Summary of what you need to know:

Every employee is entitled by law to get such a document.

Each of these topics must follow the rules:

1) the structure,

2) the content and

3) the wording used f

When you apply for a new job the recruiter exects to see your work reference from your previous employer.

If somethings wrong with your reference, it will raise the suspicion of the HR, then you’re a) are not being invited at all b) you have a tough job to explain what went wrong in the job.

You do need to understand the wording, the code and the omissions to evaluate the assessment in your reference. If you have any doubts, ask a lawyer.

Arbeitszeugnis or reference letter is essential in Germany

The fact that I am now writing about the „Arbeitszeugnis“ is actually due to Sumati.

We went out to meet for breakfast on a Saturday morning. When I told her about the blog I asked her: What do you think I should write about? What do you find unusual, irritating, or strange in the German working world?“ It didn’t take long, just a quick thought, and then Sumati asked, „Why are German employment references so important?!“

It’s been quite a long since I’ve written a reference. Usually, friends and clients would approach me and ask me to have a second glance at the reference they’ve received. And give feedback if it’s ok. The reason is, simply said, that even the normal-non-HR German cannot understand the meaning of the Arbeitszeugnis to its fullest.

In workshops with clients of mine, we would discuss the content and structure of a typical reference letter. And we would laugh reading some of the secret codes.

But actually, reference letters are so damned important in working life that you better shouldn’t laugh!

Sometimes, when a client of mine found it nearly impossible to get invited for an interview, it was obviously due to his last reference. Therefore, to be honest, I was not really surprised that Sumali asked for the „secret codes“ in the German reference letters.

I’m going to explain some of the reference language below for you:


    Different types of „reference“ or „certificate“

    Translating from German into English, I’m 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.

    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.

    Reference letter

    is also a letter from a colleague, professor, or 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.

    Certificate of employment

    In German, we use the term „Zertifikat“ when we’re talking of seminars or further education. Such a „Zertifikat“ often has a fancy layout, even with this golden Zertifikat on top and we attach it to our job application documents.
    However, we’re not using it in the context of documents issued to us by the employer. Our employer issues us „eine Bescheinigung“ but not „ein Zertifikat“. With Bescheinigung it says it’s just a simple sheet of paper and nothing fancy.

    But we have two different terms in German that are closely related:

    1) It might be mistaken as an „Arbeitszeugnis

    That’s what this article is about, the Arbeitszeugnis or work reference letter. (Actually, it’s just a plain letter sheet of paper with our employer’s company header and footer on it).

    The employer issues this Arbeitszeugnis or work reference after the end of the employment relationship. It serves as proof that we’ve been employed for a defined duration and assigned a certain role or position.

    2) Close to a „Bescheinigung des Arbeitgebers über die Beschäftigung“

    We need such a document while we are in employment. The literal translation would be:“Documentation of the employer about the employment“. It’s not about the performance, but simply stating that a person is employed and in a job with this company.
    Further details may be added, e.g. it’s required by the immigration office or to register a kid at the kindergarten or because our future landlord wants proof that we have a steady monthly income.

    “Arbeitszeugnis” or Work Reference Letter

    is a formal document regulated by German law. Usually, I describe it as a work reference from a German employer.

    There are a huge number of rules about almost everything: content, structure, paper size, signature, grades, performance, ratings, etc., and in this article, you’ll learn the most important aspects about it. I recommend using the German term Arbeitszeugnis when you’re talking about it (otherwise it’s misleading with the other terms).

    The Arbeitszeugnis is unique. And even unique in Europe.

    No other country, as far as I know, has such a formally regulated reference system as Germany.

    Sumali has heard, like many other foreigners, that there is an extra „code“ that needs 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 its curious or even funny phrases.

    If the Arbeitszeugnis reveals a bad judgment, it will be super difficult when searching for a new job.

    Every HR will shy away from hiring a candidate that seemingly has major flaws.

    Two types of „Arbeitszeugnisse“

    Visual of the types of Arbeitszeugnis in Germany
    The two types of German work reference („Arbeitszeugnisse“)

    #1: Simple reference letter or “einfaches Arbeitszeugnis”:

    This reference is only a short confirmation of your job in Germany. It lists the when, how long, where, and what activities has someone done.

    All activities that the employee has performed over the period of employment should be listed.

    Only those tasks that played a subordinate role can go unmentioned.

    This short reference or simple reference is usually given for short-term and/or simple positions, such as a summer job in production or in the catering industry. 

    #2: Qualified employer reference letter or  “qualifiziertes Arbeitszeugnis”:

    This is the regular reference letter for any person working in a qualified and suitable job. Its many many details of the tasks and working environment. 

    This is the type of reference letter we Germans need to optimize as much as possible. It describes our knowledge, our work performance, and an assessment of our business and work skills. 

    Even worse, it needs to have a description of how went along with colleagues, with our direct supervisor or management. If leadership was part of our role description, the Arbeitszeugnis must describe our leadership capabilities as well. 

    Many details of the German employer reference (“Arbeitszeugnis”) are regulated by law.

    I don’t think it’s necessary to go to court right away. It’s much more important to know what rights you have yourself. Then you can speak with confidence with your manager or HR.

    So let’s see what the legal basis is:

    #1 Reference must be truthful

    The employer’s reference signed by the employer must be truthful.
    It must not exaggerate very good performance, i.e. it must not be a certificate of favor because the employee was simply so sweet.
    On the other hand, it must not be a slur that degrades the person, even if the performance was not good (at times).

    #2 Reference must be benevolent

    Especially important is that officially at least, the  Arbeitszeugnis must be well-disposed (wohlwollend) or rather benevolent towards the employee – that’s the word used by the law.

    At the same time, the testimony must be „objective“, also according to the law.

    Now, 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”

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

    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. The 6 is you haven’t even tried to answer a test.

    It goes like this:

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

    Nicola has fulfilled her tasks to our satisfaction = grade 4

    Nicola has always worked to our satisfaction = grade 3

    Nicola has always worked to our full satisfaction = grade 2

    Nicola has always worked to our fullest satisfaction = grade 1

    This is really weird, isn’t it? 😂 But, let me tell you, there are lots of court cases between employees and employers because of these phrases.

    It is important, please don’t fail to understand the importance of the German Business Culture.

    The structure of a qualified certificate

    The structure of the job reference is also important.
    This includes, on the one hand, that the reference really contains all individual parts. Look right here once in the list, really every point must be contained in a good reference.
    The order of the points is also important. If I read a reference in which the order is completely different, I become attentive as a recruiter – and probably suspicious.

    Visual of the structure of an Arbeitszeugnis in Germany

    The ’secret‘ code in the reference

    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.

    However, I have read many references and have rarely seen any of these typical secret-coded phrases. Though it doesn’t mean that they don’t exist, right? Read these examples:

    #1 Example: Sociability

    What do you think of „he has contributed to improving the working environment through his sociability?“

    Sounds great, doesn’t it? But the statement is, that he has drunk alcohol during business hours. Perhaps not to the point of excess, but still…

    #2 Example: Self-confidence

    „He has the expertise and a healthy self-confidence.“

    Seems to be a confident employee, right?  

    Oh dear, that is not what it seems to be. Actually, it says that this guy is a super-arrogant colleague with whom you can hardly stand being in the same office.

    #3 Example: Especially success

    „For the future, we wish all the best, especially much success.“ 

    I have to laugh even while writing this sentence 😄. Because, the meaning is that actually, the company is glad the colleague is leaving.

    May she/ he succeeds elsewhere, but definitely, she/ he did not achieve anything in this job!

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    The tricky strategy of omission

    In fact, I’ve seen a few real „codes“ in the references I checked so far (which as a guide and recruiter you do with every application you see).

    What happens much more often is quite a simple, but tricky strategy: to leave out important information.

    You won’t notice it at 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.

    Let’s take a salesperson as an example: 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 signal for retailers: a candidate coded like this will find it most difficult to get a new job.

    Another example I can give is that of a project leader: Imagine a project leader leading a small team. And her/his reference does not mention a word about leadership skills. 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 her/ his personal style of dealing with people.

    Your rights as an employee in Germany

    Your 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-timemini-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 after only 4 weeks or so. In this case, no qualified certificate must be issued, but rather just a simple employment confirmation.

    Your obligation to request an Arbeitszeugnis

    Even if you have the legal right to a work reference („Arbeitszeugnis“): It’s your obligation to ask for it.

    There are many cases where a foreign employee is not aware of this obligation and waits in vain to receive a reference. And wonders why the company does not write one.

    Some HR or managers procrastinate. Some do hope (secretly), the employee doesn’t ask (again) to have an Arbeitszeugnis issued!

    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 don’t always get a certificate automatically.

    This is because it’s your obligation to ask for a 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!).

    Therefore, in any case, approach your supervisor about it. And set a date for when you’ll follow up.

    Your right to customization

    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.

    From my practice, I know that often employees would like to have taken up another additional task or in another phrasing in the description part of the Arbeitszeugnis.

    Or would like to have one or two other formulations in the description differently.

    Most of the time, this is not a problem if the overall statement of the reference is not changed by the adjustments.

    Your right to consult an attorney

    In case of serious doubt, it may be advisable to ask a lawyer for advice before accepting a reference that you believe is not good.

    Lawyers specializing in labor law will inform you knowledgeably if legal action is worthwhile. The fee for the lawyer, however, is up to you.

    Don’t worry, most references issued are „good“

    Now, take a deep breath, and stretch a bit to work out that tension: Employer references are (almost) usually „good“ and „very good“ in Germany.

    Because a study from 2011 found that about 88% of the work references in Germany got the grade „good“ or „very good“.

    The often-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).

    Wrap up

    I hope that I could make the German job reference a bit more comprehensible to you. Should you have any further questions, please take a look at the comments and check if you find the information needed in there. If not, write me about what you want to learn.

    Enjoy your career growth!