www.asktheheadhunter.com | September 9, 2008
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Counterfeit References


RE: Should I write my own reference letter for my boss to sign? (August 19, 2008 newsletter)

I really enjoy reading your newsletter and blog and most of the time I agree with your comments -- but not this time.

It's naive to think that every manager has the time to write a recommendation for an employee who is leaving them, and that every manager has the writing skills necessary to write a good, compelling reference letter. Some people dread this type of writing task in the way that some people fear public speaking.

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-- Nick         

In your article you said that it is unethical to write the letter on behalf of your boss. I disagree and think this was a rather melodramatic positioning of this situation. It would be unethical to forge your boss's signature. However, writing the letter, having your boss read and edit it, and then willingly put her signature to it is most definitely not. Many employees are called upon to write reports, white papers and commentary on their boss's behalf.

As to saying that it is not possible to articulate about yourself what your boss could, that's just not true. Of course this can be done; you just need to be a skilled writer and to be capable of articulating the value you have brought to your manager and your organization. Can you read their mind? Of course not. Can you write in their "voice" and say pretty much what they meant to say? Yes, especially if your job already involved doing just that.

My two cents.

Nick's Reply
You're talking about counterfeiting references. References are the coin of the hiring realm. This coin has already been dramatically de-valued. Some are trying to take it out of circulation by making references virtually illegal. (Many companies forbid managers to provide references for fear of litigation.) I think you are dead wrong. Employee-written reference letters damage the core of all business decision-making because they falsify personal judgment.

E-mail from readers who disagree with me is not uncommon. Mostly, they will take issue with a point I made, or they will interpret something differently. And most of the time, I can see their position, and why they think what they do. I almost always learn something in these exchanges, and sometimes I'll change my mind. Even when I don't, I can see there's room for different perspectives.

Very rarely, a reader will express a position that makes absolutely no sense to me or that strikes me as clearly unethical. This is one of those times.

I recently discussed reference letters in the August 19 edition. The newsletter was about bosses who, when an employee (or former employee) asks for a reference letter, tells the person to write their own reference letter, and the boss then signs it. Maybe the boss edits it before signing it. It doesn't matter. The letter is a fraud. It's counterfeit. And the intent behind it is illegitimate.

I don't like to pick apart a reader's comments one by one, but we're talking about ethics. We're talking about flat-out wrong practices that cascade into the pool of bad business. I'm going to comment on the reader's statements in order.

1. If managers don't have time to write a letter about each employee they respect and are willing to recommend, they should decline to provide references, or they should quit their jobs. They are incapable of managing their time.

2. Managers without writing skills necessary to produce a compelling letter should not be managing anyone. They should go back to school and learn to write. Writing is a key skill of civilized people that distinguishes them from primitive people.

3. Managers who fear or dread writing or public speaking are incapable of representing their employers. They will inevitably be called upon to write or speak whether they like it or not. It's part of their job. If they fail, their employer suffers. They should learn to communicate.

4. When a boss puts their name to a written judgment that someone else wrote, it's fraud. The manager should be fired. Some might suggest there's good precedent for signing someone else's expression of personal judgment. Political speeches are often written by professional writers. That's fraud, too. Either a person has something to say that makes them worthy of holding public office -- or holding a job --, or they don't. Just because society accepts politicians with mouths full of someone else's words doesn't make it right or smart. It's a lie, and it portends bad consequences. In this case, no one is forging a signature. An entire letter of recommendation, which others rely on, is being forged.

5. Writing a report for your boss is part of your job when you're writing about matters you were hired to handle. Writing an endorsement of yourself for your boss to sign reveals two fraudsters. Confusing the two reveals a lack of ethics.

6. Everyone should be able to articulate the value they bring to their work. Your boss, especially, should be able to articulate the value you bring to your organization. If he can't, then he doesn't understand what you're doing in your job and doesn't belong in management.

7. If you can write in your boss's "voice" and do so, then you make your boss a ventriloquist's dummy. Once again, the company is wasting money on an inept boss -- or on a boss who isn't willing to do their job.

The worst aspect of your letter is the sequence of thinking it reveals. In New Jersey, there is a U.S. Attorney named Chris Christie, who has locked up many crooked elected officials. He explains the genesis of corruption and the signs that it is growing. First, it starts with arrogance. An individual believes their behavior is beyond question. Next, they rationalize behaving improperly. They did it for a reason, because it was necessary, or because others do it, too. Finally, they justify their bad behavior. The end justifies the means. What they did was important and of value to others. They did it because it was the right thing to do. Yet, Christie says those he's locked up are never surprised. While I won't accuse you of being arrogant, your rationalization and justification of a manager's lousy judgment and behavior are clear.

Honest references are crucial in business. They are the coin of the realm. Trusted judgment is the foundation of business decisions. To a headhunter, honest references from the proper sources are more valuable and useful than resumes or even interviews with job candidates.

There is no justification for a boss telling an employee to write a recommendation letter that the boss can edit and sign. A letter from a lazy boss who is in cahoots with an employee who writes "pretty much what the boss meant to say" is the only reason I need to reject a candidate. This practice further corrupts the practice of sharing honest references.

Taking Care of Your References is a smart and legitimate thing to do. So is requesting The Preemptive Reference. Remind your references of your skills and accomplishments. Refresh their memories. But don't speak for them.

Nick Corcodilos
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