How to crack the job reference

Writing a qualified reference takes time. The first thing to do is to find out about the outgoing employee’s performance from colleagues and superiors, and then formulate the evaluation in such a way that it complies with the legal requirements – every reference must be true and benevolent. At the same time, the report should do justice to the individuality of each person. Today, many HR managers can no longer meet this requirement because they do not have the time to do so.

The evaluation behind the wording

The consequence: Either the personnel managers fall back on more or less suitable references from employees who have already left, from which they mix a new variant, or they use a software that spits out the standardized text modules after entering school grades for certain categories. Often, however, the employee is asked to write his or her own reference. However, it is not at all easy to evaluate one’s own performance and social behavior. In the meantime, numerous books deal with the topic and show with the help of examples, which evaluations are hidden behind the formulations. Here is an overview of the most important codes used by personnel experts, as described by Professor Arnulf Weuster and Brigitte Scheer in their guidebook "Arbeitszeugnisse in Textbausteinen" list.


In the introduction it says how long the employee has been with the company and in what capacity. The word "active already shows here the active employee. Less good, as they are more passive, are formulas such as "was employed" or "Had to do. If only the legal existence of an employment relationship is emphasized in the opening sentence ("The employment relationship lasted from/to", "xy was a member of our company from/to"), this can indicate that the employee only really worked for a short time due to long periods of absence.

Position and task description

It is not sufficient to mention the mere position or function, since in practice different tasks and competencies are hidden behind the same terms. An example of this is the project manager. English job titles (e.g. Technical Support Engineer) also require explanation, since they are often not understandable outside the industry. If the job description is too brief, it could be interpreted that the employee has not done a good job.

A plus point is, who can describe his work as "independent" or "on one’s own responsibility can describe. However, the terms should not be restricted, as they tend to have a negative effect. Examples of this are: "Partially independent", "according to specifications/ under guidance independently". It is also important in which tasks independence is certified. A negative example is: "He completed all routine tasks largely independently"."

The order in which the tasks are mentioned is also important: The most important always comes first, less qualified tasks at the end. If routine tasks are emphasized and important activities are emphasized with the word "in addition to", this may indicate that the employee was only really working for a short time due to long absences this can have a pejorative effect. A negative example for developers: "In addition to setting up the quality assurance process, Mr. Maier took on classic software development tasks in the Java/J2EE environment."

If you want to portray yourself as a dynamic employee, you should use active and success-related verbs such as do, improve, optimize, introduce, realize, achieve, increase, obtain, etc. select. Passive phrases such as "Was deployed/employed/transferred" often signal a lack of initiative or independence.

Assessment of willingness to work

Positive signal words here are willingness to work, diligence, interest, initiative, commitment. On the other hand, does it mean "He is committed to the interests of the company"?, this is only a paraphrase of a pure matter of course and not very meaningful.

Assessment of performance

A central point in the reference, here it is about intelligence, comprehension, judgment, creativity, resilience, perseverance, training, work experience, expertise and also further training activities.

Intelligence/ comprehensionhe has an (unusually) quick grasp of things", "he quickly familiarizes himself with new problems".

Resilience: "He is very resilient even in difficult situations and acts in a calm and considered manner."

Flexibility/ Creativity/ Versatility: "She is always able and willing to solve even difficult tasks independently." "He adapts quickly to changing work situations and is therefore versatile." The term "visionary" should be used sparingly, as it can also be interpreted as unworldly.

Expertise: Here the statements are formulated in the present tense, since the employee still has his knowledge after leaving the company. Positive here are sentences such as "Ms. X has extensive, well-founded and up-to-date technical knowledge, which she always put into practice very well for the benefit of the company. But if you read in your reference that "His extensive education always made him a sought-after interlocutor", then you are wrong, has probably had too many private conversations in the office. It also has a negative effect if only requirements are described ("This task required knowledge in…").

Further training: Success-related statements such as "Has acquired/improved" Are better than "Has been trained" or "Has completed".

Evaluation of the working method

This is about independence, diligence, conscientiousness and reliability. However, if an employee’s diligence and accuracy are praised without a statement about the quantity of work, this can be read as an indication of a lack of work speed. Also it is a difference whether "Mr. Mueller is punctual ( = particularly at the end of the working day, personal characteristic) or whether Mr. Mueller completes his work punctually ( = on schedule).

Summary assessment of performance

Very good assessment: She has always completed the tasks to our complete satisfaction. We were always extremely satisfied with his performance.

Good evaluation: always to our full satisfaction.

Satisfactory evaluationShe has completed the tasks to our full satisfaction. She has done her tasks fully satisfactorily.

Sufficient assessment: She has done her tasks satisfactorily.

Poor assessmentHe has done the tasks to our satisfaction for the most part. She has done her tasks largely/ usually/ mostly satisfactorily.

Assessment of social behavior

Here the behavior towards colleagues, bosses and externals is assessed. If only the collegiality is emphasized ("In the employee circle he is considered as a tolerant colleague"), this indicates difficulties with the superiors. Examples of a (hidden) negative evaluation of social behavior are:

"Recently there have been conflicts with the supervisor/conflicts among colleagues." ( very negative, may imply alcohol consumption)

"Mrs. Schuster has a modest and obliging nature" ( = she is reserved, adapted, submissive)

"She has always gotten along well with her superiors" ( = adaptation at any price)

"His behavior was without blame/ never gave cause for complaint." (This expresses that it was not praiseworthy either).

"Demanding and critical employee (= demanding towards others, selfish nag")

"sociable/ all-round popular/ sociable employee" (= can be misinterpreted in the sense of sexual contact)

If basic virtues such as punctuality or reliability are overemphasized in the case of qualified employees and managers, this can mean a deliberate devaluation. Example: "We are pleased to confirm that Mr. Muller approached his tasks with diligence and honesty." (= but without professional qualification).

Closing formula

Almost three quarters of all references contain the remark that the employee left the company "at his own request" (= but without professional qualification) leaves. This formula is sometimes used in cases of termination by the employer or termination agreements. It raises doubts in the next job interview if there is a gap in the employee’s curriculum vitae after the employment relationship or if the next job means a career change.

In the case of a termination for operational reasons, the employee can demand that this be mentioned in the reference and that the specific reason, such as a decline in orders or rationalization, be stated.

"We wish Ms. Schulz all the best for her future career": Future wishes, thanks and regrets belong in every good reference from qualified employees. If they are missing or only mentioned very briefly, this reduces the value of the entire testimonial. Very important here are the wishes for the future: if they are not expressed, this comes across as a greetingless, unforgiving farewell, which can indicate a deep disgruntlement.

    There are nine deficiencies that critics of standard employer’s references cite:
    Employees who discover a concise gap in their testimonial have a good chance of having it supplemented.
    A testimonial brimming over with praise is by no means a guarantee for optimal chances of success in a new job application – at least not if the praise lies all too conspicuously turn out to be part of a favorable testimonial.
    When employers accept and sign an employee’s own draft, they want to make a termination as conflict-free and conciliatory as possible – just as they do with the favorable testimonial. You should definitely take advantage of the opportunity to submit your own draft. However, caution is advised; the possibilities for error in self-drafting are unlimited!
    Reference books or reference preparation software offer a whole catalog of helpful text modules. Nevertheless, you are not on the safe side with this, because the authors apply very different standards.
    When employees subsequently argue for an upgrade of their reference, important passages often slip through their fingers.
    Encoding techniques allow the testimonial issuer to express negative judgments between the lines without them being recognizable to the untrained reader.
    In a very good reference, the successes speak for themselves. Concrete examples can therefore underline the credibility of a testimonial and give it a personal touch. If these examples are missing, there is either a lack of success or a lack of appreciation.
    Spelling mistakes, typos and stylistic deficiencies are pure poison for the reference. The recipient of the reference cannot refer to the fact that someone else made the mistakes. After all, he or she should have noticed and complained about these deficiencies.
    Anyone who successfully applies for a new job in a position that has not been terminated does not attach any decisive importance to his or her reference. The receipt comes only with the next but one new application – then unfavorable testimonial statements can become a real problem.

Structure of a testimonial

Introduction ( personal data, total duration of employment and function in the company, explanation about the company)

Assessment of performance and success

Assessment of social behavior

Closing formula (resignation, thank-you formula, future wishes)

Place, date, signature

More on the topic?

The classic: Weuster, Arnulf, Scheer, Brigitte: Job references in text modules: Rational preparation, analysis, legal issues, 12. 2010 edition, 416 pages, Richard Boorberg Publishing, 21.80 euros

IT job references, brochure with numerous sample references for IT jobs, published by Verdi.

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