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Using Fake References on Your Resume?

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  • It's not just unethical to list fake references on your resume; it can also put you at risk of being sued for defamation.
  • More than two-thirds of the employers surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management said they check the references of all their applicants.
  • 87% of employers believe that some job applicants have misrepresented themselves on their resumes.

When searching for work, job candidates want to present themselves in the best light. In order to look as good as possible in the eyes of prospective employers, some candidates embellish their credentials and may go as far as to use fake references on their resumes.

Those who do, however, should understand the risk they are taking. There is a strong chance that those references will be checked during the hiring process, and if the names listed are found to be fake, the candidate's chances of landing a job with that employer will be sunk forever.

Fake references are illegal – if you're caught. Directly lying is incredibly unethical, and if caught, you could be fired or face legal trouble. Companies rarely sue for lying, but the people you named on your reference list have every right to.

"If a candidate puts a false reference, they could be sued for defamation," said Raj Vardhman, co-founder of GoRemotely. "The job market is filled with high-quality workers, and it can sometimes be pretty hard to find a job. Therefore, some people feel tempted to include a fake reference on their resume."

Vardhman told Business News Daily that some employers check references and other don't, as it depends on the company's policy. It's best for job seekers to ask former managers or supervisors for references.

Selecting people who can speak to your skills, qualifications and work ethic – like your employers, business associates, professors or even customers – increases your chances of receiving a thorough, positive recommendation.

Matt Dunne, hiring manager at Healing Holidays, believes the first reference you should list is someone who works for your current employer. "Your employer has the best insight into you as a professional, your work ethic and experience. A colleague you worked closely with in a previous job is also a great reference to have. If you had a rapport with them, they will certainly be happy to speak of how well you worked as part of a team."

Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources at CareerBuilder, said job seekers should make sure to include their biggest cheerleaders as job references. Before selecting someone as a reference, she advised, you should consider whether that reference understands the full scope of your previous responsibilities and if they can vouch for your skills, accomplishments and work ethic.

"You also want to make sure that you ask your former colleagues if you can list them as a reference," Haefner said. "If someone is unwilling, it helps you to avoid a potentially awkward or damaging interaction with an employer of interest."

If a company doesn't conduct a reference check and an employee breaks company policy or inflicts damage to the workplace, the company could face a claim for negligent hiring.

While some companies are prone to skip reference checks altogether, it's best practice for the company to conduct an extensive screening process, so job seekers should expect employers to check references.

A Society for Human Resource Management poll on background checks found that more than two-thirds of those surveyed said they conduct reference checks for all job candidates, while 22% said they check references for select candidates. Just 2% of those surveyed said they never check references.

The research found that most employers conduct reference checks for applicants who will have access to confidential data, such as company property, finances and medical information. Larger employers are especially likely to conduct reference checks and have a more extensive screening process.

"You may be surprised to know that they may not limit themselves to just the reference list on your resume or application," said Linda Pophal, owner and CEO of Strategic Communications. "Instead of, or in addition to, the references you list, recruiters, HR professionals and hiring managers will also check their own networks, which are often extensive."

Social media can help you network and connect with friends, but it can also cause you to lose a job. Imagine scrolling through your Twitter feed, raving about your crazy weekend and tweeting about how you got away with a fake reference. You can't get away with that anymore.

Research from CareerBuilder revealed that 54% of employers have decided not to hire a candidate based on their social media profile, with 70% using social media to screen job candidates. [Read related article: Social Media Success: A Guide for Job Seekers]

Employers don't stop checking your social media once they've hired you, either. CareerBuilder found that half of employers check employee social media profiles, and over a third have fired an employee for posting inappropriate content.

According to HireRight's 2019 Employment Screening Benchmark Report, 87% of employers believe some candidates misrepresent themselves on applications or resumes. Further, the number of employers who said that more than 20% of candidates misrepresent their experience or background has doubled from just a year ago.

According to the report, 71% of organizations say they have uncovered issues as the result of a background check that they wouldn't have caught otherwise.

Even though Ban the Box legislation can result in employers becoming aware of a candidate's criminal background later in the hiring process, job seekers shouldn't rely on this legislation to prevent any pre-screening assessments.

Using fake references presents a larger concern – a fraudulent resume. Many hiring managers are experienced in spotting false information. They can determine the accuracy of your resume by using two techniques:

  1. Assessing your behavior: By analyzing your demeanor, tone of voice and depth of response, an employer can tell how truthful you're being about your work experience and references. For example, if one of your references is a congressman, a hiring manager may ask how you came to know this high-ranking figure and in what capacity you worked with him.
  1. Using an applicant tracking system: An applicant tracking system (ATS) saves employers the time it would take to carefully examine resumes by separating the best from the worst. The centralized data within an ATS helps companies screen job candidates, new hires and existing employees, and many can also help with scheduling interviews and checking references.

You aren't under any obligation to provide a reference, but if you refuse when an employer asks for one, it will likely hurt your chances of landing the job.

Jackie Ducci, founder and CEO of Ducci & Associates, said it is a major red flag when a job candidate refuses to provide references. She said employers immediately question what the candidate is hiding.

"I can't imagine a company feeling comfortable hiring someone who won't provide references, unless it's special circumstances – e.g., the candidate has only ever worked for one company or is still presently employed and can't tip them off that they are interviewing with another employer," Ducci said.

If you're contemplating using a fake reference on your resume, don't do it. Risking your reputation and being labeled as deceptive or a fraud isn't worth gaining a job for the short term. Rather than fake it till you make it, provide legitimate references who can vouch for your work ethic and character, and make sure the experiences you list on your resume match your skill set. [Read related article: 20 Resume Mistakes Keeping You From Getting a Job (and How to Fix Them)]

Additional reporting by Chad Brooks. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Joshua Stowers

Joshua is a staff writer based in New York City. He is a former entrepreneur who started a fashion and art, print and digital publication called Elusive Magazine, serving as the features editor for several issues. Previously, he worked in product development for DirecTV and for a content agency writing for Verizon and Google. He is a New Jersey native in love with the city lights and skyscrapers.