Talent At Work: Recruitment and Career Blog

Caution: A Reference Letter that Says You’re “Convivial” Might Be Code for “Alcohol Problems”

Colored qwerty Code

German reference letters sometimes have codes.

You wouldn’t think it, but “He has contributed with his convivial way to improving the working atmosphere” actually means “He has alcohol problems”.

At least it does in Germany.

It’s a code. In Germany, employers are legally obliged to provide a positive, written reference for every employee. In fact,  if an employer does not give you a good reference, you can bring legal action against the company.

As a result,  you have to read between the lines of a reference letter. That reference letter with those keywords — convivial, atmosphere — might sound good to the employee in question, but a German expert in human resources would know what that really means. So the German employer technically satisfied the law with a positive reference, but at the same time sent a warning message to the next employer.

So there’s a difference we’ve discovered in the reference process in Germany and North America.

In the last three weeks, we joined some conversations with recruiters and candidates at Goldbeck Recruiting. During those meetings, we noticed that candidates wrote phone numbers from their last employers in their resumes so the future employer could phone the past employers for a background check.

That would never happen in Germany. Candidates would not write telephone numbers from their last employers where they worked on their resume because in Germany you can’t call previous employers to ask them  questions about the potential employee. 

Now maybe you ask yourself: what good is a reference in Germany if you can’t call the employer and inquire about your candidates?

How can you believe a reference letter if they’re obliged to be positive?

That’s where the code comes in. What you see in the letter is not necessarily what you get.

We understand that’s there can be a similar issue in North America as well, but on the opposite end of the spectrum. In Germany, companies avoid legal action by giving everyone positive references. In North America, according to our colleagues at Goldbeck Recruiting, to avoid legal action, some companies do not give any references, even if you are a good employee. They will only confirm the job title and dates of employment.

So in that situation, an employer has to read between the lines, too. Even though there are two different reference processes in Germany and North America, both rely on clues and codes to truly get a sense of what kind of employee you might be hiring.

So although there are thoroughly developed systems, successful reference checking depends on having highly trained, sensitive and intelligent recruiters executing — and decoding —  the processes.

So that’s our update on the differences we’ve noticed during our internship in the two country’s hiring processes. It’s been educational for us, and hopefully insightful for you, too.

Next week we are going to tell you something about our interview model at the Federal Employment Agency in Germany.

by Louisa Lichte and Maren Wandtke

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One thought on “Caution: A Reference Letter that Says You’re “Convivial” Might Be Code for “Alcohol Problems”

  1. This article is undermining exemplary work experience versus references in Europe in extreme and very rare circumstances. There is a strong connection between a good European reference and the quality of the work that a person has done for the organization. Whilst one person might be perceived to be penalized that a European employer gives a good reference to avoid legal actions, the article does not highlight the fact that in most cases a good and positive reference is just that: an honest and true representation of the employee’s performance with nothing to hide and no need of reading between the lines as the article otherwise implies!!!!

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