Job reference: so you grasp the mark on a view

In Germany, the employer’s reference is still considered an important business card for the application. Although the question is always asked about its actual meaning. Because it must be formulated benevolently. It is therefore not surprising that the standard reference has a grade of 2. In order to nevertheless be able to make differences in performance clear, a kind of report card code has become established. Today, I will reveal to you the meaning behind the structure of individual passages and formulations.

Simple vs. Qualified reference

There are two types of job references. The reference can be "simple" on the one hand. This means that it only contains information on the duration and type of activity. However, the second variant is more common: the qualified reference, which also describes the performance and behavior in the employment relationship.

Tip: Have a qualified reference issued, otherwise the potential new employer will almost automatically assume poor work performance. A simple testimonial can be interesting, however, if there is a dispute with the (former) employer and you cannot reach an agreement on the content.


  • Every employee is entitled to a written reference (§ 109, Gewerbeordnung,).
  • The employer is legally obligated to issue a reference (§ 630 BGB).
  • The certificate must be formulated in a clear and comprehensible manner. It must not contain any features or wording that serve to make a statement about the employee other than one that is apparent from the external form or from a wording.
  • If the employee does not agree with the contents of the report and in his opinion deserves a better grade, he must prove this himself up to grade 3. From grade 4, on the other hand, the onus is on the employer to prove that the employee was actually as bad as described.
  • A right to a reference, including an evaluation, may be stipulated in termination agreements.
  • Final references may not be worse than interim references. This also applies if the company is sold and therefore an interim report is written, although the final report comes from someone else. (Judgement of the BAG of 16.10.2017)
  • Parental leave or long illnesses should only be mentioned if the period of absence represented a significant interruption of employment. (Judgement of the BAG from 10.05.2005)
  • Mention of part-time work does not belong in the reference, since the requirements for the (full-time) position are identical and the work performance is decisive.
  • Exemptions must not be included in the reference.
  • If there are any changes in the agreement between the recipient of the reference and the employer, the entire reference must be reissued and not just one page exchanged.
  • The issuance of the certificate in electronic form is excluded.
  • A reference belongs on business/company paper and it goes without saying that it is grammatically correct, spotless and without visible changes/corrections.
  • It may be folded, but should not include an address field, as would be the case with a letter.

What does it really say in the reference?

Qualified references follow a certain structure, which is however variable in itself.

The Introduction includes the heading, information about the employee (date of birth may be omitted due to the AGG), the period of employment and a brief description of the company.

Sample structure of an employer's reference

The most important element of the reference: the job description

The job description explains the type of employment and job title. It describes all relevant tasks, hierarchical position, responsibilities and competencies. Here you will also find additions such as tasks as a first aider or safety officer.

The order of the tasks is particularly important. In the report, the most important task comes first, followed by other tasks and areas of activity in descending order of importance. Attention: If this order is reversed, this is an indication of rather not so good performance.

The performance appraisal

The performance appraisal contains information on motivation and ability to work, working methods and particular successes. Such successes are, for example, training of colleagues, cost savings or a contract win. Common phrases here are "Particularly noteworthy is…", "At this point we would like to mention especially that…"

In the case of managers, this section also includes the assessment of management performance.. This passage concludes sensibly with a summary performance appraisal.

The behavioral assessment

In the part of the behavior evaluation the social behavior in the enterprise is found. This describes, as it were, an overall picture of essential character traits and personality traits that are directly related to the employment relationship.

It is crucial that all contact partners are listed, i.e. superiors, colleagues and subordinates as well as customers/business partners or other third parties, provided that the scope of duties required these contacts.

If a contact is missing here or if, for example, the superior is in last place, this means that there were problems or complaints here.

The closing formula

There should be four points in the closing formula – although this is optional:

  1. Termination reason,
  2. Regret,
  3. Thanks to
  4. Future wishes

These elements are not mandatory, but their absence significantly reduces the value of the testimonial. In addition, the future wishes should include a "continue" – otherwise it sounds as if success has so far failed to materialize.

The reason for termination is also important. If you have resigned, this is of course advantageous, after all you have acted on your own initiative. "By mutual agreement…" is common and understandable if the termination arises from a severance agreement or you lose your job due to restructuring. Anything else indicates a dismissal on the part of the company.

If the degree is available, the content should reflect the overall impression of the reference and not contradict previously awarded ratings.

Tip: Pay attention to the date of termination: A crooked date can be an indication of termination without notice.

Our tip: You are not leaving of your own accord, but have been dismissed? Then also read: Termination – what now??

How to translate the grading scale

The usual report marks are often described with the same phrases over and over again. You can recognize a 1 or 2 by words such as "always", "at all times", "always", "to the fullest" or "to the fullest". If you find the words "endeavored" or "on the whole" anywhere in your reference, be alert, because that’s exactly what it means: you may have endeavored, but it wasn’t really enough.

Tip: To quickly grasp what grade the reference has, look for two phrases: The performance evaluation as well as the description of social behavior. This grade should of course be reflected in the entire reference and not be cancelled out by certain formulations or omissions.

Caution: Even if the phrase "always to your complete satisfaction" is grammatically incorrect, it is still considered common and therefore correct to express a grade of 1. The formulations in references may sound exaggerated to your ears, but this is the common language of references. Such wording simply paves your way to the next position.

The devil is in the details – You should be wary of these formulations

If, for example, as a sales manager, you find wording in your reference that you were always punctual or always appropriately dressed, please become alert. Something like this is a matter of course and does not belong in your reference. Self-evident elements for the job are assumed and should not be emphasized. Otherwise you get the impression: He always looked good, but that was his only achievement.

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