It’s one thing to discover an employee has lightly embellished their CV, but another ballgame completely when they provide fraudulent references. 

Not paying due diligence with references can have serious business consequences, particularly for retailers who depend on their employees to show up every day and keep a business running smoothly.  

Recently we’ve seen a spike in the number of fraudulent references, which can be disheartening for employers who have invested so much time and effort into making the right hire.  

While this challenge is tricky to navigate, there are still some simple steps retailers can take to protect themselves from hiring employees who aren’t what their references say they are.  

The issue 

If you’ve done a lot of recruitment recently, you’ve probably encountered a fraudulent reference or two, where the timings and stories don’t quite add up.  

Fraudulent references can come from a friend or family member posing as an ex-employer. Normally, they’ll give a glowing reference that perfectly matches the job description. Alternatively, it could be a current or previous colleague who claims to have been the candidate’s senior and overstates their capabilities. Any one of these scenarios can result in a biased, incomplete, or inaccurate view of the candidate, hampering your ability to make an objective decision.  

Why is this happening? 

 There are many factors at play, ranging from an underqualified candidate eager to boost their appeal, to the fiercely competitive nature of the jobs market. Fraudulent references are also used when a worker leaves a company on bad terms and doesn’t want to ruin their chances of future employment.  

However, by far the most common reason is a candidate not wanting to use an existing employer as a reference. If the job application is unsuccessful, the employee’s lack of commitment to their current employer might sour the relationship, particularly when unemployment rates are low.   

What’s the impact on SMEs? 

When employers make hiring decisions based on fraudulent references, they can find themselves needing to performance manage an underqualified employee or trying to integrate a staff member who’s a bad cultural fit.  

Ask yourself this – if a candidate is willing to deceive you to get a job, what does this say about their ethics? How does this dishonesty align with the core values of your business?  

In most cases, an employee hired on the grounds of a fraudulent reference is a red flag for even bigger problems further down the track.   

How can SMEs protect themselves? 

While fraudulent references are on the rise, there are still some precautions employers can take to protect the integrity of their hiring process. 

  1. Disclose privacy and obtain consent 

Before commencing the reference check process, it’s important to cover yourself legally. Start by obtaining written consent from the candidate to contact their references with the details they have provided.  

Once you’ve received the candidate’s consent, give the referee a heads up that you’d like to call them to conduct the check. Once you have their approval, you can get in touch directly. 

Also, be sure to notify them that the information they provide will be on file and can legally be requested by the candidate, should they wish to review it.  

2. Ask the right questions 

Reference checks are usually brief, which means it’s vital to ask high-value questions that allow you to properly assess a candidate.  

It’s best to aim for open-ended questions that encourage the referee to paint a detailed picture. If you are only getting yes or no responses, alarm bells should ring. Try to rephrase your questions and encourage more expansive answers.

Questions such as ‘how did the team structure work?’ will help you understand whether they were in fact a direct report. If they weren’t, this offers you a chance to query why they are acting as a reference. 

It’s also important to find out about where there’s scope for improvement. You can establish this by asking questions such as “what advice would you give to the next manager to help this employee flourish?”. 

3. Validate a check  

Finally, trust your instinct. If something seems too good to be true, do your research. Can you find a record of a reference or the candidate being in a role? Putting in a little extra time to dig around and cross-check the facts can have a dramatic impact on the recruitment outcome. 

Mary Blake is head of talent acquisition at Employsure.