Is That Reference Fake?

image of doubting manBack in the nineties when I was recruiting a CFO for a major company, I found an excellent candidate who had all the right qualifications, knowledge and experience. He came across as very smart and professional at interview, and was available for an immediate start due, he said, to cut-backs at his previous employer.

In those days the fear-factor in providing a reference was low and so, when I spoke to the MD, he readily attested to the candidate’s knowledge, abilities and personality. However, when I asked “Would you re-employ” his all too rapid “No” response rang the alarm bells. It turns out this excellent candidate had a serious gambling problem and had been caught with his hand in the till. And, but for the reference check, I may never have found out because this previous employer had chosen to accept his resignation rather than report the crime to protect the company’s reputation.

The Fake Referee

Today that CFO could have covered his tracks with a service that provides a tailored fake history. I don’t know if there is anything this blatant operating in Australia, but in Ohio proudly boast “We will act as your current or past employer and have our operators standing by to give you the “great” job references that you need to any inquiry. Join now and you will be able to create a career with a work history and pay range as you see fit”.​ They even recommend not to just create a fake referee with a former employer as that is too easy to check, they say create a fake company as well! They will provide a virtual company that will show on Google search and Google maps and provide phone numbers that they will answer as the company.

Meanwhile, offers to show you, among other things, “The best way to get fake references”, “How to get College transcripts from ANY University with any GPA you want!”, “How to rig your resume so it gets picked by the new automated Human Resources systems”, and “Why you can’t afford not to lie on your resume”. To justify its service, says “according to “Hire Right” (a firm that specializes in employee background checks), as much as 80% of resumes are in some way misleading” thereby suggesting that the applicant has to lie just to keep up with everyone else.

It is not hard to see how Myer executives and Quest Personnel were duped into hiring Andrew Flanagan in 2014. Quest conducted two overseas interviews with referees, who were supposedly senior executives in major retail chains Inditex and Tesco, and checked the documentation before putting Flanagan forward. Then top executives at Myer interviewed him extensively before appointing him General Manager Strategy and Business Development. The plot unravelled when Myer put out a press release and Inditex pointed out they had never heard of him. Flanagan was fired on his first day. See AFR article Myer fires new recruit Andrew Flanagan over fake résumé[1]

Of course, most of your applicants won’t go to these lengths, but how will you know which ones have?

A couple of actions that can help verify the reference.

  • Don’t call referees on mobile phones, you can never be sure they are who they say they are. For the same reason, don’t trust the supplied land line number either, always check the number yourself in a legitimate directory such as the White Pages. Don’t trust a Google search on the company because any results make just be part of the fake history. Use the number you have looked up to call the company switchboard to check the referee’s position in the company and to verify the relationship to the applicant.
  • Apart from the standard questions everyone asks, make sure you include a few that mirror the behavioural questions you asked the applicant. For example, you may have asked the applicant “Tell me about a time when you had to deal with conflict at work.” Use the same question with the referee to check for corroboration, conflict or coaching. If the referee tells exactly the same story with the same or similar words you may suspect that it has been made up, or the two have coached each other on what to say. If the story is different but reinforces the behaviours it is probably reliable. If it is a conflicting story, your applicant may have lied.

Let us know if you have a tale to tell on doubtful reference checking.

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