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The German reference letter system

German employers are required by law to write you a favourable reference letter when you leave. But since the letter must always sound positive, it can be interpreted in the most cynical way.


It all started on January 1, 1900. When the German civil code came into effect. It was then that reference letters, which for centuries had been a common requirement before taking in a house servant, became a statutory right for every worker in Germany.

"Any employee may request a certificate which assesses their conduct and performance."

Flash forward more than a hundred years and we arrive to a situation where Germany, alongside with Switzerland, are the only countries in Europe where the employee has the right to a reference letter in which their performance is graded, the Arbeitszeugnis.

Not only that, the letter must be “kindly” written, not to “impede career advancement”. Should the employer not comply with this requirements, it will be an open invitation for a lawsuit.

This might sound like an advantageous situation for the employees, but after years of interactions, we’ve arrived to a status quo of misleading grades and hidden meanings that allow companies in Germany to grade you positively or negatively on each job you’ve had while avoiding any legal danger.

Grades and hidden meanings

As the English wikipedia article points out, there are some standard sentences that employers will use to grade your performance and they all sound nice.

  • Excellent
    • stets zu unserer vollsten Zufriedenheit erledigt
    • always done to our utmost satisfaction
  • Good
    • stets zu unserer vollen Zufriedenheit
    • always to our full satisfaction
  • Satisfactory
    • zu unserer vollen Zufriedenheit
    • to our full satisfaction
  • Adequate
    • zu unserer Zufriedenheit
    • to our satisfaction
  • Poor
    • hat sich bemüht, den Anforderungen gerecht zu werden
    • has endeavored to meet the demands

Every employer in Germany will use those sentences or something very similar to grade your performance. Most big corporations have software that will take grades as input and will generate the letter automatically. If you are curious, you can even try some online generators yourself.

Currently, since the implicit grades are well known by a good part of the population, very seldom you will see implicit “poor” or “adequate” grades on a reference letter, because the employee might find legal grounds to sue his former employer. Nowadays “satisfactory” is the new minimum, and any occurrence of it in your letter will be interpreted as such.

There can by multiple other hidden meanings within the letter's text. For example too much emphasis in your interactions with colleagues might be hiding a message about your problems with the management.

The reference letter should also include some notes hinting why the employee left (or whose decision it was). And very often there is a last sentence where the employer wishes the employee all the best in the future, etc. If this sentence is missing, it will be understood as if the employment ended badly.

Implications for the employee

Most job applicants in Germany will be expected to show a reference letter for every job they have in their CV when applying for a new job, or at least the ones covering recent years. The employee has up to 3 years to request the letter after having left the company and the lack of it will be seen very negatively by many future employers.

The validity of the letter is debatable, and is sometimes used as a bargaining chip. For example, an employee who is laid off might receive a very favourable letter as a form of compensation. Someone who is unexpectedly leaving a company might get also rewarded if he agrees to stay beyond the minimum legal notice period, while might be penalized if he or she decides to stick to it. It's not even unthinkable that an employee could be threatened with a poor reference letter to force him to stay in the company. Yet, most German companies will give this reference letters a lot of weight when considering a job candidate.

If this situation seems unfair to you, it might make you feel better knowing that the internet has a solution for everything, and websites like kununu revert the roles so you can too run a background check on your potential next employer.

Considerations for foreigners

Workers coming from other countries will generally not be asked to present any reference letter for their work outside of Germany. But you might be expected to have one for every German job.

The law specifies that the reference letter should be written in German. Many international companies will have no problems providing an extra letter in English, but the German one will be the one you’ll be expected to have. Since the English version is not covered by the law, it could be either a translation from the German one or a completely unrelated text.

So remember, ask for your reference letter when changing jobs and read it very carefully!

Last modified: Nov 18, 2014 10:30-GMT