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Why is the German employer reference so important?


The German employment certificate has been following me since last week 😉.

More specifically, it has been haunting me ever since I had breakfast with my Indian friend Radhika last Saturday. I told her about my blog and asked her what she thinks I should write about. What does she find unusual or even strange in the German working world?
It didn’t take long, just a quick thought, and then she asked, “Why are German employment references so important?!”

In this post:

  • What is a German employer/job reference?
  • How do I get a German employer reference?
  • What must normally be included in the employment report?
  • How do I read the reference code?
  • What does the rating scale mean in terms of my work performance?
  • What can I do if I am unsure about the assessment in my reference?

The employer reference in Germany is a formally regulated document

German employment references are unique in the EU and the rest of the world. This job or work reference is also formally regulated in Germany. Radhika has heard, like many other foreigners, that there is an extra “code” that has to be decrypted, almost like a puzzle.

Well, for those of us who work in Germany and want to change or find employers, it is of enormous importance, despite the curious or even funny phrases. Because if it is bad or you don’t have one (after you have worked in Germany at least once), it will be really difficult when finding a new job.

If you speak a little German (or you’re willing to put in some time with a dictionary), here is the explanation of some of the actual formulations used in these letters.

If you don’t speak German, I’m going to try to explain some of this language below for you.

Translating “Arbeitszeugnis” into English is confusing

Translating from German into English, I am constantly confused with all the similar terms that exist for something like “testimony” in English. Testimonial, testimony, reference letter, recommendation letter, job confirmation, report card and so on.

A German employer reference is neither a recommendation nor a true reference letter:

The German employer reference (“Arbeitszeugnis”) is a formal document regulated by German law. There are a huge number of rules about almost everything: content, structure, paper size, signature, grades, performance, ratings etc.

A recommendation letter is a letter written by e.g. a colleague or a professor, who recommends you to a specific institution or company. The content: they appreciate you as a person and value your performance and achievements in a special situation, project, or period of time. They are (theoretically) a neutral party who can offer another perspective on you, compared to an employer to whom you are bound by responsibilities.

A reference letter is also a letter from a colleague, professor, or a client but addressed ‘to whom it may concern’. The content is much like a recommendation letter, although it is often more formal than a recommendation letter.

There are two types of employer reference in Germany

The simple reference (“einfaches Arbeitszeugnis”) is a short confirmation of employment: when, how long, where, and what activities has someone done. This is usually given for short-term and/or simple positions, such as a summer job in production or in the catering industry.
The qualified employer reference (“qualifizierte Arbeitszeugnis”) contains details of the tasks and working environment; more importantly, it contains a particular assessment of the candidate’s knowledge, work performance and skills.

Legal regulations for the employer reference

Many details of the German employer reference (“Arbeitszeugnis”) are regulated by law. Especially important is that, officially at least, the job certificate must be well-disposed (“wohlwollend”) towards the candidate – that’s the word used in the law. This means that the employer must not write anything negative in the reference which could severely hinder the employee in his/her further professional career. At the same time, the testimony must be “objective“, also according to the law.

Are you wondering how this is possible? It’s like trying to square the circle – writing only positive things from beginning to end, yet evaluating performance objectively?

The “grading system” in the employer reference

Well, we Germans have come up with a very creative grading system for positive formulations!

(Translator’s note: To understand the German grading system here, it helps to know that German schools and universities have a grading system from 1-6, where 1.0 is the best, 4.0 is just barely scraping by, and 5.0 means failed. I’m not sure what the 6 is for, since I personally have never yet seen anyone get one in real life…possibly it means you put your name on the test, but left it blank. Now back to Nicola!)

It goes like this:

Nicola has made an effort to fulfill her duties = grade 5

(Nicola hat sich bemĂźht, ihre Aufgaben zu erfĂźllen = Note 5)

Nicola has fulfilled her tasks to our satisfaction = grade 4

(Nicola hat ihre Aufgaben zu unserer Zufriedenheit erfĂźllt = Note 4)

Nicola has always worked to our satisfaction = grade 3

(Nicola hat stets zur unserer Zufriedenheit gearbeitet = Note 3)

Nicola has always worked to our full satisfaction = grade 2

(Nicola hat stets zu unserer vollen Zufriedenheit gearbeitet = Note 2)

Nicola has always worked to our fullest satisfaction = grade 1

(Nicola hat stets zu unserer vollsten Zufriedenheit gearbeitet = Note 1 )

The typical structure of a qualified certificate is as follows:

  1. Name of the previous employer
  2. Header
  3. Personal details of the employee
  4. Description of the activities/tasks of the Position
  5. Performance review
  6. Personal/Behavioral assessment
  7. Termination conditions (“within the prescribed time limit”/”in accordance with the mutually agreed-upon termination agreement”/“at his/her own desire”)
  8. Thank-you-regret formula (“We thank x for their time and regret their leaving…”
  9. (Best) Wishes for the future
  10. Place and date
  11. Signature

Every employee has the right to receive a reference (“Arbeitszeugnis”)

Anyone who has worked in Germany has the right to request and receive an employer reference. This goes for student employees in a company, for part-time “mini-jobbers”, for odd jobs in a restaurant, or for a qualified job as a developer. “Everyone” means everyone.

However, it is quite obvious that a detailed performance evaluation is not always possible. For example, during a probationary period, there might have been not enough time or no opportunity to explicitly assess the employee’s performance. In this case, no qualified certificate must be issued, but rather just a simple employment confirmation.

You must actively ask for the reference

In my first years as a consultant, I could not believe it whenever a client told me that she or he did not get any reference from his/her former employer. But yes, that’s definitely possible!

You do not always get a certificate automatically; in fact, often you won’t. No, it is your obligation to ask for your German reference. Don’t be shy; it makes perfect sense to ask your supervisor or the human resources department to issue your reference, and they should not hesitate to do so (although they may not always be as quick as you would like!).

And the code? Can we get back to that? What about the “secret code”?

Ok, let’s talk about the “secret code” in German references. Unfortunately, not every employee is a rock star… Yes, we all know that the world also contains poor performers, chronically unpunctual people (Germans too!), or unfair managers. Therefore we have the code.

Let’s take a look at examples. What do you think of “he has contributed to improving the working environment through his sociability?” Sounds great, does not it? But the statement is: someone drank alcohol during business hours. Perhaps not to the point of excess, but still…

“He has expertise and a healthy self-confidence.” Oh dear, this is a super-arrogant colleague with whom you can hardly stand being in the same office.

“For the future, we wish all the best, especially much success.” Well, finally the colleague is leaving – may she succeed elsewhere, would have been nice if it had been at our place!

The strategy of omission

In fact, I’ve seen few real “codes” in the references I checked so far.  What happens more often is quite a simple strategy: to leave out important information. You won’t notice it first sight – instead you’ll be thrilled with the beautiful phrases that are there.  But leaving out an important fact can be more devastating than a striking ‘bad’ assessment.

Example 1: It is part of a salesperson’s job to be reliable and honest in dealing with cash. So what if there is a mere positive assessment in the reference but the adjective “honest” is missing in the behavioral description? What will you think of it?

This code is a real signal for retailers: a candidate coded like this will find it most difficult to get a new job.

Example 2: A project leader led a small team. And his reference does not mention a word about his leadership skills. Oh dear, that stands out!

You can be sure that the next interview will be like a hot seat, being fired with questions regarding social skills as well as his/her personal style dealing with people.

What can I do if I have doubts about my reference?

Once you’re finally holding the original of your employer reference in your hand – what then?

Well, believe it or not, it doesn’t make much sense to ask a friend with German as their native language for feedback. Just speaking German is not enough to qualify here. Above, you have learned about the strange linguistic code … you want to have someone who’s an expert on it.

First of all, ask your employee representatives at the company (Betriebsrat). Or someone from the union. One of them is definitely trained to read these references accurately and can give you tips on what to do if it is less positive than expected.

You may ask for other words in the reference

Specifically because so much hype is made about the individual formulations in German references, you may also request changes. Often, the HR department will comply with your request.  In case of doubt, it is advisable to ask a lawyer for advice before accepting a reference that you believe is not good. Lawyers specialized in labour law will inform you knowledgeably if legal action is worthwhile.

The good news: Employer reference are (almost) always “good” and “very good” in Germany

Now, take a deep breath, stretch a bit to work out that tension… Because a study from 2011 found that about 88% of the work references in Germany got the grade “good” or “very good”. The oft-cited reason is that companies do not want to put any obstacles in the way of their former employees – just as the old German proverb says: “Travelers should not be stopped” (Reisende soll man nicht aufhalten)

Well, what about you?  What experiences have you already had with the German employer reference?

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