Fraudulent References: What To Look For and How To Handle Them

There is no doubt that references are an integral part of the job seeking process.

However, recent legal developments have driven employers to drastically limit the information they provide regarding current or former employees, especially regarding employees who would certainly elicit a negative review. In fact, the risk has grown so great that lawyers specializing in employment law advocate that employers institute specific practices in handling requests for references.

The predominance of the “name, rank and serial number” reference, mostly among larger organizations, has left many job seekers without a single strong referral. Although potential employers usually require a strong work reference from a previous supervisor, some are understanding when most or all of a job seeker’s references are inaccessible for these reasons and will remain flexible on sources of reference information. Honest alternatives can include references from volunteer organizations or educational instructors. While most honest job seekers find ethical methods of obtaining alternative references, others find it easier to do otherwise. 

Those job seekers who are more dishonest, and less imaginative, may falsify reference letters or even recruit friends to pose as former managers. While the legal implications of such actions are not as well documented as cases involving negative references from legitimate employers, the act of impersonating a representative of a well-known company could result in litigation.

Even if a job seeker who has presented fraudulent references is not faced with legal punishment, the threat of future termination or the loss of a great employment opportunity should be enough of a deterrent, but not often is. According to law firm Emond Harnden in the article posted on their website entitled “Employment references: Care, Not Silence, Required”, even legitimate former employers who provide fraudulent references may be held liable for negligent misrepresentation if they misrepresent aspects of the job seeker or the job.

There is much legal guidance for employers to protect themselves when they are providing references, but what about when they need to check a reference themselves? What can employers look out for in a reference to spot a fraud?

    • The job seeker provides a reference, but instead of a work number, he/she gives the reference person’s home telephone or mobile number. Call the employer company to determine if the reference is indeed a current or former employee. If no one has heard of him/her, be wary.
    • The reference person cannot give you a specific title or position that he/she holds within the company. Call the employer company to confirm his/her title.
    • The reference person gives broad, sweeping replies to questions without referring to specific processes associated with the job. Ask the reference to elaborate.

The best guidance is to use good judgment when checking a reference. If something feels wrong, it may be for a reason. Investigate further!


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