Formulating job references negatively and writing them in a legally compliant manner

Negatively worded job references scare off many. Job references negative formulations? Is this in compliance with the law? Yes, it is if one considers important things. In delicate situations of an unsatisfactory evaluation one gets into a conflict, because on the one hand a reference must correspond to the truth and on the other hand it must be benevolent and may not load the vocational future negatively.

One should always question the significance of the negative qualification in relation to the entire employment relationship. As a general rule:

Negative statements should only be made if they are clearly relevant to the performance or behavioral assessment and have a serious impact on the entire employment relationship and the overall performance required.

Thus, an untidy or chaotic work technique is probably a deficiency, but not a relevant underperformance. However, if this weakness does not have a significant impact on the quality and relevance of the overall performance, it must not be mentioned in a report card. Also, minor disciplinary problems such as tardiness or non-serious scheduling problems may not be mentioned.


Remark: This contribution is an excerpt from the
Work manual for the preparation of testimonies

Admissibility of negative statements in the employer’s reference

Negative statements are allowed if they are true and material to the employee’s performance or conduct. An employer who issues an overly euphemistic reference to his departing employee, for example concealing an embezzlement, may be liable to pay damages to a future employer. Medical diagnoses do not belong in a reference under any circumstances. However, it is permissible to refer to health problems if these had a serious impact on the employment relationship. Read more in this article: Must or may an illness be mentioned in the job reference? Other relevant examples that may be mentioned in job references are:

  • severe alcoholism that massively impairs performance
  • Serious performance-related qualification deficiencies
  • Addiction problems severely affecting performance
  • confrontational behavior massively disturbing performance and work climate
  • Serious misconduct towards customers with loss of customers
  • high error rates which endanger product and company image
  • Team cohesion damaging aggressive behavior
  • frequent machine operating errors that cause accidents

include statements in a positive context

No employee performs only poorly or is characterized only by negative behavior. Failures and bad behavior always occur only in the combination of several circumstances – these include blatant wrong decisions in recruiting or missing requirement profiles or deficiencies in the leadership culture of a company. Therefore, an unsatisfactory statement should always be placed in a positive overall context that puts the negative statements into perspective in a fair and objective manner. A concrete example:

Positive overall evaluationMr. Walter was a very polite, attentive and pleasant employee whose behavior was courteous and impeccable at all times. On the whole, his performance was very good.

After a positive beginning, the negative is introduced: We would have liked Mr. Walter to have been more successful in meeting the high expectations of our French-speaking clientele.

Relativization with a positive outlookThe training measures initiated by Mr. Walter and his decision to reorient himself make us confident, however, that Mr. Walter will remedy this deficit, which still exists today, on his own initiative.

The consideration of these quality factors also contribute,
formulate job references negatively.

Put performance deficiencies in perspective

For example, the pejorative, unqualified formulation "Mr. Muster was not able to meet our customers’ expectations" is inadmissible, because this does not correspond to the principle of objectivity of assessing only the customer’s point of view and the company’s goals in a reference.

This assessment should be embedded in an explanatory and supplementary context, which enables the reader to learn more about the reasons for poor or inadequate performance. If bad qualifications are to be made, always start with existing positive or enlightening aspects. Subsequently, the important negative statements to be mentioned are clearly addressed and thus ended again with a positive note. This is particularly important for managers, which is also very well demonstrated in this book, Zeugniserstellung fur Fuhrungskrafte (Report Card Preparation for Managers).

Use filler words and embedding technique

For this purpose, filler words are recommended, such as not yet, not always, not completely, not fully, sometimes, at times. Addressed in this way, the fundamentally negative statements are toned down and leave open possibilities as to how, at best, the people concerned could be employed or judged differently. Progressive companies that consistently write uncoded references have been successfully using this "embedding technique" for some time now.

Formulate job references negatively: Balanced, fair and objective?

It is therefore a matter of making differentiated and balanced judgments that are placed in an overall context that includes all circumstances. The aim of this balanced and fair assessment is to be moderate in language, individual and factual, so that the employee also feels prompted to deal with any shortcomings that may still exist.

Reasons not only lying with the employee

The reasons why an employee does not live up to his or her performance are not always to be found exclusively in the employee himself or herself. The requirements profile may have been inaccurate, the relevant points may not have been clarified during the job interview, too little attention may have been paid to personal requirements, or the tasks and requirements may have developed in a different direction later on. Such facts can be mentioned in the reference and contribute to a balanced and objective justification of unsatisfactory performance. Example:

Ms. Musterhans is an experienced and very collegial employee. The fact that she made inaccuracies and mistakes in some situations in her work is also due to the very lively environment and the tasks that often have to be performed under deadline pressure. We also paid too little attention to this during the hiring process. We are convinced that Ms. Musterhans can perform well and use her experience profitably in a somewhat less hectic environment.

Put negative statements into perspective or limit them

For this purpose, filler words are recommended, such as not yet, not always, not completely, not fully, sometimes, at times. Thus addressed, the fundamentally negative statements are softened and leave open possibilities as to how, at best, the people concerned could be employed or assessed differently. Progressive and consistently uncoded testimonial writing companies have been successfully using this formulation technique of balance and equilibration for some time now. Formulating job references negatively can be legally secured in this way and is also fair and credible.

Put statements in an objective context

It is also possible to formulate job references negatively with this relativization. This formulation technique consists of starting with the positive or enlightening aspects that are always present, even in the case of poor qualifications. The negative statements to be mentioned are clearly addressed and connected with another statement in such a way that an objectified overall assessment is made.

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