Character References

30 years ago, even 20 years ago, it was common to be asked to provide two personal references and two professional references when you applied for a job with a company with which you were not currently employed. Sometimes those personal references were referred to as character references. Today it occurred to me that it has been many years since I was asked for character references. We seem to have come to think that professional references are character references, and increasingly, hiring managers do not trust the references they receive. I have, myself, had the experience of receiving excellent references for a prospective team member and then needing to fire the team member due to underperformance or, even, what might be considered poor character—such as apparently lying.

And, it is true that references can be faked. There is little protection for a prospective employer against dishonest references. The safeguard of having a spontaneous conversation over the phone with a reference is expected to provide some protection, but, dishonesty notwithstanding, the reference can only provide his or her best estimation of an employee’s work ethic and skills competency.

Faked references aside, I began to wonder how character references came to be a thing of the past, if my experience is reflective of the general reality. Do we not care to inquire into the sticky business of whether a person is trustworthy? Or, is trustworthiness considered so relative that it is not something we feel we can judge out of context? Has the tossed salad that is our culture today taught us that cultural viewpoint colors the basic standards of right and wrong behavior?

Back when personal references were required of me, I also recollect that I was asked to identify the relationship I had with the person whose name and contact information I was providing as well as the number of years I had known that person. We have become increasingly mobile and over the last ten to fifteen years, relationships in many sectors of society are less and less likely to be face-to-face. Long term relationships, it seems, are often superficial. As we move from organization to organization, role to role, and city to city; we no longer see the same group of people regularly over an extended period of time. It becomes more difficult to judge whether a person’s actions match how they represent those actions, in other words, whether that person is of good character.

In the early 1980’s when I was an undergraduate, an entire generation of white collar workers was being taught about how to develop and maintain a “professional façade,” and in the 1990’s I increasingly heard the standard touted that it was important to “maintain the appearance of success.” Simultaneously, there was a huge shift of individuals from backgrounds where there had never been workers of professional standing into the knowledge working professions. In the eyes of a member of the 19th century bourgeoisie these people would be considered to have “risen above their station” and that would not necessarily be considered a good thing. But, for my generation, it was considered a very good thing, indeed, to go to college, get advanced degrees, start and build successful corporations—whatever the cost in terms of disconnection from self and other in the pursuit of a high income.

In The Corrosion of Character, Richard Sennet talks about the challenges that accompany disconnection from the product of one’s labor in an increasingly specialized, sped up, and intellectualized working world, and to some extent, he talks about how the resulting alienation and the compromises in terms of connection to others alienates us from ourselves.

A few years ago, I woke up in the middle of the night, and found myself again whiling away the middle of the night with Charlie Rose. That night the interview was with one of the first white collar criminals to be incarcerated for his actions, John Rigas. The interview was done at Mr. Rigas’ request and on the eve of his incarceration. Having read The Picture of Dorian Gray the interview sent particularly resonant chills down my spine. Mr. Rigas was the picture of a self-made individual who believed he had played by the rules as he understood them, and yet, having won the game and become rich, he was being punished. I’ve watched this interview a number of times in contemplating my thesis topic, and it is still available online for you to watch ( To my mind, the opportunity to take the path Mr. Rigas took is faced in various ways by many, many people everyday.

Rules? What rules? And, how can character count when the road to success is paved by a system of risk-mitigating agreements, ethical implications notwithstanding, because the courts cannot truly enforce ethics? What does character even mean? It could, in some contexts, mean having the strength of will to grab that brass ring no matter what.

For people entering the workforce in the last five to ten years, I would think the landscape of business, this “do what works” culture we have developed, must be a very confusing vista, indeed. It is very easy to be tempted to or be outright directed to do things that, in some small back corner of your mind, you know you should not do, but you can’t quite grasp why. A respected authority who holds dominion over your livelihood is directing you to do this thing—but—something just doesn’t seem right.

Several years ago I remember taking an ethical dilemma I was facing regarding how my employer was treating it’s customers to the human resources manager in that company. I was told that, unless what was being asked of me in the performance of my duties was outright illegal, I was to set aside my personal ethics and do as I was told. I am probably neither the first nor last employee to receive such guidance. I did not stay in that organization, and I slept better because of that choice.

I don’t know that asking for character references as well as professional references would solve any problems for hiring managers. But I think it could give rise to some interesting conversations. Perhaps some human resource manager will read this blog post and comment about the demise of the character reference.

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