Your Résumé: Imaginary Friends as Job References

Thirty percent of companies report spotting fake references on résumés
Photograph by Alija/Getty Images

Here’s a tip: If you list something on your résumé, assume your interviewer is going to verify it. Sounds like common sense, but for many job seekers, it’s clearly not. CareerBuilder recently surveyed 2,500 hiring managers and discovered that 30 percent regularly find false or misleading references on applicants’ CVs.

“For some reason, people think companies aren’t going to check their references and they can get away with it,” says Michael Erwin, a senior career adviser at CareerBuilder. He says an estimated 80 percent of employers do check them, often before they call someone in for an interview.

The most common mistake applicants make is listing someone as a reference because they’ve got an impressive title—even though they barely know that person. “Interviewers don’t want to talk to your boss’s boss, they want to talk to the person you worked closely with every day,” Erwin says. In other words, you can’t list Jamie Dimon as a reference because you once made eye contact with him in the bathroom at a Knicks game.

Nor should you list Mom. Or your best friend. Or anyone you used to date. “I don’t want to hear from the person you had Thanksgiving dinner with,” says Toda Mukherjee, a talent recruiter at Rocket Fuel, a digital advertising agency in Silicon Valley. Mukherjee says he’s sick of calling references only to find out that although they may have worked with the applicant years ago, now they’re just personal friends.

Sometimes the references don’t know the applicant at all. Kevin Sorby, a municipal forester with the Village of Wilmette, Ill., once conducted an interview with a job candidate only to find that he himself was listed as the candidate’s reference. “I had no idea who he was. I’d literally never met him before in my life,” Sorby says. “I think he just looked over the names of people who worked for Wilmette and picked someone.” Sorby called the guy out, but he wouldn’t admit to his lie. “He turned red and then tried to make up some story about meeting me somewhere years ago. He obviously didn’t get the job.”

John Marino, a partner at RSP Marketing in Minneapolis, had a similar problem when he interviewed someone for a senior sales position who claimed to have worked at several prominent companies but couldn’t provide any references to prove it. “It’s not usually a problem with entry-level positions, because those people are coming to you right out of college,” he says. “It’s the mid- to senior-level candidates that you have to screen closely.”

Even the most honest applicant can be burned by a reference. Mukherjee says he routinely talks to people who don’t like the person they’ve been asked to recommend. “I’ve heard some very negative things,” he says. “It really surprises you as an interviewer.” Sometimes, he says, it costs the applicant the job. There’s an easy way to avoid this issue: Alert the people you plan to list on your résumé, explain why you picked them, and then tell them what you’d like them to say. That reminds me—I should give Obama a call.

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