Grades in an Employment Reference

How many different grades are used?

The established German literature on employment references lists up to 6 grades, which reflect the German school system: from 1 = very good to 6 = inadequate.
Regarding the creation of employment references, most authors narrow this down to grades 1 to 5 – and an (as of yet) small number have dispensed with grade 5 and work with grade 4 as worst grade in employment references.

We align ourselves with reference writers of the latter group. Why?

  • If an employee receives a reference identifying them through evaluations of grades 3 and 4 as malperformer, a more differentiating assessment of their substandard performance is not necessary.
  • Our employment reference agency – the Zeugnisfabrik – classifies most formulations of grade 5 as a violation of the dictate of benevolence.
  • As long as more than 75% of employment references in Germany are formulated in at least grade 2, we only need two more grades below that at most.

What is the Grade Average?

Experts in disagreement

Ask several experts: a lawyer, a recruiter, a staff manager, an executive, an employee representative, the author of a specialist book – you will get a very diverse set of opinions!
  Ask two experts – and you will receive three answers!

Labor courts adjudicate on this matter as follows:

  1. Grade 3 is the average.
 According to decisions of the high court, it is considered the average grade in employment references.
  2. If the employee wishes for a better evaluation, they will have to verify their claim to it with legally justifiable facts.
  3. If the employer wishes to issue a worse evaluation, they will have to provide substantiated facts.

Reality proves to be different:

Grade 2 is the experienced average – more than three quarters of all German employment references are formulated in grade 2 or better. Some sources are even speaking of percentages of more than 85%!

Our response as reference writers:

We are facing a challenge, in particular with employees evaluated as average or less.
At this point, the discrepancy between jurisdiction and practice solidifies most notably.

We orient ourselves closer to reality and develop a fair and appreciative solution in each individual case.
 Optimal results will be possible, if the executive fills in the assessment sheet as thoroughly as possible.

„We orient ourselves close to reality and develop a fair and appreciative solution in each individual case.“

Grades in Employment References and their Meaning

Juxtaposition of the recorded grades and the observed contemporary practice by the example of the universally known formulation „stets zur vollsten Zufriedenheit“ (“always to our fullest satisfaction”).
Please consider: In English, the lived practice can only be compared to a limited extent with the German one, as we do not have any traditional/recognized standard wordings here.

Grade Overview

  Formulation   Jurisdiction   Contemporary practice
stets zu unserer vollsten Zufriedenheit Grade 1 (= very good) Grade 1 (top performer)
stets zu unserer vollen Zufriedenheit Grade 2 (= good) Grade 2 (good employee)
stets zu unserer Zufriedenheit        oder
zu unserer vollen Zufriedenheit
Grade 3 (= satisfactory, average grade) Grade 3 (below-average employee)
zu unserer Zufriedenheit Grade 4 (= adequate) Grade 4 (malperformer, not satisfactory, corresponds to the former Grade 5)
im Großen und Ganzen zu unserer Zufriedenheit Grade 5 (= inadequate, not satisfactory)
(see above "Grade 4")

 *) For more than ten years, formulations in Grade 5 have not been observed in the Zeugnisfabrik in employment references sent to us for assessment. We classify a lot of these formulations as contradictory to the dictate of benevolence and, as a matter of principle, will not employ them in our work.

**) We usually represent grade 4 by applying the technique of „loud silence“. Grade 4 is only formulated upon express request, after we have pointed out to the client the necessity of the existence of legally justifiable facts.

What Makes an Employment Reference Good or Bad?

And What Constitutes the Best References?

The overall impression of a reference always matters first…

…before it is examined more carefully!

A Good Reference Should Meet the Following Criteria:

  • The overall impression must be coherent.
  • The employee recognizes themself in the reference.
  • The reference is written individually.
  • The evaluation section is complete and all criteria are incorporated.
  • The “summary of assessment“ is formulated in at least grade 2.
  • The reference includes information about special achievements, skills, strengths etc.
  • The closing paragraph – the ”final chord“ – is complete and includes a substantiated formulation of regret (in case of a final employment reference) as well as acknowledgements and wishes for the future (in both final and interim employment references).

How to Recognize a Bad Reference:

  • Is the overall impression consistent or inconsistent?
  • Is the reference teeming with „stets“ and „jederzeit“ (“always”, “invariably”, “consistently” etc.)?
  • Are the employee and their tasks and work recognizable or not?
  • Are all standard evaluation criteria included? Are any missing?
  • Does the evaluation section mostly consist of common text blocks strung together?
  • Do most sentences begin with the employee’s name or the respective pronoun he, she or they?
  • Is the “summary of assessment“ formulated in a grade below 2?
  • Are statements about special achievements, skill, strengths etc. missing?
  • Is the closing paragraph complete? Is the expression of regret missing (in case of a final employment reference)?
  • Does the closing paragraph appear succinct, lackluster, clumsy or stereotypical?
  • Are any reference codes to be found?

Employment Reference by the Zeugnisfabrik Have the Following Characteristics:

  • The overall impression is rounded and coherent.
  • When reading our employment references, you can visualize the job as well as the person in question.
  • The given grades are translated into employment reference language.
  • The formulations are individual.
  • Special achievements, skills, strengths etc. are highlighted.
  • The employment reference is complete, in the evaluation section as well as in the closing paragraph.
  • The closing paragraph is benevolent, personal and appreciative.