8 tips for a successful job reference

IMG 4882 1 - 8 tips for a successful job reference

8 tips for a successful job reference

Recently, a client asked me to legally review her employment reference. She had left her employer because of an attractive job offer. Even at first glance, I noticed considerable deficiencies. Individual evaluation sections were missing and the individual evaluations as well as the overall grade did not consistently match what my client had expected. “And that’s after all I’ve done there” she replied, disappointed, when I pointed out the deficiencies to her. I advised her to contact her former employer and ask for correction.

Employees have a right to be issued a written reference by their employer upon termination of employment – the employer’s reference. At the employee’s request, the reference must also contain information on performance and conduct (qualified reference). The entitlement arises from Section 109 of the Trade, Commerce and Industry Regulation Act.

Unfortunately, faulty references are not uncommon. For HR departments, the preparation of references is a time-consuming and usually thankless task, which is sometimes delegated to the trainee or student worker as the workload increases. In smaller companies, the boss often still writes references himself. Few people know what a reference should look like from a technical and legal point of view, and so something is quickly put together from old references or sources on the Internet. Unfortunately, the result is often reminiscent of the saying “The opposite of good is well-intentioned”. In the case of my client, the draft went back and forth between her and her employer several times, as every single wording was haggled over. She was not really satisfied with the final result, but arguing about it in court seemed disproportionate to her.

Why so much fuss about the job reference? In our globalized, dynamic working world, the German tradition of job references seems almost antiquated. Many employers do not consider references to be meaningful, which is why they are hardly considered in the application process at high-tech companies and start-ups, for example. Here, the personal interview is often the deciding factor, possibly with the support of algorithmic processes and trial work.

In contrast, German SMEs and traditional large companies still like to take a look at job references before making an offer. Strange, ambiguous formulations arouse the reader’s distrust just as much as the omission of individual components. This can lead to rejection or at least to a reference check, which can also backfire without careful preparation.

However, if the reference stands out due to its good style, provides an authentic insight into the candidate’s main tasks and projects, and allows the candidate’s personality to shine through, this can definitely tip the scales in a close race. It may be that references will become less important in the selection of personnel in the future, but you should still leave nothing to chance.

During my many years in personnel management and as an employment law consultant, I have been able to gather a great deal of knowledge on this subject. In the following, I have summarized what is important for a good reference and how you can get one:

1. take precautions at an early stage
If you change positions or supervisors, you can ask for an interim report. This is particularly useful if you expect a good evaluation from the previous managers.  If the interim report covers a significant period of the employment relationship, the evaluation in the final report can only be deviated from for good reasons.

2. Act quickly after resignation
Many people wait after they have resigned. After all, they are looking forward to the new job and are perhaps planning a vacation. It is better to go directly to the discussion with superiors and personnel department. This applies all the more if short contractual exclusion periods apply. My recommendation: Offer to prepare the first draft of the reference for approval yourself. Often the employer is happy about the reduction in workload and now it’s your turn! There are some good and inexpensive reference books on the market that explain the overall structure and contain text modules for the grade levels (grades 1 – 5) for all relevant assessment categories. If you prefer not to prepare the reference yourself, you can use the services of numerous service providers for the preparation of references or commission a lawyer specializing in labor law to do so. This way you are on the safe side.
Your supervisor is the first point of contact for the question of the overall grade in the reference. You can also use previous annual appraisals or an interim report as a guide. In case of doubt, an overall grade of “very good” in the draft reference is always a good first impression.
If the HR department prefers to write the reference itself, then you can at least contribute to the quality with a pre-formulated job description. In addition to the main tasks from the job description, this contains important work results, successful projects, and additional qualifications acquired (ideally in text format for simple copy & paste).

3. caution in the event of termination by the employer
A dismissal by an employer is not easy for the person concerned to digest and some fear a career setback. Since the employer’s termination is unfortunately almost the order of the day in business enterprises, usually occurs through no fault of the employee and the labor market situation is favorable for applicants, this concern is usually unfounded. However, caution is advised in this situation, especially with regard to the reference, as the content and overall evaluation may be in dispute. If you are threatened with dismissal, seek advice immediately from an employment law attorney – in order to secure your rights (e.g., with regard to an action for protection against dismissal). In the context of the (settlement) agreement, among other things, the employer’s reference can be settled, which can have a positive effect for you. Caution: Often, you will find a formulaic sentence in the settlement according to which you are entitled to a “benevolent reference that serves your professional advancement”. This sounds good, but it will not help you. At best, this guarantees a grade of “satisfactory” and not a benevolent final formula (see also point 7). I recommend that my clients use a formulation in the settlement that explicitly names the overall grade (e.g., “very good” or “good”) and includes a customary closing formulation with regret. In addition, reference can be made here to a draft of the employer’s reference, which is attached as an appendix and from which deviation is only possible for good cause.

4. do not omit any evaluation module
A qualified job reference consists of a number of individual evaluations and an overall evaluation. Here are the individual evaluation modules:

Skills, (technical) knowledge
Willingness to work
Quality of work: work method, work rate, efficiency
Work results, successes achieved
Ability to work
Professional commitment
Expressiveness, comprehension
Special skills

Depending on the position additionally:

  • Leadership skills
  • Negotiation skills

Internal and external social behavior is also assessed.

If a module is missing from the report, this indicates to the attentive reader that there may be problems in this area. Therefore, please make sure that each module is evaluated. This is normally done with one sentence per module. If you want to emphasize an individual evaluation, you can also choose two complementary text modules.

5. No one believes in superheroes anymore…
If the blush rises to your face when you read through the draft testimonial and you hardly recognize yourself and your job, you may have been laid on too thick. Too many superlatives and generic descriptions are not only boring for the reader, but can also seem unbelievable. An overall “very good” testimonial with one or two “good” individual ratings is still top, but may come across as more authentic.  In addition to the building blocks, you can also include a free-form sentence, such as o-tones from supervisors about you and their strengths. The words that are probably most frequently used in testimonials are “very” and “always”. For good reason, as this is used to differentiate between different grade levels in report cards.  Still, constant repetition of words doesn’t read nicely. For a change, sprinkle in synonyms such as “at all times,” “always,” “exemplary,” and “excellent,” or change the sentence to: “We especially appreciate him/her …. “, “we would like to emphasize in particular…. “.

6. the overall assessment: standard wording please!
The overall assessment is made in a separate sentence in the last third of the report. Semantic fans will object that “always to the fullest satisfaction” is linguistically incorrect. That may be, but most people know this standard formulation and its meaning, and that is what ultimately matters in the application process.

7. the best comes at the end
Report books often treat the final wording like individual evaluations and offer text modules for different grade levels. However, this does not mean that you are legally entitled to a particular closing formulation. In principle, the employer is free to choose the closing wording as long as the reference remains “benevolent”. However, it is good style to include in the closing wording the reason for termination, a regret for leaving and thanks for the successful cooperation, as well as wishing “continued success and personally all the best” for the future. If there is “friction” between the parties at the end of the contract, some employers give verbal “side blows” here, e.g. by omitting or rewording elements. In principle, there is little an employee can do about this, unless so-called codes are used. However, the latter is not easy to prove, which in turn argues in favor of creating a draft reference yourself if possible and coordinating it with the employer.

In the case of termination by the employer or a termination agreement, the question often arises as to how the reason for termination should be formulated. This depends very much on the specific situation and should therefore be the subject of individual legal advice. In general, the “duty of truth” and the principle of “goodwill” apply to references.

8. form and dispatch
What sounds obvious to many is nevertheless not always observed. The reference should be written on an official letterhead (with company logo) of the employer. Interim references are written in the present tense, final references in the imperfect.  Spelling, typing and grammatical errors or shifted layouts (e.g. hyphens) should not be accepted. The job reference is your business card and should be formally impeccable. This includes:

  • Full name, maiden name, date of birth & place of birth.
  • Correct entry and exit dates
  • Accurate position title/s

The reference should also be sent in a reinforced envelope so that it does not bend.

Best regards
Heidi Ahrens


If you have any questions or would like individual advice on the subject of job references, please contact me via the contact fom.

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