors who know you well. References are a broad spectrum — look all across it.

    As others have pointed out, references via phone are probably more common than ones in writing. Check the links within the newsletter link above — it offers good ideas on how to prime your references legitimately.

  12. Hey very nice blog!!….I’m an instant fan, I have bookmarked you and I’ll be checking back on a regular….See ya

    I’m Out! :)