Wednesday 24 April 2013



While in  the UK or US an employee will normally write character references as addresses at the end of his CV when they want to leave a job , this is not the modus operandi in German speaking countries (Germany, Switzerland and Austria). Typically at the end of a contract, or when an employee resigns from his post, he or she is legally entitled to obtain a written reference which he or she also has full access to. When applying for jobs he then inserts the reference at the back of his application portfolio.

This represents a special challenge to the writer of such a reference, since there are strict legal guidelines regarding what he can write.

In Germany Section 109 of the Industrial Code (Gewerbeordnung) states

 § 109 Employers Reference
(1) The employee is entitled to a written reference at the termination of his/her employment relationship. The reference must at least contain (simple reference) details on the nature and duration of his/her employment. The employee may also demand that additional details be provided  regarding performance and conduct within the employment relationship (qualified reference).
(2) The reference must be clear and understandable. It must not contain any features or formulations that are intended to make statements about the employee other than that which follows from its appearance or wording.
(3) The reference may not be granted in electronic form.
In Switzerland the requirement is covered in the fifth part of the Civil Code under the Code of Obligations

Art. 330a
1. The employee may at any time request from the employer a reference
concerning the nature and the duration of the employment relationship,
the quality of his work and his conduct.

2. At the employee’s express request the reference must be limited to
the nature and duration of the employment relationship.
In Austria the obligation is covered under the General Civil Code (ABGB; § 1163) as well as the Employment Law (AngG; § 39). Unlike Switzerland and Germany however, one is only entitled to demand a simple reference.    


All this means that employees also have the right to return the reference for revision if there is anything in it that they don't like or feel is misrepresenting.

In an attempt to combat this problem a system of coded statements has evolved to indicate how an employee might have performed on his job. On their own they all appear positive, but what is actually meant can be something quite different.

Although in its native country the system has somewhat been compromised due to more and more people becoming aware of it, it still remains in use, and translators need to be aware of it. Moreover, the translator needs a clear understanding of the relationship between the client and the translator. For agencies, project managers also need to be aware of the issues and communicate exactly what is needed to the translator. If the client is a company who is screening employees, then they will definitely want to know what the intended meaning actually is. If on the other hand the client is a private individual who wants his applications portfolio translated, it is likely that he would have no major problem with a more literal style of translation.

It is also quite likely that an employer outside of these countries would prefer a telephone reference anyway, making the translation of a written reference a moot activity.

And not all testimonials are prepared in this coded manner. A good proportion are just written with honest praise. The translator also needs to be aware of this and check for the signs.  

Moreover, any certification of such a translation would also be complicated. A literal translation would almost certainly be adequate for a prospective employee, but  a screening employer should also be made aware of what these intended meanings are.


Here is an example of how the overall performance is conveyed

Der Arbeitnehmer hat die ihm übertragenen Aufgaben
stets zu unserer vollsten Zufriedenheit
stets zu unserer vollen Zufriedenheit
zu unserer vollen Zufriedenheit
zu unserer Zufriedenheit
im Großen und Ganzen zufriedenstellend
mit großem Fleiß und Interesse

The employee fulfilled the duties assigned to him
always to our utmost satisfaction
always to our full satisfaction
to our full satisfaction
to our satisfaction
overall to our satisfaction
with great diligence and interest

Excellent (1 or A)
Good (2 or B)
Satisfactory (3 or C)
Adequate (4 or D)
Poor (5 or E)
Unsatisfactory (6 or F)

I have put the english translations in for guidance only. However, even if they appear somewhat "germanified", I would tend to use these translations since they do provide some direct reference to the original. 

Often one needs experts to decode the meaning of many coded statements, the website provides a whole range of statements that are used to describe an employees performance, categorised according to grade, but even this list is not comprehensive. 

Here are some more examples:

GER: Sie zeigte stets Engagement für Arbeitnehmerinteressen außerhalb der Firma

ENG: She always showed commitment to worker's issues outside the company. 

WHAT IT MEANS: She went on strike

GER: Er trat engagiert für die Interessen der Kollegen ein

ENG: He was committed to representing the interests of his colleagues

WHAT IT MEANS: He was on the works committee (Betriebsrat)

GER: Bei Kunden war sie schnell beliebt

ENG: Customers quickly endeared themselves to her

WHAT IT MEANS: She admitted too many faults and had no negotiation skills

GER: Er war seinen Mitarbeitern jederzeit ein verständnisvoller Vorgesetzter

ENG: He was always an understanding superior to his deputies

WHAT IT MEANS: He could not assert himself and was not respected

GER: Sie hat mit ihrer geselligen Art zur Verbesserung des Betriebsklimas beigetragen

ENG: With her convivial manner she always helped to improve the atmosphere in the workplace

WHAT IT MEANS: She got drunk on the job

The statement „war bemüht“ (endeavouring) or "bestrebt war" (striven)  should never appear, with both being a sign of total incompetence. 

However, a harmless statement such as "er war sehr hilfsbereit" (he was very helpful) is in contrast an absolute praise. 

GER: Das Verhalten gegenüber Kollegen war einwandfrei

ENG: His conduct towards his colleagues was faultless

WHAT IT MEANS: His conduct towards his superiors on the other hand took a lot to be desired 

For employees with responsibilities over monetary assets the phrase "Ehrlichkeit" (honesty) should be mentioned.

The date of an employment reference might also harbour information. If it is anything other than the end or the ides of the month it could be a sign of an immediate dismissal.

As can be seen, not everything is what it seems to be. Any wrong formulation can have negative consequences for someone looking for a job without him even being aware of it.

An employer who doesn't want to misrepresent an individual as an alcoholic should therefore never state. 

"Er stand stets voll hinter uns!" (Intended: he always stood by us, Perceived: He always stood drunk behind us !!).


Dr. Julian P. Keogh

1 comment:

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