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When Reference Information Becomes a Thriller

Our day-to-day consulting work is anything but boring. But even with us, there are experiences that stand out. On a cold January day this year, two harmless reference checks took a hair-raising turn – and provided us with a story worth telling.

From Sabine Biland-Weckherlin for HR Today.

This article was originally written in German.

The most exciting stories often emerge when we least expect them – in the middle of everyday life. This was also the case last January in Zurich, when two seemingly harmless reference statements unexpectedly turned into a small thriller. The following story is unbelievable, but true. It happened exactly like this.

Act One: The Candidate

The story begins unexcitingly: I am tasked with finding a technical specialist for a client. Fortunately, I find a suitable candidate for the job on the dried-up personnel market. I get to know him during an initial video interview. I am impressed by his expertise and personality – and also by the fact that he speaks fluent German, albeit with a heavy accent. The candidate also proves to be pleasantly polite. Perhaps even a touch too polite, but better that way than the other way around. I introduce the candidate to my client.

Act Two: The Meeting

Almost two weeks later, the personal meeting between the customer, his deputy and the candidate takes place at the company headquarters. I myself attend the meeting as a silent observer.

The candidate demonstrates the very best manners and stands out with his exquisite friendliness and emphatic courtesy. At most, he is a little formal and too uptight in his efforts to make a good impression. However, this is not uncommon with candidates and is often due to the situation. In the professional exchange, he impresses with his high level of competence and many years of experience. After his arrival in Europe, he had an exemplary dishwasher’s career, which took him all the way to a doctorate in his field.

With his eloquence and enthusiasm, the candidate wins the sympathy of his interview partners. He does everything right: a joke here, a thank you there, an interested question here, an appropriate comment there. He seems to be the perfect new job candidate. All that’s missing is a follow-up meeting with the team and two reference checks. Nobody in our company gets around these – and for good reason.

The candidate proves to be cooperative and efficient in providing two references. Anything else would have surprised me at this point. He provides the names of two superiors – from his current as well as his previous job – along with cell phone numbers.

Act Three: The Suspicion

Two days later, I talk to the two gentlemen on the phone at intervals of just under an hour. By coincidence, both are available at almost the same time.

Reference person number one has a foreign-sounding name and speaks German with a heavy accent. I ask if he prefers German or English. He replies that Portuguese would be best, but that I probably don’t speak it. That is true. So I conduct the conversation in German.

Actually, everything is unsuspicious. Except for the fact that the gentleman reminds me somewhat of the candidate in his way of expressing himself. My antennae are sharpened.

Shortly thereafter, the conversation with the second reference person takes place. The gentleman with a Swiss last name and again a foreign-sounding accent declares that he is the son of a Swiss mother and a father from the same country as the candidate. He had grown up in Switzerland. I wonder why he doesn’t speak better German then.

He emphasizes several times that he is ill and therefore can only follow the conversation with a weakened voice. He also has similarities in his language with the candidate and the first reference person.

When he then partly uses the same expressions as his two “colleagues”, my suspicion is finally aroused. Was this even the same reference person twice – or the candidate three times?

Act Four: The Investigation

My suspicions are confirmed when I find neither of the names of the reference persons on the Internet. The next morning, I got the taste for investigation and called the employers of the reference persons – only to be astonished to get confirmation that neither the one nor the other name was known within the company.

I then call in an acquaintance as a precautionary measure, who calls the mysterious gentlemen on a pretext. The “first reference person” gives the name of the candidate as his identity. The “second reference person” has probably realized that the air is getting thin. They hang up the phone – only to call back shortly afterwards and insult my acquaintance.

A few minutes later, the candidate calls me and asks if the reference information worked out. To my reply that I unfortunately couldn’t find their names on the Internet to verify the spellings, he replies: “My business acquaintances just don’t cavort on the Internet.” An hour later, he writes that one gentleman is listed in the phone book and the other on Instagram – as proof, he provides a screenshot of the account created a few minutes ago.

Act Five: The Resolution

After checking with the candidate’s employers again, the puzzle begins to come together. The candidate left his alleged current employer more than two years ago. The information about the previous job is correct.

It has long been clear to the client that he does not want this candidate on his team. Better an end with horror…

But the story is not quite over yet. Afterwards, the fraudster covers me up once again by phone and in writing with the crudest of accusations, insults and intimidation. I let them come to nothing.

Epilogue: Our conclusion

In addition to all the bewilderment, we naturally also want to share with you the conclusions we draw from what we have experienced.

First, the truth is always the better option. If the candidate had openly stated that he had lost his job and had since had bad luck on the job market, the client’s understanding would probably have been greater. This way, on the other hand, he has ruined this opportunity for himself.

Secondly: Although the significance of reference information is often ridiculed, critical and attentive inquiries are worthwhile. Our little thriller is, of course, an extreme example. However, we have also received other deterrent reference information that ultimately led to rejections. The time invested and the ability to pick out subtle nuances are always worthwhile.

Thirdly: What leads a candidate to such an action? We are far from wanting to excuse the behavior. But it may well have something to do with the widespread attitude of employers to hire only “perfect” candidates and to treat every little imperfection in the resume as a criterion for exclusion. Our little thriller therefore also shows that authenticity and honesty are important values. And that we should also give less than perfect candidates a chance – especially if they have the courage to admit their weaknesses.