Employment references must always be worded in a well-intentioned manner. Criticism is therefore often hidden between the lines. Stiftung Warentest explains what lies behind the empty phrases.
- The most important facts in brief
- Translation help of Stiftung Warentest
- Your rights regarding references
- Defending yourself against unfair references
The most important facts in brief
Job reference: This is what counts
Translation help from Stiftung Warentest
Understanding the wording in the reference
In order to interpret a job reference correctly, every employee should be able to decipher the reference code used. Only then can he assess whether the reference corresponds to his expectations or is only supposedly good. Certificates of employment can be contested. Help is available from specialist lawyers, trade unions and professional reference consultants.
Mostly good grades in the reference
More than 80 percent of all job references have the grades "very good" or "good. It is therefore all the more important for those with poorer evaluations to recognize them as such. That is not so easy. Because the language of references is full of secret codes. The reason: A boss is not allowed to judge his employee openly and unsparingly. According to the Federal Labor Court, an employer’s reference must be "true," "well-intentioned" and "complete. Superiors use certain formulations in order not to write obviously negatively and to remain nevertheless with the truth. Behind supposedly positive expressions, there are often pejorative meanings.
These notes are behind satisfaction phrases
The employee has completed the tasks assigned to him ..t
Always to our fullest satisfaction
Always to our full satisfaction
To our complete satisfaction
Always to our satisfaction
To our satisfaction
Altogether / on the whole to our satisfaction
Has made an effort / has attempted to complete to our satisfaction / has carried out the overriding tasks with great diligence and interest
This is what the wording in the reference really means
Bosses often hide their criticism between the lines. Many well-sounding phrases mean in truth nothing good. Restrictive statements, double negatives and ambiguous sentences should not be included in a reference. It is also unfavorable when less important tasks come before important ones. Or if customer contact is mentioned in the activities, but the behavior towards the customer is not evaluated.
Statement in the testimony
She always showed understanding for her work.
She was lazy and did not perform anything.
He always tried to complete the work to our full satisfaction.
But his efforts were unsuccessful.
He solved all tasks to his and the company’s interest.
He committed theft and/or other serious mistakes.
She completed all tasks dutifully and properly.
However, she lacked initiative.
His behavior towards colleagues and superiors was always exemplary.
He had problems with his superiors. You are therefore mentioned only after the colleagues.
He had the opportunity to acquire the necessary expertise.
However, he did not use the opportunity.
He was an understanding superior to his employees at all times.
He was not assertive and lacked auto-tority.
She gave clear instructions and always knew how to delegate all tasks with success.
She shirked work wherever she could.
He worked with the utmost accuracy.
He was a long-suffering and inflexible bean counter.
He achieved not inconsiderable sales successes.
He did not achieve great successes.
He has approached his tasks with diligence, honesty and punctuality.
He lacked professional qualifications.
She was very efficient and knew how to sell herself well.
She was an impertinent busybody.
Through her sociability, she contributed to the improvement of the working atmosphere.
She has a tendency to overindulge in alcohol.
He was always a valued discussion partner.
He was talkative and had long private conversations on duty.
She was a committed advocate for the interests of her colleagues both inside and outside the company.
She was active in the works council or trade union.
Irony and mockery are forbidden in the employer’s reference
If you find ridicule in your reference, you can defend yourself against it. The employer must then correct it. This was decided by the regional labor court in Hamm (Az. 12 Ta 475/16). In concrete terms, the boss had amended a draft reference and written, among other things: "If there were a better grade than ‘very good’, we would assess him with it". However, there was no trace of regret about the departure of the employee. In the closing formula, the supervisor only wrote that he acknowledged the employee’s departure. According to the court, this formulation leaves a mocking and ironic overall impression. Unbiased readers may recognize that the statements are not meant seriously. The formulation that the employee’s departure is acknowledged is a clear negative indication for a neutral reader that the parties did not part amicably.
These are your rights around the employer’s reference
What should a reference contain?
What should be mentioned in a job reference depends on the type of reference. There are simple and qualified (detailed) testimonials. Which variant a person is entitled to depends, as a rule, on the duration of his activity in the company. Employers are reluctant to write longer references in the case of very short work relationships or internships. In such cases, she would write a simple report. It contains personal data, a description of activities and a closing formula.
This is how a qualified reference is structured
A qualified reference is always better. Ideally, it should include the following parts, which should also be listed in the appropriate order:
- Signature, address of the employer and exact description of the employer.
- The employee’s career in the company. Warnings, vacations, illnesses or membership of the works council have no place in the reference. Parental leave may only be mentioned if it has significantly limited the duration of the actual employment.
- Concrete description of all activities. This list must be complete. If the employer omits important activities and areas of responsibility, this reduces the employee’s qualifications to the outside world.
- Assessment of performance and conduct. The reasons given are motivation, ability, expertise, working style and successes. Interaction with superiors, colleagues and customers is also evaluated. A grade can be inferred from a summary evaluation.
- In the termination formula it is explained 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 formula "We parted on . " indicates a termination without notice. Reasons, which lie in the person or the behavior, may not call the employer.
- The employer’s reference ends with an expression of thanks and a wishing formula. The closing formula "all the best for the future" must be sufficient. Employees cannot demand "thanks for many years of cooperation" and "all the best for the professional future" (Landes-arbeits-gericht Baden-Wurttem-berg, Az. 21 Sa 74/10). This was also confirmed by the Regional Labor Court in Munich. A woman whose reference was evaluated with "good", has no requirement on a thanks of the employer and the regret over its departure from the company in the conclusion formula (regional labor court Munich Az. 3 Sa 188/21). The good wishes for the future, however, denied the Munich court.
When do I receive a -job reference??
Employees, freelancers and trainees as well as 450-euro jobbers, interns and volunteers can demand a reference. As a rule, the certificate is issued on the last day of work. If someone is dismissed, they can already request a reference when the dismissal arrives. In this way, dismissed employees can already apply for a new job during the notice period.
By the way. If the next job does not follow immediately, unemployment benefits can be applied for, we explain everything important on the subject in our specials unemployment benefit 1 and unemployment benefit 2.
Application with interim report
It is possible to apply for a job even with the most recent interim report. Employees can, for example, request an interim reference if they have worked for a company for several years without an interim evaluation or before they take parental leave or other professional leave. Even without a specific reason, employees can ask for such an evaluation about once a year.
You are entitled to an employer’s reference for this long
Employees should not allow too much time to elapse before requesting their employer’s reference. Who expresses the desire for a reference fast, avoids annoyance and memory gaps on both sides. The statutory limitation period of three years applies to the legal claim. In practice, however, it looks different: The labor courts consider only a period of four to ten months to be appropriate. Afterwards, the employer can say that he will no longer issue a reference. Then former employees or trainees have "forfeited" their claim.
By the way: Employees must pick up their reference. A sending cannot require them as a rule. Those who sue for the certificate without attempting to pick it up lose (Berlin-Brandenburg Regional Labor Court, Ref. 10 TA 31/13).
What must a reference look like??
A reference should be in writing and ideally printed on company paper in a uniform font. An employer’s reference sent only by e-mail is not possible. The paper should not have any stains, donkey ears, spelling mistakes, corrections, insertions or erasures. However, it may be stapled and folded to the size of a normal envelope (LAG Rhein-land-Pfalz 5 Sa 314/17). A reference that evaluates in table form certain requirements, like punctuality, work speed or specialized knowledge with school marks, is not permitted, so the federal labor court (Az. 9 AZR 262/20). The place and date of issue must be noted at the end of the document, and the signature must come from the employer or from a superior authorized to issue instructions. If someone does not receive a proper reference, he can demand a new one. By the way, this also applies if the certificate is lost – regardless of who faked it.
Unreliable. Companies may not offer in the reference to give future employers at any time on inquiry information, because this is considered as coded reference that the reference does not correspond to the true achievements (labor court Herford, Az. 2 Ca 1502/08).
What do I do if I do not receive a reference??
If an employee has expressly asked for a reference, but the employer does not provide it, he can sue for the reference at the labor court. If he needs it very urgently, he can also obtain a temporary injunction from the court in summary proceedings. If the employee has problems finding a new job because of the missing certificate, he can demand compensation. The employer, on the other hand, can demand compensation if the reference contains false information that was deliberately written in by the previous employer.
Can I have a bad reference corrected??
Since the vast majority of references are at least good, references with only a satisfactory rating should rather not be included in the application documents. On the other hand, a gap of several years in the curriculum vitae looks unfavorable. In such a case, employees should first try to clear up misunderstandings and clarify problems in a discussion with their former supervisor. It may be possible to change the reference "upwards". Time, in order to require corrections at the employer’s reference, have employees five to ten months after report issue (regional labor court Mainz, Az. 1 Sa 1433/01). If the employer refuses, the only option is to go to the competent labor court.
Falsifying references has far-reaching consequences
Simply falsifying a reference is of course not a good idea.
Wages back. Anyone who gets a job with the help of a forged reference and does not have the necessary qualifications must pay back the salary (Cologne Regional Labor Court, ref. no. 9 AZR/20). 11 Sa 1511/99).
Job gone. Even after years, employees who have obtained a job with a falsified certificate can be dismissed – even if they have worked well (Landes-arbeits-gericht Nuremberg, Az. 9 Sa 400/05). Similarly it sees the national labor court Baden-Wurttem-berg: The confidence of employers on the correctness of references is particularly worth protecting. This is the only way a company can compare applicants fairly. In addition, the reputation of the company can suffer through the employment of such a forger of certificates (Az. 5 Sa 25/06).
Write employer’s reference itself?
Employees can pre-write their own references, but this is not advisable. As self-writers, they are seldom familiar with the language of references and may only provide themselves with a mediocre reference. Modesty is out of place. On the other hand, too good a reference can have an exaggerated effect. In addition, employees may not know the wording that is common in their industry. A new employer could evaluate that negatively. Employees can however share the work with their employer. Then they leave the assessment of performance and behavior to their boss, the information about the person – and the description of their activities take over.
By the way: Who gets a bad reference, cannot wait simply, until the boss is on vacation and then with a draft preformulated even to the boss of another department go, with the request to sign this draft (labor court Schleswig-Holstein, Az. 1 Sa 228/17).
An inadequate reference can be expensive for bosses
If a job applicant is rejected because the employer has not issued a reference or has only issued an inadequately worded one, it can be expensive for the old boss. This was the decision of the Bremen-Bremerhaven labor court (Az. Ca 1309/10). The employer initially did not issue a reference to the former employee at all. The employee then demanded the reference. His former boss, however, gave him only mediocre grades. During his application as an assistant to the management in another company, the former employee failed because of the bad report card. The employer to whom he had applied as an assistant also confirmed this in court. The employee could therefore prove that he had suffered concrete damage as a result of the poor testimonial. The judges awarded him damages of around 3,500 euros
Defend against unfair references
Help if you suspect unfair testimonials
Improper wording of references can be challenged in court. For this the receiver must decode it however first of all. Helpful are numerous advice sites on the Internet such as Arbeitnehmerkammer.de. Other suitable contacts are, for example, a lawyer for labor law or, if the company has one, a works council. This may advise because of a testimony however only. He has no right to a say. By the way, it is different with dismissals. In our special How co-determination works in the company, we explain what other advantages employees have through a works council.
What are the chances of a lawsuit in court?
A correct-urklage holds substantial risks. According to the established case law of the Federal Labor Court, the employee must prove that his performance was better than a grade of three. This also applies if good or very good grades are common in the respective industry. The proof, to have been better, can be led usually only with difficulty. Witnesses, i.e. former colleagues or superiors, are then often questioned. This can lead to conflicts of conscience.
Improvement for the positive
A waitress in Cologne, for example, was successful in her lawsuit against her employer’s reference: she sued for additional positive wording and was able to get the sentence that she had "worked during the carnival period" accepted. In the latter, the workload is particularly high, at least in the Rhineland (AG Koln 19 Ca 3743/18). An action for rectification must be filed no later than three weeks after receipt of the reference. Good to know: The reference cannot deteriorate due to a lawsuit.
An interim report helps in the event of a lawsuit
An employer is bound to his assessment in an interim report also for the final report. The only exception is if the employee’s performance and conduct have changed significantly after the interim report. If the last interim report was very good, it can be used as evidence for a better evaluation. Even in the event of a lost lawsuit, an employee has a final, very good interim reference for further applications and simply lets the poorer termination reference fall by the wayside.
Costs of a complaint about the employer’s reference
As long as the legal dispute is in the first instance, i.e. takes place before the labor court, each party bears its own legal costs. The support of a lawyer is recommended for an action for a reference. He checks the reference for formal or content-related errors, formulates valid reasons and requests for changes, prepares the statement of claim and helps to refute counter-arguments and to enforce the request. His costs are based on the value in dispute. In the case of an action for a reference, this amounts to one month’s gross salary.
Lawyer’s fees for legal representation (Euro)
For a gross salary of 3,500 euros, the simple fee according to the German Lawyers’ Fees Act (Rechtsanwaltsvergutungsgesetz) would be 278 euros. The bill reads:
1,30 times procedure fee: 361,40 Euro (1,3 x single fee 278 Euro)
+ 1,20 times appointment fee: 333,60 Euro (1,2 x single fee 278 Euro)
+ Allowance for expenses: 20.00 euros
+ 19 percent sales tax 135.85 euros
Sum lawyer costs complaint procedure 850,85 Euro
These costs are incurred by employees regardless of whether they win or lose. It is different in the case of court costs. They are also based on the dispute value. If the employee loses and the court concludes that the report card is adequate, these are added on top. A legal protection insurance is therefore meaningful for labor-legal cases (comparison legal protection insurance). Who has little income, can apply at the responsible court consultation or process cost assistance.
Independent. Objective. Incorruptible.
This special is regularly updated. Latest update: 15. July 2021. Older user comments may refer to earlier versions.