Apply for a job reference: How and when to file a job reference claim in Germany in 2022


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In Germany, employees are entitled to a job reference certificate after termination of employment. If an employer does not fulfill this obligation, a former employee can sue their previous employer in order to get the job reference. 

If the job reference certificate contains formal errors or unjustified formulations, those affected can obtain a correction of the certificate – including a better grade.

job reference

Understanding your job reference in Germany

  • A good reference can open doors, a bad reference can block the dream job.
  • Employees have a legal right to a benevolent, appropriate reference.
  • If employees do not receive a reference or an unjustifiably bad reference, they can sue for a new reference with an appropriate grade.
  • Those affected must complain within 3 months of the end of the contract.
  • Depending on the case, the burden of proof lies with the employee or the employer in court (Chapter 4).
  • Those affected can consult an employment lawyer. He knows the relevant wording in references and enforces an appropriate reference.

Why do employees in Germany sue their former employers for a job reference?

If your employment relationship ends, your employer must issue you with a truthful job reference certificate within 2 to 3 weeks. You have a legal right.

If you do not receive an assessment, you can sue for the work reference. If the letter is formally incorrect or you find the assessment unjustified, you can sue for a rectification of your certificate. After all, the certificate can decide whether you get your dream job.

With the testimonial action you have the chance to get a better final grade. If the final grade does not correspond to your performance, the job reference is not truthful and therefore illegal.

You cannot sue for certain testimonial formulations or the addition of a closing formula. However, you can challenge inadmissible formulations and request aspects that have not been taken into account.

Important: If you sue for the correction, the employer may not change your certificate to your detriment. Your testimony cannot deteriorate in the course of the lawsuit.

What the German law says

The following to German court judgments related to references in favor of the employee:

  • The employer refused to mention in the job reference that a journalist was very resilient (BAG 12.8.08, 9 AZR 632/07).
  • The wording “We are happy to be at the disposal of any future employer […] with regard to inquiries about the quality of […] the work performed” suggests that the performance assessment in the job reference does not correspond to the actual performance (ArbG Herford 1.4.09, 2 Ca 1502/ 08).

Why a good job reference in German can mean success

A good and appropriate job reference can have a positive effect on your professional career. Applicants who present good references can increase the chance of being invited to an interview by their preferred employer. Those affected can therefore seriously consider suing for a missing certificate or obtaining a correction.

If you are not satisfied with your job reference, you can sue your employer to get it changed. It therefore makes a lot of sense to rely on the expertise of an employment lawyer and have the job reference checked.

job reference

Frequently Asked Questions about a job reference in Germany

1. What is a work or job reference?

A job reference is a document that provides information about the work performed by the employee. On the one hand, it describes the job he performed and, on the other hand, it states how long he worked in the company. In addition, the quality of the employee’s work is assessed.

A job reference may influence your further professional career. In the worst case, it could be the reason for the rejection of an applicant. If the employer has not correctly assessed the employee’s performance, this can have legal consequences for the employee.

2. What is the actual purpose of a job reference?

The better the job reference, the more it can help the employee with further professional challenges. A job reference is a very important document, especially for a staff council that wants to hire new employees. Attention is often paid to how motivated he was, whether he was reliable and punctual or what problems he had in the company. Therefore employers must ensure that the job reference is completely correct and legally secure to avoid being sued.

3. Who is entitled to an employment reference?

If the employee has a permanent employment relationship, the employer is obliged to issue a reference. However, if the employee has only worked for another company for a short time or for a limited period of time, the employer does not have to issue a reference. Otherwise, the employee has a right to it according to § 109 and § 603 of the trade regulations.

In order to receive a reference from the employer, the employee must request this. He has three years to do this, after which his right to a reference expires. As long as no reference is requested, the employer is not obliged to hand over a reference of his own accord.

4. What must be observed from a legal point of view?

A job reference must correspond to the actual achievements – so the employee must not be portrayed too positively or too negatively. The activities carried out must be listed in full, no matter how minor they may seem. As an employer, make sure that there is clarity and that there is no incomprehensible or misleadingly expressed text content.

A work reference must also not result in any disadvantages for an employee. In addition, periods of illness may not appear in it, provided that they are proven. A reason for termination may only be included with the consent of the employee. If an employment reference is not created correctly, the employee is entitled to changes and can even sue for this right. The employer would then have to have a new job reference drawn up for him.

5. What are the different forms of job references in Germany?

If you now have a job reference created, you can choose between a simple or qualified job reference. Both differ in terms of content and structure.

The simple job reference is usually quite short, as it only contains the most important information. Half an A4 page is therefore not unusual.

The qualified job reference formally corresponds to the simple one, but also contains detailed information about and an assessment of the employee and his or her performance. Unfortunately, conflicts can sometimes arise here if the assessments of the employer and employee differ about their performance. Nowadays, a qualified job reference is usually required.

6. How should a job reference be properly structured?

The simple job reference includes a letterhead with the employer’s details, the employee’s name, their date and place of birth, the duration and type of employment, a statement of completion, place and date, as well as the name of the company and the signature of the issuer.

The qualified job reference has a similar structure, but also assesses the skills, performance and commitment of the employee. An assessment of the willingness and ability to work, assessment of the way of working, naming of special skills and knowledge as well as naming of any leadership skills of the employee are additional points that should be considered if you want to have a qualified job reference issued.

7. How should you handle errors and deficiencies in a job reference?

In Germany, a job reference is an official document that must meet certain formal and content-related criteria.

Although the issuing employer is responsible for the correctness of the job reference, it is the employee’s task to draw the employer’s attention to errors and to request that they be rectified.

Incompleteness of the job reference is one of the most common mistakes – whether due to ignorance or the deliberate concealment of below-average performance – individual passages that are not credible, language that is unusual for job references, ambiguous or contradictory wording, and stylistic and spelling mistakes.

8. Why should you let a lawyer create a job reference?

The job reference can make the employee’s professional advancement easier or more difficult. Therefore, as an employer, you should take your obligation to provide evidence seriously – and expect that the employee will complain about an incorrect job reference and, if necessary, take legal action. In this case, he could even be awarded compensation. For this reason, the possibility should be considered of having an employment reference prepared by a lawyer who specializes in employment references.

job reference

Deadlines of the testimony action

Your entitlement to a job reference in Germany may expire 4 to 6 months after the end of your employment. If this grace period expires, your former employer is not obligated to issue a certificate. The court may dismiss the lawsuit.

In principle, however, you can sue for the job reference retrospectively within the statutory limitation period of 3 years. By the end of this period, you will no longer be entitled to a certificate.


Some employers add a clause in the employment contract which stipulates a cut-off period which means that the right to have the certificate issued and corrected can expire after just 3 months.

Make sure you make arrangements with your employer to pick up your job reference. The employer is not obliged to send you the certificate by post. On the contrary: According to Section 269 Paragraph 1, Paragraph 2 of the German Civil Code , you must pick up your job reference from the company.

How to effectively sue your former employer in Germany for a job reference in 5 easy steps

If you are dissatisfied with your job reference, you can first seek an out-of- court settlement with your former employer. Remind him of the job reference, talk to your boss about incorrect wording or an unjustified assessment. If your new employer finds out about the circumstances of the end of the contract beforehand, an amicable agreement would be to your advantage.

If the employer refuses to write you an appraisal despite a reminder letter and a personal interview, your only option is to file a testimony.

The lawsuit process is as follows:

1. File a lawsuit

In order to assert your right to a job reference, you must file a lawsuit in good time. You or your lawyer sends the statement of claim to the relevant labor court – depending on where the company is based or where the focus of the activity is.

The statement of claim should contain all relevant information and documents on the matter. It is important that you provide a detailed justification for your claim to a certificate.

Justify exactly what needs to be corrected in the certificate, where there are formal errors and why you consider your assessment to be unjustified and disadvantageous. You are not entitled to specific wording, but you can make suggestions.

2. Quality deadline

The court is also initially striving for an agreement between the parties without a court hearing.

Depending on the cause of action:

  • No job reference or an incorrect job reference received or change requests ignored: The burden of proof lies with the employer.
    He must prove in court why he did not give a testimony or why the letter is correct.
  • You want to sue for a better job reference: You bear the burden of proof to prove why you deserve the better assessment. Interim
    references can be very helpful here if your performance was rated better in them than in the reference. Because the employer should always use the previous interim reference as a guide.

If the quality negotiations lead to a compromise on wording and evaluation in the certificate, this can also be financially advantageous for both sides. The proceedings ended before the court hearing, and the lawsuit lapses. There are no court costs .

If you cannot come to an amicable agreement, the subsequent hearing in court will take about 4 months.

3. Negotiation

If you cannot reach an amicable agreement with your employer on issuing or correcting your references, the court will set a hearing date.

That it comes to this, however, is rather the exception. The employer is usually interested in reaching a quick agreement.

This is followed by the hearing of evidence in the lawsuit. This step can be necessary above all if you want to sue for a better job reference.

4. Judgment

Either the court decides in the judgment that the job reference in question is formally correct and appropriate – then you have to accept the bad assessment. Or the court will confirm your claim to a certificate and oblige the employer to issue and correct it.

5. No certificate received? Penalty payment demand of the court

If the convicted employer still does not issue you a certificate, you can turn to the labor court again. This demands a fine from the employer if he does not fulfill his obligation as soon as possible.

This also applies if the employer has been ordered to change the assessment and does not implement this.

job reference

Have your job reference checked: The secret language of job references in a quick check

In hardly any other area are certain formulations of such importance. That’s why it can be important to analyze the meaning behind it in a quick check – sometimes not obvious at first glance. This could always be the first step when you have your reference checked.

So means for example:

German: „Sie hatte ein gutes Einfühlungsvermögen in die Belange der Belegschaft“

English: “She had good empathy for the concerns of the workforce”

not that the employee showed particularly positive social behavior, but rather that she preferred flirting to working.

Also the wording

German: „Er schied in beiderseitigem Einvernehmen aus“

English: “He left by mutual consent”

does not bode well because it indicates that there was a dispute between the employer and the employee that led to the termination of the employment relationship.

The “classic” of benevolent-sounding formulations is probably

German: „Er hat sich im Rahmen seiner Möglichkeiten bemüht“,

English: “He did his best to the best of his ability,”

which means nothing other than that the required services were not provided because the employee lacks the necessary qualifications.

The hidden grades in job references in Germany

If you have a job reference checked, the wording of the reference can be translated into school grades. Depending on how satisfied your employer was with you, he will use very specific words:

1 – sehr gut (very good) “…has always fulfilled the tasks assigned to him to our complete satisfaction”

2 – gut (good) “…has always fulfilled the tasks assigned to him to our complete satisfaction”

3 – befriedigend (satisfactory) “… has fulfilled the tasks assigned to him to our complete satisfaction”

4 – ausreichend (sufficient) “…has given Himall tasks fulfilled to our satisfaction”

5 – mangelhaft (poor) “…has largely fulfilled the tasks assigned to him to our satisfaction”

The most common mistakes in a job reference

Errors often appear in the reference. That is why it’s important to get your reference checked by a professional. These mistakes can harm you and possibly make your job reference unusable.

1. Ambiguous formulations

In Germany this “secret language” has been in use for a long time. Not everyone can easily decipher the code. Additionally, errors can also quickly occur on the part of the inexperienced employer. 

At times, wording that is actually intended to be positive certifies that the employee performed poorly. If you have a job reference checked, special attention must be paid to ambiguous wording.

2. The courtesy reference

A work reference that is bursting with superlatives can also backfire! A so-called “courtesy certificate” can indicate that the employer only wanted to get rid of the employee as quickly as possible. The HR manager responsible for the application could therefore take a negative view of an overly praiseworthy job reference.

3. Incompleteness of the certificate

If important information is missing in the certificate, it can quickly give the impression that this was deliberately omitted to make you appear in a better light. Therefore, while you have your job reference checked, you must ensure that the usual structure is maintained.

The structure of a good job reference in Germany

  • Headline
  • Introductory sentence including master data of the employee
  • Job description
  • Evaluation of the performance including special successes
    Assessment of Social Behavior
    Reason for termination of employment
  • Final sentence including wishes for the future
  • Place, Date, Signature
    Company data and contact person

The quality of a job reference can often only be determined by a professional. If you have any doubts about your job reference, it is worth having it checked; after all it is about your professional future.

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