Before I came to Germany, I had no idea what these reference letters were all about. Since I have lived in Germany for many years and changed a few jobs, I have a pretty good understanding of the reference letter in Germany.

Meanwhile I have collected a few reference letters which I will (partly) share in this article.

Key takeaways

  1. In this article, you will know that there are two different types of reference letters in Germany.
    2. You will also learn what those reference letters usually consist of and what to watch out for.
    3. Reference letters play an essential role in any application, as they show your progress in your career and let new employers know about your personal development and social skills.
    4. If you receive a reference letter from an employer, you should watch out for specific formulations.
    5. Further below, you will find some examples of formulations and their true meaning.

Let’s dive deeper into the answer to what reference letters indeed are in Germany.

What is the reference letter in Germany?

In Germany, reference letters or “Arbeitszeugnisse” are common in any application. While still working for your employer, you usually get the reference letter in Germany either:

  • on request as a “Zwischenzeugnis”
  • or an interim report

Or you can get it automatically from your employer as soon as you quit your current job.

Ask for a reference letter when your supervisor changes

Another common way to ask for a reference letter is in the situation if your supervisor changes. You should request an “Arbeitszeugnis” from your old supervisor.

A reference letter in Germany is a way to tell future employers more about the employee’s performance. I refer to some specific “code” used in an “Arbeitszeugnis” further below this article. Employees usually undergo some development during their career. So it’s good to see that reflected in the letter.

How long is the reference letter in Germany?

The document can be 2 – 3 pages long in typical cases.

It should include a simple list of tasks or tools you did during your employment. Nevetheless, this is the worst form of a reference letter.

Please ask for a detailed written letter from your employer that describes about:

  • your daily tasks and overall performance
  • personal development
  • and how you work with superiors and colleagues

Shorter or extended letter of recommendation in Germany?

The first, shorter version is called an “einfaches Arbeitszeugnis.”

The more extended version is often referred to as “qualifiziertes Arbeitszeugnis” in Germany.

So if you are about to leave your current position, request a qualified reference letter. Do this when you hand over your resignation letter to your employer.

Also, keep in mind that reference letters from the previous employer are likely to provide information about you as an applicant.

Job references must always be truthfully and correspond to objective facts!

Do employers ask for recommendation letters in Germany?

Employers do not necessarily ask for recommendations letters in Germany. However it’s better if you have those at hand when applying for a new job. It’s not mandatory, but it supports your career path by providing more information.

“Einfache Arbeitszeugnisse” or simple reference letters are not very meaningful for your future employer. However your future employer may call your old employer to ask some more specific questions about you.

As mentioned above, the future employer could ask for more information such as:

  • your personal experience
  • performance
  • and behavior at work

But, there are some rules in Germany regarding privacy, which don’t allow asking or answering all questions that might come up during such a conversation.

If you are handing in an “Arbeitszeugnis” alongside an application, it should always be in German.

Ask your German employer for a reference letter (Arbeitszeugnis) when leaving your job

If you already work for a German employer, the best way to ask for a reference letter is to include the request in your written resignation letter.

My recommendation is to specify which type of recommendation letter you would like to receive:

  • either an “einfaches Arbeitszeugnis”
  • or a “qualifiziertes Arbeitszeugnis”

I am happy to deliver a qualified, longer reference letter to my future employers. I am confident that I did an excellent job during my last employment, and I’d like them to know about it. 

Structure of the reference letter in Germany

First, we must differentiate between a simple reference letter and a qualified reference letter in Germany. So let me provide an example for each of them.

Simple reference letters or “einfache Arbeitszeugnisse“

In addition to personal data, type, and duration of employment, the simple certificate contains a factual description of the tasks and activities. An evaluation of the quality of work or an assessment of behavior, typical for certificates, does not occur.

So, as you might guess, the structure of a simple reference letter in Germany is quite simple.

Letterhead / Company details

Employment references are prepared on company stationery and contain the company’s official letterhead. This includes the address.

Headline or Subject-Line

The heading “Job reference” or “Simple job reference” indicates at a glance that this is an important document. Important: The reference does not contain an address field with the employee’s address.

Introduction / Personal details

Here, specific information is provided on the employee so that the reference can subsequently be assigned:

  • title
  • first name
  • last name
  • date of birth
  • place of birth
  • date of entry into the company

Precise job description

Enumeration of the employee’s duties, responsibilities, and areas of application

position in the company

a precise description of the activities in the order of importance

Optional: Closing formula

Thanks, regrets, future wishes

Place, date, and signature

The more extended version of an “Arbeitszeugnis” is the following.

Qualified reference letter in Germany or “qualifiziertes Arbeitszeugnis“

A qualified reference letter should contain all the formal aspects mentioned below and comment sufficiently on the employee’s performance and conduct. The termination and regret formula is omitted only in the interim reference.

All formulations and sections in an employer’s reference can usually be translated into a grade. If the wording in the reference is precise or corresponds to the standards of the reference language, the overall assessment is generally relatively positive.

To help you understand common examples for formulations or codes used in a reference letter from German employers, I included some examples below this paragraph. But for now, let me give you an example of the structure of a qualified reference letter. By the way, all reference letters are official documents and printed on company stationery.

Headline and Introduction

A qualified reference begins with a heading indicating that it is a qualified reference. In addition, the date of employment is mentioned. They don’t include the employee’s address in the reference.

Description of tasks

The job description in the reference – also known as the position, job or activity description – lists all the main activities you have performed. The more critical activities should be included first. The job description in the reference can be presented both as a list with indents or bullet points and in formulated sentences as continuous text. The bullet point type often appears more transparent in the reference and is particularly suitable for longer tasks or job descriptions. In addition, the job description in the reference should also clearly show your competencies, your responsibilities, and the stages of your professional development within the company to date.

Appraisal of performance

At this point in the job reference, it is a matter of evaluating how you have performed your duties. As a rule, this includes the following aspects and key points:

  • Willingness to work (Want)
  • Ability to work (can)
  • Work success and results
  • Working method and working style
  • Concrete and outstanding work results
  • Leadership performance
  • Overall satisfaction statement

Assessment of social behavior

The job reference also assesses social skills and other personal and social-behavioral aspects. It also ends with a summary. The behavior towards superiors, colleagues, employees, customers, and business partners should be considered. Other social behaviors and competencies such as discretion, honesty, and integrity may also be included.

Completion formula

This is followed by why the reference is issued or why the employee leaves the company, and on whose initiative this happens.

Thanks and regrets formula

The termination formula is closely linked to a thank you and regret formula. In this, the employer expresses his thanks for the work performed and understanding of the decision made, possibly also a recommendation to the potential employer or even a statement of re-employment. The thank you and regret formula can significantly enhance an employer’s reference. In the case of an interim reference, the “regret” is naturally omitted.

Future wishes

Shortly before the end, good wishes for professional development and personal life are included in the employer’s reference.

Place of issue, date, and signature

At the end of the reference letter, only the place of issue, date, and signature from your superior is required.

The codes used in Arbeitszeugnis: Examples

As previously mentioned, some “codes” or wording in German job references may sound positive or less bad, but they are not. However, keep in mind: this can be tricky even for someone in Germany, but here are a few examples to look out for.

Here you will find some examples of formulations that might appear in an “Arbeitszeugnis” that may have a completely different meaning.

  • “He was quickly popular with customers.”
    Actual meaning: “He made too many concessions too quickly.”
  • “He made an effort to meet requirements.”
    Actual meaning: “The employee was a zero.”
  • “She set about the tasks assigned to her with great vigor.”
    Actual meaning: “But don’t ask how chaotic it was!”
  • “She applied herself within the limits of her abilities.”
    Actual meaning:  “I’m afraid she’s completely incompetent.”
  • “By her punctuality, she set a good example.”
    Actual meaning: “Unfortunately, there was nothing more than punctuality.”
  • “She knew how to delegate all tasks successfully.”

Actual meaning: “She was lazy and skillfully shifted the work to colleagues.”

You can find more examples on the website of karrierebibel.de that are commonly used.

Coming from abroad? Ask your employer for a letter of recommendation for Germany

If you are coming from abroad, it can be specifically helpful to have a letter of recommendation for Germany at hand from your current employer. Most likely, your current employer is not aware of the structure and content of a German reference letter, so it might be helpful to give them some guidance before they start writing.

Conclusion

I highly recommend collecting as many reference letters as possible throughout your career if you consider moving to Germany. As you can see, there are some elements in a reference letter that you should watch out for. And of course this depends on whether you get a qualified or straightforward reference letter.

However my advice would be the following:

As long as you don’t have enough experience, ask a German friend or one of your colleagues to read it through and tell you whether there is something strange in it or not. I hope you find this article about reference letters for Germany helpful.

As you can see, many documents can support your success in getting a new job in Germany. That is why you should include in your job application in Germany following documents: school to university degrees, vocational training certificates, reference letters from former employers, and references for your voluntary work.


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About the Author

Alex Z.

Alex works in product management and has been living in Germany for more than 12 years. He has been speaking German for more than 22 years. His passion is to help people, who want to live a good life in a German speaking country, to learn German super fast. Want to connect with him? Send him an email and he'll get in touch with you.

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