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I myself think hearing about cold-call reference checks from past coworkers when getting a job would make me think twice about an employer. It's annoying, perhaps inconsiderate -- that doesn't mean it's unethical, or a show of power of all things. The main reason is that here my friends are getting annoyed, and to a small degree the information leakage. (You could probably also get in touch with a set of people you select, without going around the candidate.) A non-cold-call check, between people that know each other, is different because it lacks this factor.

I think you, informally, have a reasonable expectation of privacy that people won't go broadcasting stuff about your behavior in an office, but not a reasonable expectation that people would not help individual colleagues avoid wasting five or six figures of money, not to mention a lot of personal stress and annoyance, by trading money for time with a certain person. The office is not a confession booth, or even a private household. You're probably willing to share details about how you got treated by sellers on eBay -- likewise, the workplace is not a completely personal situation.

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