Employment Reference – Wording and Codes

Codes in Employment References – Are They Still in Use?

Needless to say, there are appreciating codes. Without “stets“ (“always”) and its synonyms, it would hardly be possible to verbally represent grades 1 and 2. But those shall not be discussed here.

When talking about codes in employment references, we are referring to encrypted wording, the ill-intended codes.

Depreciative Techniques: Rather Rare

A large part of the specialized literature in German on employment references has a focus on recognizing reference codes and depreciative techniques in employment references.
However, reflecting on our experience as reference writers of more than 15 years, a surprisingly positive impression presents itself:


The vast majority of employment references is written in benevolent intent.

Formulations of grade 5 are dying out. For more than 10 years, we have not seen them in the employment references sent to us for assessment …


Yes – depreciative techniques still exist and they will probably always do. But the fear of mean wording and malevolent pitfalls in the employment reference is dramatically overemphasized.

The Language of Employment References – As so Much Else – is Liable to Changing Times

Resulting from our constitutional and reliably working jurisdiction, a reduced range of grades has developed in the practice of human resources departments.


As employment reference writers, we nowadays make do with 4 grades:


This way, we can distinguish top performers from good employees, average employees and malperformers and visualize them in employment reference language.

Namely conforming to the mandatory standards: truthfulness and benevolence.
Nowadays, reference codes are known to a lot of people. If an employment reference is issued containing such encoded wording, the employee in question will, in many cases, take legal action.

In our estimation, wording such as „war stets bemüht” (“always endeavored to”), „im Großen und Ganzen“ (“by and large“), „stand immer voll hinter seinen Kollegen“ (“always fully (= in German: drunkenly) backed their colleagues”), „zeigte bei der Einarbeitung Einsatz und Initiative“ (“showed dedication and initative during the introductory training“) and „Arbeitsleistung war nicht unerheblich“ (“performance was not insignificant”) are manifestations of an outdated mindset.
They defined benevolence harmonious on a purely linguistic basis, but are anything but benevolent in terms of content and reading between the lines.


Today, we write employment references differently.

We regard article 1 of the constitution*) as an invitation to write employment references for all employees, including those that did not deliver the best performance, using appreciative wording; this is what we, as Zeugnisfabrik, mean with the terms “benevolent” and “vocationally promoting”.

Creating a good or very good employment reference for a truly good employee or top performer is generally no problem for the reference writer.

It gets more difficult with employment references for less-than-perfect employees, but:

Malperformers deserve an employment reference without codes, too.

As reference writers, we are lucky enough to be able to take the legally correct path and refuse to hide encoded statements in our employment references.


(Malevolent) Employment Reference Codes Do Not Exist in the Grades 1, 2 and 3.


Grade 3

Grade 3 employs a simple as well as a clear choice of words – plain, but usually not encoded. Hidden or ambiguous formulations are used seldom if ever – with one exception: the depreciative technique of „reversing the word order“**).


Grade 4

If a grade 4 is appropriate and verifiable in case of a legal dispute, we do not formulate it whenever possible. Instead, we use the employment reference technique of „loud silence“**).

Employment references created by the Zeugnisfabrik are clear and not encoded and, in the truest sense of the word, benevolent.

Grade 5

Grade 5 is not part of our assessment sheet. Nevertheless, some of the following depreciative techniques are still applied in the employment reference language today:

Overview of depreciative employment reference techniques

  Depreciative technique
  Example   Meaning
Reversed order a) correct: wishes for the professional as well as private future
depreciative: wishes for the private and professional future

b) correct: behavior towards superiors and colleagues
depreciative: behavior towards colleagues and superiors **)

Can downgrade the employment reference‘s overall impression by (up to) one grade.


Frictions in the team and/or with the superior; assessment of behavior downgrades by one grade.

Overly singularized and emphasized features that are self-evident A manager working overtime, a project leader leading project meetings, a secretary taking calls for their superior … The respective criterion’s statement downgraded by one grade.
Doubling a statement
Evaluative terms, such as reliability, resilience, independence, problem-solving etc. are used twice or more in the employment reference’s evaluation part. Negation of the respective statement. The opposite is the case. (Often found in software-generated references – most of the time, it is not intentional.)
Double negative Not insignificant --- by no means objectionable --- not without --- not scant --- no insecurity --- etc.

Exceptions: „einwandfrei“ (“impeccable“) and „tadellos“(“immaculate“) are traditional to the extent that they are exculpated of the double negative.
Downgrades the statement by one grade, to be found with grades 4 and 5.
Toning down, narrowing down
By and large --- generally speaking --- formulations with “is able to“ --- within the scope of his/her capabilities ---
To be found with grades 4 and 5.
Exaggeration Everything is formulated in grade 2, and the employee is praised to the skies, with “always“ in every sentence ... Lots of hot air, but not much substance behind it.
Not addressing or omitting evaluation criteria, loud silence
The (few) categories evaluated in grade 4 are not formulated in the reference**)

If (almost) all criteria are ticked as grade 4, we will confer with the client.
We have nothing to say about this.
Nothing comes to mind. We would rather remain silent about this one.
= Malperformer

 *) Article 1 of the German constitution: Human dignity shall be inviolable. 
**) The only two depreciative techniques we employ at the Zeugnisfabrik – after conferring with the client.