About two in five job references are worthless because the referee is the applicant's friend, a recruitment firm says.
Balance Recruitment surveyed about 900 workers and managers in the IT and finance industries, and found 39 per cent had asked mates to give them references.
About 4 per cent even admitted to using fake referees, such as by impersonating one of their bosses.
Balance's managing director, Simon Hogg, said yesterday he had seen ''some pretty brazen people'' among job candidates.
''Believe it or not, there are actually businesses that have been set up to act as fake referees.'' He recalled one case ''where we called the referee and you could clearly hear someone on the phone whispering their answers into the ear of that referee''.
The survey also found 13 per cent of referees were happy to give a glowing reference for an employee even if they thought the worker was a dud.
The reasons given included:
■ ''They were a nice person and I didn't want to ruin their career.''
■ ''To get rid of them from my business.''
■ ''I was worried about future ramifications if I told the truth.''
Mr Hogg said employers should use referees only to validate a hiring decision, rather than to assess job applicants.
''If you end up interviewing the final two candidates and you're going to use references to make a decision on who to hire, you've got fundamental problems with your recruitment and interview techniques.'' He also advised employers against calling referees' mobile phones, saying ''go through the switchboard instead''.
''On the way, you can try to verify the referee's title and find out what their working relationship with the applicant was.''
Public sector employment specialist Ann Villiers, the author of How to Write and Talk to Selection Criteria, said it was common to hear anecdotes about inaccurate or dishonest referees' reports within the bureaucracy.
She, too, warned recruiters against relying too heavily on referee checks, as references were not always a reliable way to assess a candidate's abilities.
''It comes back to the skills of the selection panel, and whether they're just ticking boxes with the referees' reports,'' Dr Villiers said.
''The question for public servants is whether they take what's written at face value. If you rely only on the written word, there are risks.''
A Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet paper issued in 2010, Ahead of the Game, tried to dispel the widely believed myth that public servants must create referees reports for every government job applicant.
''There is no requirement to obtain referee reports. However, obtaining references for candidates in strong contention for a role is highly recommended,'' the paper said.