Table of content:

  1. Why is a reference (Arbeitszeugnis) important?
  2. The writing of the employer’s reference must be truthful!
  3. Tips for deciphering the secret codes in your job reference

Are you changing jobs? Then you will need a reference from your previous job. The document, called Arbeitszeugnis is a German speciality – and also quite essential to your future employer.

From your former employer’s point of view, the reference tells him or her more about your work experience, qualifications, and cooperation with colleagues.

But be careful! Not every good-sounding reference is good. The documents sometimes contain certain code phrases that usually only a personnel officer can see through.

We have taken a closer look at the hidden messages.

Why is a reference (Arbeitszeugnis) important?

When you change jobs or your employment contract ends, you should ask your employer for a job reference. This formal document, which takes the form of a letter, describes and certifies the work you have done and assesses your skills and conduct throughout your employment contract.

Keep the document in a safe place. In Germany, companies request a letter almost all the time to know about the applicant’s professional past.

Job references are therefore almost always required by companies when you apply for a new job. One Arbeitszeugnis per work experience is sufficient, and you can send it as an attachment with your CV and cover letter – or submit it later if the new employer asks for it.

Good to know:

  • Companies are obliged to issue employer references.
  • In some cases, you have to request the document yourself.
  • The human resources department or your supervisor will write the document.
  • In some cases, however, you do it yourself – the company must confirm the content.
  • A signature from the company is a must.
  • Foreign employees usually do not have such a document – a letter of recommendation or contact with your former employer or colleague is sufficient in most cases.

The writing of the employer’s reference must be truthful!

It is legally forbidden to mention anything negative and thus restrictive for the employee’s career in the Arbeitszeugnis. On the other hand, the letter must be objective and truthful. This is quite a complicated situation if the employee has not shown a brilliant performance so far.

What to do? Human resources managers have found a legal way out of so-called codes. Many positive-sounding sentences immediately show the trained HR manager how to assess the applicant’s performance.

Tips for deciphering the secret codes in your job reference

Recruiters may use a variety of phrases to “rate” the quality of the employee’s work.

Superlatives are often used for positive evaluations, as is the word “always”.

  • ↓ He made an effort to do his job
  • ↓ He has done his work to our satisfaction
  • ↓ He has always worked well, to our satisfaction
  • ↑ He has always worked very well, to our satisfaction
  • ↑ He has always worked very well, to our complete satisfaction.

To encode a lack of experience or quality, HR professionals simply leave out important information or certain aspects of behaviour.


Customer Care Agents should have sufficient communication skills. If this is not mentioned in the cover letter, the writer of the reference means that the employee does not have the right skills for this type of position. The trained eye understands the hint.

Our tip:

Check your Arbeitszeugnis as soon as you receive it. If you can decipher the hidden codes and find negative wording, you can also ask the HR department to change the reference. Ideally, you should also always have an interim reference issued when you change bosses. That way, you avoid the risk of getting a bad reference if you don’t get along with your new supervisor.

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