Fake job references - helping or hurting your chances?

Updated on May 30, 2023
Fake job references - helping or hurting your chances

Unmasking the world of job applications, here we will dive deep into the problematic and unethical practice of presenting false contacts or exaggerated relationships as references in job resumes.

This article will explore the deceptive tactics used, shedding light on why some job seekers resort to fake references, and unpack the severe consequences that can result from such actions.

Deception in professional contexts is a serious issue, and understanding the risks of fake references is essential for employers and job seekers alike.

Join us as we journey through the murky waters of fake references, where honesty isn't just the best policy — it's the only one that guarantees a sustainable, successful career.

What is a fake reference?

What is a fake reference
Fake references on a job resume refer to false contact information, made-up names, or exaggerated relationships with professional contacts presented with the intention of deceiving potential employers about a candidate's skills, experiences, or performance in previous roles.

Using fake references is considered unethical and could result in severe consequences, including job termination or legal action.

When it comes to job hunting, references play an integral role as they serve to validate a candidate's skills, experiences, and performance from a third-party perspective.

For example, a reference could be a former employer, a colleague, a professor, or anyone else who can objectively speak to an applicant's qualifications for a job.

Fake references, then, refer to deceptive manipulations of this part of a job application.

Examples of fake references

These manipulations can take several forms:

1. False contact information

This could involve listing a real person as a reference but providing false contact details, so the employer won't be able to reach them.

This often suggests that the person might not give a positive recommendation if contacted, or they might not even be aware that they are being listed as a reference.

2. Made-up names

In some cases, applicants invent individuals who don't exist and list them as references. They might provide contact information that actually leads back to themselves or to a friend who's in on the deceit, prepared to pose as this fictional reference.

3. Exaggerated relationships

A candidate might list someone as a reference with whom they have a minimal or different kind of relationship than claimed. For example, an applicant might list a high-ranking executive as a direct supervisor when, in fact, their interactions were limited or non-existent.

Can you use fake references?

Technically, you can risk using fake references and get away with it if the hiring staff does not verify them.

However, the risk versus the hypothetical reward is absolutely not worth it because this is just one of many factors that employers consider when hiring.

When it comes to job applications, references are indeed an important component. They offer potential employers a chance to hear from others about your abilities, work ethic, and character.

But it's crucial to remember that references are just one piece of the puzzle in your job application.

Your resume itself, with its detailing of your education, skills, and work experience, plays a central role. Then there's the cover letter, where you get to make a personal case for why you're a great fit for the role.

If you progress further in the hiring process, the interview stage becomes pivotal, providing an opportunity for you to personally shine and demonstrate your compatibility with the company culture and the role's requirements.

In light of these multiple aspects, resorting to using fake references simply isn't worth it. The risks far outweigh any potential short-term gain.

Just imagine landing the job only to lose it later because your deception was uncovered. Not only would you have lost the job, but it could also tarnish your reputation in the industry.

Moreover, using fake references is fundamentally dishonest. It undermines the trust that's so critical in professional relationships.

It's better to be open and honest if you feel your references are not as strong as they could be. Employers appreciate honesty, and it opens up a conversation where you might be able to address any concerns directly.

So remember, while references are important and it is good to have at least a couple, they are only one part of a much larger picture.

Your skills, experiences, and personal attributes are what truly make you a valuable candidate. Keep faith in those and let them shine through honesty in your job applications.

Why do job candidates use fake references?

Why do job candidates use fake references

Despite the ethical concerns and potential negative consequences, some individuals may still choose to use fake references when applying for jobs.

The reasons behind this decision can vary, but they often include the following:

1. Limited professional network

Some individuals may feel that they don't have enough suitable references due to a lack of a professional network. This can be especially true for people just starting their careers, such as recent graduates, or those transitioning to a new industry.

2. Negative past work experiences

If a job candidate had a poor relationship with a previous employer or believes they would not provide a favorable reference, they might be tempted to use a fake reference to avoid negative feedback.

3. Attempt to exaggerate qualifications

Some job seekers may use fake references to inflate their qualifications, experiences, or job titles in the hopes of appearing more attractive to potential employers.

4. Attempt to mask employment gaps

Individuals with significant gaps in their employment history may use fake references to pretend they were employed during these periods.

5. Job desperation

Some people might feel desperate when they've been job searching for a long time without success. They might resort to using fake references, believing it will improve their chances of securing a job.

Is using fake references illegal

The legality of using fake references can depend on several factors, such as the jurisdiction you're in and the nature of the deception involved.

However, even if using fake references is not explicitly illegal in a specific jurisdiction, it is generally considered unethical and dishonest, and it could have legal ramifications in certain situations.

For instance, if using a fake reference involves identity theft — such as using someone else's name or personal information without their consent — it could potentially lead to legal action.

Similarly, if a company suffers significant harm or losses as a result of hiring someone based on false information they provided, they may choose to take legal action against the individual.

Also, in certain industries and for certain types of jobs, especially those involving public trust or security clearances, providing false information during the hiring process could be considered a criminal act.

What are the consequences of using a fake reference?

The use of fake references in a job application presents significant risks that could have long-lasting negative impacts on a candidate's professional life. Here are the primary risks associated with using fake references:

1. Disqualification from job consideration

If an employer discovers during the hiring process that a candidate has submitted fake references, the candidate is likely to be disqualified immediately.

This dishonesty undermines the employer's trust in the candidate and brings into question their integrity and reliability, qualities that are essential in any professional setting.

2. Job termination

If a candidate has been hired and the employer later discovers that they used fake references, the employer may terminate the candidate's employment.

This could happen no matter how long the person has been with the company, and job termination could have serious financial and personal impacts.

3. Damage to professional reputation

Professional networks and industries can be surprisingly interconnected. Word of an applicant using fake references could spread, damaging their professional reputation.

This could limit their opportunities in the future, as other employers might be hesitant to hire someone known to have been dishonest in their job applications.

4. Potential legal consequences

In certain cases, particularly if the use of fake references involves identity theft or false impersonation, there could be legal ramifications.

The individual whose identity was used without their consent may choose to take legal action, or an employer may choose to do so if they feel they suffered significant damages as a result of the deception.

5. Personal and ethical implications

Using fake references involves a significant amount of deceit, which could lead to stress, anxiety, and guilt. Furthermore, it reflects poorly on an individual's personal integrity and ethics.

Do employers check if references are real?

Many employers do check if references are real. The process of verifying references is a standard part of many hiring processes and serves to confirm the information provided by the candidate regarding their skills, experience, and past performance.

If an employer specifically asks you to provide references, then there's a 99% chance that those will be verified. At least this is what I have experienced in the course of my career.

Employers might verify references in a few ways:

1. Phone call or email

The most common way to verify references is simply by contacting them directly, either by phone or email.

The employer might ask about the candidate's roles and responsibilities, their job performance, their strengths and weaknesses, their reliability and integrity, and the nature of their relationship to the reference.

2. LinkedIn or social media

Some employers might look up a reference on LinkedIn or other social media platforms to verify their job title and company. This can help confirm that the reference indeed holds the position claimed by the candidate.

3. Third-party verification services

There are companies that provide professional background check services, which may include reference verification. These services may be used particularly for high-level or sensitive positions.

It is true that not all employers check references, and the extent to which they do can vary based on the role, the company, the industry, and other factors.

But given that many do, it's important for job candidates to provide real and accurate references.

(Imagine how awkward it would be if you have listed real people on your resume but for some reason, an employer is not able to reach them. It would look like you have listed fake references. Consider checking our complete guide on what to do if your references don't respond.)

Alternatives to using fake references

When applying for jobs, it is recommended to provide at least 3 references. If you feel that you don't have suitable ones, there are several ethical alternatives to consider instead of resorting to fake references. These include:

1. Previous employers or supervisors

If you had a positive relationship with a previous employer or supervisor, they can serve as a strong reference.

Even if you didn't end on the best terms, it might be worth reaching out to them. In many cases, they can provide at least a basic reference verifying your employment.

2. Colleagues or teammates

People you've worked with can provide a reference about your teamwork, work ethic, and skills. These individuals can discuss firsthand how you handle tasks and interact with others in a professional setting.

3. Teachers or academic advisors

For recent graduates or those with limited work experience, professors, academic advisors, or coaches can provide a character reference or speak to your dedication, punctuality, problem-solving abilities, and other relevant skills.

4. Clients or customers

If you've done any freelance or contract work, clients can be an excellent source of references. They can speak to your reliability, professionalism, and the quality of your work.

5. Mentors or coaches

If you have a mentor or coach, whether from your personal or professional life, they can often provide a strong character reference.

6. Volunteer coordinators

If you have volunteered, the coordinator or leader of the volunteer program can be a reference. Volunteering can demonstrate a wide range of skills and positive character traits.

7. Personal friends

As a last resort, you can list some of your friends as references. It would be best if they are past classmates or people you have worked with on some kind of project

Also, remember to always ask the person if they are comfortable being a reference before providing their contact information.

Be honest with potential employers if you believe your references might not fully align with their expectations due to a lack of work experience or a gap in employment.

Finally, work on building your professional network. The broader your network, the more likely you are to have strong, professional references when you need them.

My experience with a job candidate using fake references

As a seasoned project manager at a major international tech company, I had seen my fair share of impressive resumes. But this one had particularly caught my eye.

A candidate for a Department Manager position – let's call him John – seemed to have everything we needed. His credentials were impressive, his experience expansive, and his skills, at least on paper, seemed perfectly aligned with the role's requirements. I was optimistic.

We had a face-to-face interview with John, and he carried himself well. He was eloquent and confident, and demonstrated a strong grasp of the role's requirements and the broader industry. The hiring team and I were convinced that we had found our ideal department manager.

However, as part of my due diligence, I always take a closer look at the resume of a potential hire, especially one who would occupy such a critical role in the company.

As I was verifying John's details, one thing jumped out. One of the companies where John claimed to have worked previously was impossible to find. There was no website, no LinkedIn profile, no news mentions, and no digital footprint whatsoever. This seemed odd for a company where he claimed to have held a significant managerial role.

I decided it was time to check the references. I believed in John, but something felt off, and I wanted to be absolutely sure before making the final decision. So, I started calling the contacts he had listed. The first reference didn't answer. The second one was a disconnected number. The third one was a real person, but they had never heard of John.

It was becoming increasingly clear to me that the references were fake. I was disappointed and felt betrayed. Here was a candidate who was about to secure a high-profile role in our company, but he had lied about his past.

We decided to confront John with the discrepancies we found. He stumbled through his explanations, and it was clear that our suspicions were correct. It was a regrettable situation, but we ultimately had to disqualify him from the role.

The incident reinforced the importance of thorough reference checks and verification processes in hiring. It was a stark reminder that while a candidate may shine during interviews and have a promising resume, the truth lies in the details.

As a project manager, my responsibility is not only to oversee the successful completion of our tasks but also to ensure the integrity and honesty of our team. It was a valuable, albeit disappointing, lesson in the importance of vetting and verifying the credentials of potential hires.

Frequently asked questions about fake references

How often do employers check references?

The frequency at which employers check references can vary greatly. However, it's quite common for employers to conduct reference checks, especially before making a final job offer. In some industries or for certain positions, it's almost a universal practice. That being said, not all employers conduct reference checks, and some may only do so for their top candidates or for roles with high responsibility.

Can you buy fake references?

There are services on the internet that claim to provide "fake" or "professional" references for job applications, housing applications, and other scenarios. These services often promise to act as a previous employer or professional contact, providing positive feedback about your work experience, skills, and character.

What are some signs that a reference might be fake?

There are several signs that could indicate a reference is fake. For example, if the reference is hard to reach or if their contact information leads to a disconnected number or an unrelated person, this might raise suspicion. If the reference is vague about details or seems unsure about the candidate's role or performance, that could be another red flag. Finally, inconsistencies between the information the candidate provided and what the reference shares might also indicate that the reference is fake.

What should I do if I don't have any suitable professional references?

If you feel that you don't have suitable professional references, consider widening your options. You might be able to use teachers, academic advisors, volunteer coordinators, or even clients as references. If you're early in your career, consider asking for a reference from internships, part-time jobs, or volunteer work.

Written by:
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co-founder / office worker
Alex has been an office worker for more than 10 years. He is dedicated to helping other office workers to achieve the perfect life-work balance through well-being, effective communication, and building productive habits.

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