How to Do References Right! Hint: Avoid Fake Ones, First!

Posted December 7, 2012 by Marcy Twete in Career Moves


A new study from CareerBuilder cautions job seekers about the references they cite when applying to companies. Three-in-five employers (62 percent) said that when they contacted a reference listed on an application, the reference didn’t have good things to say about the candidate. Twenty-nine percent of employers reported that they have caught a fake reference on a candidate’s application.

Can you believe that? I was shocked! Can you imagine being asked for references on a job search and somehow just deciding to write down a fake name? Could someone be really that naive to believe that your references won’t be checked? So crazy.

This incredible statistic made me think – perhaps the idea of providing references isn’t as easy or as black and white as I originally thought. So if you’re thinking of using a fake reference, don’t. Instead, follow these tips:

  • Use a thoughtful combination of references. If you’ve had three jobs, it’s normal to assume your past three bosses are the best references for any job. Not so. Consider certainly using a past supervisor as a reference, but also look to others who can speak to your achievements as a colleague or volunteer. If you’re listing three references (which is standard), consider listing a past boss, a past coworker, and a friend or contact who has worked with you 1:1 in a capacity outside work or in education.
  • Ask! Never, never, never (and I rarely say never) write someone down as a reference without asking them first. This is exactly why some of the calls in CareerBuilder’s study came back negative. You might think someone is more than willing to be your reference….they could not be.
  • Give them a heads up. Even if you’ve asked someone to be a reference for you before, you should still give them a heads up about every single job you think might call them. Generally, references are not requested until the end of an interview process, and you’ll be aware of the fact your references are being checked. At that time, make a personal phone call to each of your references, tell them a little about the job, why you feel it’s a good fit, and let them know the reference call is coming.
  • Too much information is better than not enough. Often, on reference lists, people list name, phone number, and email address. To be thorough, you’ll need to add another line – your relationship to the person. Something short like “Former Supervisor, Company Name” will do. But for some hiring managers, they’ll call one or two of your references, and not all three. Give them ideas of which are most important with this clarification.

And whatever you do, don’t fake it, don’t try to get your cousin to pose as an old boss (oh, no, now I’m giving you ideas), and don’t neglect them! References may seem like a last step before an offer, but they can make or break your job!


About the Author

Marcy Twete

Marcy Twete is a career fundraiser turned corporate responsibility executive, a career and networking expert and the author of the book "You Know Everybody! A Career Girl’s Guide to Building a Network That Works."