Writing a qualified job reference in just 10 minutes + your employer duties

You are self-employed and have to write a reference for an employee? There is a lot to consider. Learn more about the types as well as the structure of references and get to know typical formulations of the reference language. Also deal with legal issues. Our formulation aids support you in the preparation of job references.

Writing a reference – the three most important questions at a glance

The subject of "employer’s references" is complex and also frequently occupies the labor courts. Frequently, the following three questions arise among business owners:

  • Is the employer obligated to issue a report card?
    This duty exists. However, the employee must request a qualified employer’s reference itself.
  • What does a qualified reference look like??
    In addition to all the information of a simple reference including the job description, it also contains the performance and behavior evaluation.
  • Who is entitled to an employer’s reference?
    Every employee who leaves the company is entitled to a final reference, furthermore apprentices after completion of their training and trainees.

The final certificate has the greatest practical significance. But there are also other occasions, as the next section shows.

The different types of references at a glance

The article mainly deals with the final reference, which an employee receives when he leaves the company, and which proves the information in his CV when applying for other jobs. If the reference is issued beforehand, e.g. directly after a notice of termination within the prescribed period, it is referred to as a provisional reference, from which the final reference may also deviate. In addition, employees can have interim certificates issued if they remain with the company.

Furthermore, a distinction is made between the simple and the qualified job reference. Differences are that the qualified version also contains assessments of performance and conduct. The other content matches. Simple job references are only appropriate for very short employment with simple tasks.

Content and structure of an employer’s reference + creation in only 10 minutes

Certain information must be included in a job reference, others are recommended. Among the mandatory information in a qualified employer’s reference:

  • Name of the company
  • Testimonial date
  • First name, surname and date and place of birth of the employee
  • Beginning and end of the employment relationship
  • Job description
  • Performance evaluation

Follow the usual standards when writing a job reference, because personnel managers expect a certain structure. Use the following outline as a guide:

  • Letterhead
    This includes both the name and address of the company and the employee.
  • Headline
    Designate the document as an employer’s reference.
  • Introduction
    This should include the name and the date and place of birth of the employee, the job title and, if applicable, the department, as well as the duration of the employment relationship.
  • Short introduction of the company
    It is recommended to briefly introduce the company in 1 to 2 sentences.
  • Job description
    List all the activities the employee performed, starting with the most important one. You can also use bullet points for this purpose.
  • Evaluation of performance
    This is a qualitative assessment of the employee’s performance. Address the willingness, the ability, the expertise, the way of working and the success. Then write an overall assessment. In the case of managers, an evaluation of management performance is also expected.
  • Assessment of behavior
    Evaluate the behavior towards superiors, colleagues and customers resp. Business partners. Also pay attention to the order. Because deviations from it can be interpreted as a hidden negative evaluation.
  • Concluding paragraph
    This consists of the reason for the termination of the employment relationship, an expression of regret, a formula of thanks and wishes for the future. You may only mention the reason for leaving if the employee has explicitly agreed to it.
  • Place, date and stamp
    These components are important because a reference is a document.
  • Signature and function
    Signature should be given by one or two persons superior to the employee, e.g. from the management or personnel department.

Download our free sample with different formulations! With this, you can create a qualified job reference in just 10 minutes.

Free download - 3 job reference samples

Secret codes in the reference – examples of formulations and what they mean

An employer’s reference must be truthful, but also formulated in a benevolent manner. This means that it should not contain any unnecessary negative phrases that would make the employee’s further application more difficult. Since this is often a balancing act, special reference language has developed that is used and understood by experienced HR professionals. Positive appearing formulations are therefore not always meant in this way.

For this purpose, it is important to know that coded formulations according to § 109 para. 2 of the trade regulations are generally not permitted. Some of the secret codes used have therefore been declared inadmissible by the courts. However, certain formulations and practices have become established and are regularly used. For example, the following formulations are common in the performance evaluation, which are based on the usual grades in school:

  • very good : always to the fullest satisfaction
  • good : always to the full satisfaction
  • satisfactory : to the full satisfaction
  • sufficient : on satisfaction
  • unsatisfactory : on the whole to your satisfaction
  • bad : has made an effort

Other details can also convey messages. Keep the following in mind when writing an employer’s reference, also to avoid misunderstandings:

  • In comparison to mediocre evaluations, very good evaluations contain superlatives or the terms "especially", "extraordinarily", "very", "extremely", "always", "at all times" or "always" in decisive places. Also, phrases such as "outstanding", "exceptional" or "to the highest degree" are often used.
  • The expressions "largely" or "by and large," on the other hand, have a pejorative meaning.
  • If self-evident things are listed, for example punctuality or skills essential for the respective job, this is a negative signal.
  • It is also to be judged negatively if unimportant things are emphasized too strongly for the activity carried out.
  • Criticism is often expressed with double negatives. "He was not unmotivated." means z. B., was not particularly motivated.
  • If important parts of the job description, performance or behavior assessment are missing, this will be interpreted negatively.
  • If you write that the employee "was active" or "was active," this gives a better impression than the passive phrases "was employed" or "was employed".

The table shows some formulation examples for the different gradations. This is about the evaluation of expertise.

Grades Sample wording
1 Ms. X has always applied her extraordinarily extensive specialist knowledge in professional practice with the greatest success.
2 Ms. X has always applied her very extensive expertise in professional practice with great success.
3 Ms. X has applied her above-average specialist knowledge with great success in professional practice.
4 Ms. X has successfully applied her specialist knowledge in professional practice.
5 Ms. X has successfully applied her professional knowledge to the greatest possible extent in her professional practice.
6 Ms. X has made every effort to apply her expertise in professional practice.

Concluding paragraph in the reference – three formulation ideas

The concluding paragraph is not a compulsory part of an employer’s reference, but it is an important part of the reference. However, his absence sends a negative signal. Report card codes also come into play here, just as they do for performance and conduct evaluations. The following components belong to the concluding paragraph:

  • Reason for leaving (if the employee has expressly agreed)
  • Regret formula
  • Thank you formula
  • Future wishes

The table shows three examples of wording and their meaning:

Formulation Meaning
Ms. X is leaving us at her own request. We regret her decision very much and thank her for her always outstanding performance. We wish her continued success. Ms. X gave her own notice. The employer was very satisfied with the employee’s performance.
Mr. Y is leaving the company for operational reasons. We regret losing him as an employee and thank him for the good cooperation. We continue to wish him all the best and success for the future. Mr. Y was dismissed for operational reasons. He was a rather mediocre employee. From the fact that "furthermore" is at the beginning of the last sentence and not before "success", it can be concluded that Mr. Y was not particularly successful in this company.
The employment relationship was terminated by mutual agreement. We thank Ms. Z for her cooperation. We wish her all the best for the future, including success. The first sentence can refer to a termination by the company, but also to a termination agreement. The absence of the regret formula is a negative signal. The last sentence expresses that Ms. Z was not successful in this company.

You can find more wording ideas and reference codes for the final paragraph as well as their meaning on our page on sample job references .

Checklist job reference: So you do not forget anything

You have written a reference? Check again with the help of the following tips whether you have thought of everything:

  • Correct paper
    The job reference must be printed on white paper or, if you usually use it, on company stationery.
  • Company data
    If you do not use company letterhead with a pre-printed form, make sure that the name and address of your company are correct.
  • Headline
    Is the heading "Job reference" present?
  • Master data of the employee
    Make sure that the employee’s name and address are correctly stated on the letterhead. Also check the date and place of birth, as well as the beginning and ending dates of employment.
  • Job description
    Have not forgotten any activity? In the case of managers, also indicate the extent of personnel responsibility.
  • Evaluation of performance
    Check whether you have addressed all aspects of the performance appraisal, d. h. Willingness, ability, expertise, working methods and success. Are additionally the total evaluation and with high-level personnel an evaluation of the guidance quality contained?
  • Behavioral assessment
    Have you mentioned the behavior towards superiors, colleagues as well as business partners and also paid attention to the sequence?
  • Concluding paragraph
    Does this contain all the usual components? If the employee has consented to the mention of the reason for resignation?
  • Signature, date, stamp
    Is the date correct, is the signature legible and have you stamped the reference??
  • Formalities
    Except for the heading, boldface, underlining, quotation marks, or. similar emphasis in the reference is not allowed. Stains and damage to the paper are also taboo.
  • Discrimination
    Is the reference free of personal information such as health status, religion, ethnicity or political or. trade union activity?
  • Ambiguities
    Have you inadvertently used secret language that obscures facts, if any?
  • Contradictions
    Are your formulations free of contradictions? This is not the case, for example, if the evaluations suggest a very good employee, but the concluding paragraph conveys a different impression.

The next section summarizes what should not be written in an employer’s reference .

Attention: This must not be included in the reference!

The law and case law exclude certain contents in job references. Pay attention to this, otherwise the employee can claim his right of rectification:

  • Hidden references
    Sometimes secret signs were used in the preparation of job references to convey information in a hidden way, for example dashes and hooks next to the signature. These are prohibited.
  • Illegible signature
    There was a ruling by the Hamm Regional Labor Court in 2016 that declared an illegible signature under the job reference that was not parallel to the text to be inadmissible, as it could also be a derogatory secret sign.
  • Ambiguities
    § 109 Abs. 2 of the Industrial Code prohibits the use of wording that is intended to say something other than what is apparent from its wording. This is not so much the usual reference codes, which paraphrase but do not hide information. Secret codes that uninformed laypersons cannot understand even with careful reading are problematic.
  • Personal
    Information that is not directly related to the employment relationship does not belong in the job reference. These include, for example, health aspects, marital status, ethnicity, religion or party affiliation.
  • Trade union and works council membership
    Exceptions apply here if the employee agrees that his or her membership of the works council should be noted in the reference or if he or she has worked exclusively for the works council for a longer period of time.
  • Sickness and absenteeism
    There are exceptions to this rule as well, namely if the period of absence is a very large part of the total period of employment.

In addition to the finer points of content design and wording, you as an employer must also consider other legal issues. The next section summarizes these.

Legal key data: Employers have these obligations when it comes to job references

Employment references are often the subject of decisions by the labor courts. Therefore, familiarize yourself with the basic legal provisions and follow these tips.

  • Obligation to prepare an employer’s reference
    The right to a reference is laid down for employment relationships in § 109 of the Trade, Commerce and Industry Regulation Act and for employment relationships (civil servants) in § 630 of the German Civil Code (BGB).
  • Simple or qualified employer’s reference
    § 109 Abs. Section 2 of the Trade, Commerce and Industry Regulation Act states that an employee is entitled to a simple reference, but may also request a qualified reference.
  • Formulation and form
    § 109 Abs. 2 of the trade regulations prohibits ambiguities and hidden secret signs. Inadmissible in this context are also quotation marks, bold print, underlining as well as question marks or exclamation marks.
  • Obligation of goodwill
    Case law has repeatedly emphasized the employer’s duty of goodwill. This means that the reference must not unjustifiably disadvantage the employee in his or her further application. Nevertheless, you are obliged to provide a truthful assessment.
  • Transmission of the reference
    § 109 para. 3 of the Trade, Commerce and Industry Regulation Act and Section 630 para. 3 BGB exclude the issuance of the employer’s reference in electronic form. According to a ruling by the Federal Labor Court in 1993, it must be printed on white paper or, if available, on company letterhead paper. The transmission must therefore be made by mail or by personal delivery.
  • Deadline
    If possible, issue an employer’s reference immediately upon termination of employment. In principle, the employee has a claim to it for up to three years thereafter in accordance with Section 195 of the German Civil Code (BGB). However, he can forfeit it even before that if he does not assert it promptly (according to case law 5 to 15 months).
  • Regulations on the employer’s reference in the employment contract
    The obligation to issue a qualified reference does not have to be explicitly stipulated in the employment contract, as it already exists by law. However, it is possible to agree that the assessment criteria are based on standards customary in the industry. Furthermore, a time limit can be agreed upon, after which the employee has no more claims against the employer, which also includes the right to the work certificate.
  • Correction claim
    The employee has a right to correction if the job reference contains errors in terms of content or form. This also includes spelling and grammatical errors. The claim can be forfeited if it is not asserted within a few months.
  • Liability for damages
    You may be liable for damages in connection with references both to employees and to future employers of your former employees. In the first case, there is a risk if you do not fulfill your obligation to prepare the job reference or its correction, or do not do so in time, and the employee suffers disadvantages in his or her application as a result. The second case is conceivable if, against your better judgment, you issue a reference that is too good, for example if the employee was dismissed without notice due to criminal acts, and the subsequent employer suffers damage as a result.
  • Job reference for trainees
    The right to a reference for trainees at the end of the training relationship is governed by Section 16 of the Vocational Training Act. In principle, the same regulations apply as for job references. In any case, the knowledge and skills acquired during the training must be listed.

You still have questions about the reference? The next section answers some FAQs.

FAQ – Frequently asked questions about the employer’s reference

Questions frequently arise in practice in connection with job references. The following answers provide you with some additional tips:

  • When is an employee entitled to a reference?
    Every employee who leaves the company is entitled to a reference. This also applies to short-term employment and internships.
  • Is the employee entitled to a qualified job reference even after an employment relationship lasting only a few weeks?
    This right exists even after a very short employment relationship.
  • Does an employer have to issue an unsolicited job reference??
    According to § 109 trade regulations Abs. 1 sentence 1 and 2, the employee is entitled to a simple job reference, so it can be concluded that the employer should prepare it without being asked to do so. However, the employee must demand a qualified job reference in accordance with sentence 3. This can also be done verbally, without the need for an extra cover letter.
  • Who signs the employer’s reference?
    Two signatures are favorable. In any case, a person superior to the employee must sign it. This can be the employer or a direct supervisor, or both if necessary. The personnel manager can also sign additionally.
  • What are the deadlines in connection with the employer’s reference??
    If the employee has repeatedly asked the employer for a job reference or correction without success, he can set a deadline and enforce it by legal means. The claim exists in principle for a period of three years, but is already forfeited before that time if the employee does not take any action. Shorter limitation periods can be agreed in employment or collective agreements.
  • Is the employee allowed to write the reference himself??
    This is not forbidden, but only recommended for employees who are familiar with the linguistic intricacies of certificate preparation.
  • What leeway do I have with a bad employee?
    On the one hand, you must formulate the job reference in a benevolent manner, but you must also not conceal the truth. Work with the commonly used testimonial codes, which you can also find in our free template.
  • What date does an employer’s reference bear?
    The date should coincide with the last day of the employment relationship or deviate from it by a maximum of four weeks. Longer intervals could raise questions in further applications and put the employee at a disadvantage.
  • At what time are interim references issued?
    If there is legitimate interest, employees can request an interim report at any time. Conceivable situations are a change in the area of responsibility, restructuring, a new supervisor or many years of service without an interim report card.
  • What is meant by the certificate custom?
    Depending on the industry or profession, it is common for certain skills to be mentioned in the job reference. An absence is considered a negative signal. An example of this is the load capacity in stress situations for editors.

Conclusion: Writing a qualified reference

When writing an employer’s reference, you sometimes have to walk the tightrope between the duty of truthfulness and the duty of goodwill. Pay attention to the subtleties of language so that you do not inadvertently express something other than you want to.

It is advisable to write qualified job references to employees, even if they have not yet requested them themselves. Because later it will be more difficult to remember the employee’s performance and behavior.

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