How to write or understand job references

Getting a reference for a new job is really important, and in most cases, an employer will provide one. Not providing a reference could seem disastrous for the applicant, and they may implicate you if they do not get a job. Providing an unfair reference is also unethical and unfair towards the future employer. It is helpful to know how to write a job reference truthfully but in such a way that you cannot be sued for slander, for example. So, is an employee on the safe side if their job reference mentions “solid professional knowledge,” “refreshing openness,” or “overall flawless behaviour”? It depends on the context, and any ambiguous phrasing may be cloaking some subtle criticism.

In principle, mentioning a positive characteristic does not in itself have to be a positive job reference, since the employer is obliged to cover a number of issues when considering the contents of a job reference. In most cases, the assessments in the areas of work ability, willingness, endurance, working method, commitment, success, and potential only acquire value when formulations such as “always,” “extraordinary,” or “very best” are added. Conversely, words such as “trying,” “within his or her abilities,” or “as far as possible” should send alarm bells ringing. In this article you will learn how to assess and correctly formulate a job reference, and what you should watch out for.

Tip

The employer is legally obliged to issue a fair and correct job reference. If wording is untrue or incorrect, your ex-employee can file charges against you.

Job reference “codes” – a bit like school grades

Job references could also, somewhat harshly, be called reports – reminiscent of school reports. The language in a reference can also be decoded much in the same way as a school report would be. Even when these words are just slipped into a general statement, they could be referring to this scale.

Excellent

  • “He has always performed the duties assigned to him to our complete satisfaction.”
  • “She achieved outstanding results and showed extraordinary commitment.”
  • “They have excellent and well-founded expertise.”
  • “She always worked with the utmost care and precision, even under difficult conditions.”
  • “His interactions with colleagues, superiors, and customers have always been courteous, friendly, and correct.”

Good

  • “He has always carried out the tasks assigned to him to our complete satisfaction.”
  • “She achieved best results and showed great commitment.”
  • “They have very good and well-founded specialist knowledge.”
  • “She always worked with the utmost care and precision.”
  • “His interactions with colleagues, superiors, and customers have always been impeccable and exemplary.”

Acceptable

  • "He has performed the duties assigned to him to our complete satisfaction."
  • "She achieved very good results and showed commitment."
  • "He has solid and well-founded expertise."
  • "She worked conscientiously and reliably."
  • "Their interactions with colleagues, superiors, and customers has always been exemplary."

Sufficient

  • "He has performed the duties assigned to him to our satisfaction."
  • "It achieved results of work that met the requirements."
  • "He has solid expertise."
  • "She worked properly and flawlessly overall."
  • "All in all, his interactions with colleagues, superiors, and customers were flawless."

Poor

  • "He has performed the duties assigned to him to our satisfaction to the greatest extent possible."
  • "She usually achieved results that met the requirements."
  • "He has basic expertise."
  • "She worked to the best of her ability with care and accuracy."
  • "His interactions with colleagues, superiors, and customers were correct."

Unsatisfactory

  • "He has endeavoured to perform the duties assigned to him to our satisfaction."
  • "They have made every effort to achieve the required work results."
  • "He showed understanding and interest in his field."
  • "She tried to work reliably."
  • "His interactions with colleagues, superiors, and customers were unobjectionable."

Codes in job references for personality and behaviour

In addition to the wording in the job reference there are other hidden hints. These usually refer to a specific misconduct or character trait that a later employer should be warned of by codes in the employer's reference. As these examples will show, caution is always called for with ambiguous statements – and it might be that these are masking a criticism. This is not always the case, but it is good to double check the context when reading a statement you don’t know what to make of, or are considering how to write the job reference you’ve been asked for.

It should be noted, however, that a job reference must not contain any features or wording intended to convey a hidden message about the employee. Topics that should never be included in a job reference are warnings, alcohol consumption, unemployment, disabilities, works union membership, as well as time off, illness, parental leave, and private information.

Legal information on how to write job references

In addition to the prohibited comments in job references, there are other legal conditions that employers and employees should observe. If an employee is guilty of embezzlement or the theft of company property, the current employer is obliged to write a corresponding notice – albeit as a code – on the job reference. Otherwise, you may be liable to pay compensation to the new employer and, in case of doubt, pay compensation if the employee concerned is caught stealing again at the future place of work.

End of employment

End of employment on a date in the middle of a month generally indicates immediate firing, or end of employment. However, references expressing regret for the loss of the employee may mean that this was through no fault of the employee, and there are many reasons an employee may have to leave abruptly. Concluding remarks such as these express that:

  • “We thank him for his extraordinary achievements and his high level of commitment to the company and regret losing him as an employee. We wish him all the best for his future career and continued success."
  • “With her departure, we are losing an extraordinarily committed employee, which we very much regret. We wish her all the best for her professional future and her future life and continued success."
  • “We very much regret his decision, thank him for the way we worked together, and wish him all the best and much success for the future.”

Please note the legal disclaimer relating to this article.