Written job reference in Germany: 10 wordings to look out for!

Ratings and “grades” are common in job reference in Germany (Arbeitszeugnis). Some ratings are obvious: “She was always trying to accomplish her asigned tasks” – thats no bueno, you figured. And that is true in most cases –  at least if you read German.  Recognizable by words such as “always”, “at any time”, “to our fullest” or “to our full” satisfaction. Other ratings, however, are less obvious. The reason for this is that by law, job references must be worded benevolently – and almost always are. More than 80% of job references in Germany have grades of “good” or better. However, criticism is often hidden “between the lines”. There are many phrases that can contain an evaluation, and not all are obvious or helpful for your future career. We have compiled a “best of” with examples that sound benevolent at first, but are really backhanded compliments.

What should a job reference contain?

It depends – namely on the type of job reference in Germany. There are simple and “qualified” certificates. The “simple” reference is the clear exception, most work references in Germany are “qualified”. Which variant you are entitled to depend, among other things, on the duration and type of your activity in the company.

Simple reference

A simple job reference in Germany (einfaches Zeugnis) contains personal details, a job description, an evaluation of the performance and a closing formula. So it’s rather short. In the case of very short employment relationships or internships, employers are reluctant to write longer references. Therefore, in such cases, they often only create a simple certificate.

Qualified reference

A qualified reference (qualifiziertes Arbeitszeugnis) is usual (and usually better). The qualified job reference also contains a comprehensive assessment, e.g. of the social skills of the employee. It usually includes the following parts, which should also be included in the appropriate order:

  • Address of employer and description of employee.
  • Career of the employee in the company and complete, concrete description of all activities.
  • Evaluation of performance and behavior, including motivation, ability, expertise, work style and particular achievements of the employee. As well as dealing with superiors, colleagues and customers.
  • A school grade can be deduced from a summary assessment.
  • The termination formula explains which side terminated the employment relationship. The employee leaves, for example, at his own request, by mutual agreement (termination agreement) or he was dismissed for operational reasons.
  • The job reference ends with a “thank you” and best wishes (“All the best for the future” should be sufficient according to case law)

A job reference should be in writing and printed on company paper in a uniform font. Therefore, a work reference sent as an e-mail alone is not sufficient. Of course, the certificate must be free of “formal errors” such as stains, “dog ears”, misspellings, corrections, insertions, or erasures. It must contain the place and date of issue and a signature of the employer or an authorized superior.

What should a job reference not contain?

Things like warnings, vacations, illnesses or membership of the works council do not belong in a reference. Parental leave may only be mentioned if it has significantly reduced the duration of the actual employment. The employer may not give reasons for termination that lie in the person or the behavior of the employee. Irony and mockery are also forbidden in the Arbeitszeugnis. Furtermore, companies are also not allowed to offer information in the job reference to future employers at any time on request – because this could indicate as a coded indication that the reference does not correspond to the real achievements (according to a decision by the Herford Labor Court).

What do written job reference formulations actually mean?

The terms of the summarising assessments in “Official German” usually begin with “He/She fulfilled his/her tasks…” and mean in plain language / in school grades:

  • …always to our complete satisfaction: Grade 1 (very good)
  • …to the fullest/always to the fullest satisfaction: grade 2 (good)
  • …to our complete satisfaction: Grade 3 (satisfactory)
  • … to satisfaction: Grade 4 (sufficient)
  • …on the whole to our satisfaction: Grade 5 (poor)

Which job reference wordings should you be careful with?

Many “boilerplates” in job references in Germany (Arbeitszeugnisse) contain open and hidden evaluations. Some can easily be recognized by the wording above. However, evaluations can be part of the job description and closing formula as well. Here are 10 examples of formulations that only sound benevolent at first glance, while HR professionals would perceive them as criticism. We could extend this list almost indefinitely. However, with a few examples, we can – above all – strengthen your sensitivity to hidden criticism. However, as far as we know, there is no “secret code book” for the wording of certificates in Germany. Nevertheless, there are numerous formulations that require caution.

Top ten examples

Here are our “top ten” phrases you might not want to read on your report card:

# German in written job reference Possible interpretation
1 Sie zeigte stets Verständnis für ihre Arbeit. She knew her stuff (But was lazy and acomplished  nothing).
2 Sie erledigte alle Aufgaben pflicht­bewusst und ordnungs­gemäß. She did her job (However, she lacked initiative).
3 Sein Verhalten gegen­über Kollegen und Vorgesetzten war stets vorbild­lich. He got along with colleagues (But had problems with his superiors)
(superiors mentioned only after the colleagues)
4 Sie gab klare Ansagen und verstand es, alle Aufgaben stets mit Erfolg zu delegieren. She gave clear instruction and mastered delegation (However, she avoided work whenever she could).
5 Er erzielte nicht unerhebliche Verkaufs­erfolge. He had some success in sales (But nothing great).
6 Er war stets ein geschätzter Gesprächs­partner. He was a valued discussion partner (Also talkative and engaged in long private conversations on the clock).
7 Sie trat sowohl inner­halb als auch außer­halb unseres Unter­nehmens engagiert für die Interessen der Kolleginnen und Kollegen ein. She was active in the works council or in the trade union.
8 Durch ihre Pünktlichkeit war sie ein gutes Beispiel. She was an example in punctuality (Unfortunately, in nothing else).
9 Er verfügt über Fachwissen und gesundes Selbstvertrauen. Knowledge and confidence indicate arrogance
10 Wir trennten uns am … May indicate termination without notice

Did you get a job reference with “funny” wording –  now what?

Did you receive a job reference in Germany (Arbeitszeugnis) with a bad grade or a hidden review “between the lines”? Then you should act. And should consult with an employment attorney and decide if and how you can enforce your right to a benevolent testimony. You may even have to file a complaint with the labor court. Trade unions often offer free advice on references to members.

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