Getting Hired (or fired) in Germany Part IV

The long-promised end to the series on looking for jobs in Germany, kindly provided by sometime GJ contributor Ed Philp (who, by the way, is gainfully employed):

In this last addition to a small series on differences between applying for jobs in Germany and North America (my apologies for the intermediate delay – work actually got in the way) I take a look at the highly formalized German system of providing departing employees with a Zeugnis. Zeugnis can be translated as “letter of reference”; tellingly, it also means “testimony” (law) and “report card” or “evaluation” (academic). The German employment context is less a simple “letter of reference” and much more of a broad evaluation of your performance, deportment and character.

For German readers: departing employees in North America can ask for letters of reference from their previous employers. There are few hard and fast rules about these letters; generally, it is preferable to obtain them from an immediate supervisor who is able to judge your work performance, as opposed to the head of a department, who may have only met you once when you joined a company. An immediate supervisor may not be well-versed in the phrasing of the letter, so results and style can vary considerably; indeed, it is not uncommon for a supervisor to request that the employee draft the letter herself. The supervisor may then modify the suggested draft.

The best North American reference letters describe specific situations you encountered and your outstanding performance in these, ideally emphasizing pragmatic, innovative solutions and dedication to getting a job done. North American reference letters also almost always invite the reader to contact the author directly if they wish to discuss "the contents of the letter" (i.e the candidate subject) personally. Employers very frequently do just this before hiring someone, and it is not at all uncommon for them to ask very specific questions, such as “did employee X independently seek out assignments? Why did she leave the company?” A previous employer who had misgivings about the employee will likely be fairly candid in such an informal call, if asked the right questions. A departing employee therefore has to judge carefully whether it is truly in their interest to ask specific supervisors for a letter of reference and the resulting invitation to call that supervisor. Usually employees have no right to a “well-meaning” letter of reference; the letter simply has to be truthful. And yes, employees in North America do go to court to contest the judgements passed on them by previous employers.

In Germany, since a Federal Labour Court decision in 1963, employees apparently have a legal right to a “well-meaning” Zeugnis; they certainly do go to court to ensure that a Zeugnis appropriately reflects their performance. A Zeugnis is a sophisticated and rigidly structured document that is typically only signed by the HR department or a high-ranking company official. It is final – there is no invitation to contact the employee’s supervisors. It is comprehensive, meaning that not only is strict work performance described, but also relationships between the employee and his or her superiors or staff. And every word or absence thereof can have a special meaning that tells a potential employer exactly what the previous employer thought of the employee, much like Andrew’s post on academic reference letters (extraordinarily sophisticated ones at that). I find this stuff fascinating.

Each aspect of performance is precisely graded, from vollster Zufriedenheit (most complete satisfaction, meaning A+ with a cherry on top and sprinkles) to er hat sich bemüht, die ihm übertragenen Aufgaben zu erledigen (he made efforts to complete the tasks assigned to him – but failed miserably). These phrases usually correspond to number grades. There are dozens of online (G) and print lists and guides to assist employees to decipher their Zeugnis, and to help employers find the appropriately “well-meaning” phrases that express good performance or which serve as a red flag to future potential employers with regard to undesirable traits. A few more or less reasonable examples:

“He knew how to present and sell himself, particularly to his supervisors” = he isn’t cooperative with fellow workers and sucks up to his boss

“He approached all of his tasks with great enthusiasm” = but he wasn’t particularly effective in any of them

“She completed all of her tasks with proper diligence and care” = and only these tasks. No independent initiative; a bureaucrat

A host of further code phrases reflect on the employee’s deportment or leadership style: “He practiced cooperative leadership and was well-liked by his staff” can mean that he sought consensus and couldn’t assert himself. The absence of specific words or phrases can also be perilous: “He completed his tasks to our most complete satisfaction” sounds great, but may imply that he didn’t always do this, since the sentence doesn’t mention that. “She offered many constructive suggestions for improving the team’s performance” probably implies that none of these suggestions were practicable or implemented, since this also isn’t mentioned.

You might note that often I use the words “can” and “may” in the above paragraph. While German reference letters are more of a science than an art, unsophisticated letter providers may think they are giving a glowing endorsement, but a slight misunderstanding can easily give rise to confusion at the other end.

Finally, there are a series of optimistic-sounding phrases – few of which are still used – that can spell instant application death for a candidate with these on their Zeugnis. A few of my favourite examples, roughly translated:

“He demonstrated sensitivity to the needs of the workforce” = he sexually harassed or slept with his coworkers (if he demonstrated comprehensive sensitivity, he was – of course – homosexually involved with colleagues)

“She was active in furthering the interests of workers both within and outside of the company” = she’s an active union member

“He achieved all of his objectives in his own and the company’s interest” = he stole company property

“She contributed to the workplace environment with her sociable temperament” = she drank on the job

“He always stood fully behind the team” = voll (‘full’), is a euphemism for “drunk”

Rumour has it that if the signature of the supervisor signing the Zeugnis makes a pronounced downstroke to the left or right, this warns that the employee was a member of a respectively left or right wing party or organization. A Zeugnis that is dated after the employee left the company can imply that the employee took the company to court to demand a better Zeugnis. These are probably just rumours though, in today’s more sophisticated work environments.

Problems, of course, can arise when a German employer is confronted with a glowing North American letter of reference that sets off all sorts of unintended alarm bells with its euphoric descriptions of an employee’s ‘interest in their work’ or their ‘commitment to improving sales’, which to a German, means that no actual improvement was achieved. The same problems arise when a North American proffers a German understatement Zeugnis that comments that the employee “always completed his tasks to our most complete satisfaction”. To a North American employer, that sounds like the employee barely managed to breathe on his own during working hours. I’ve advised friends of mine to include a short description of the prevailing reference modalities in cross-border applications to employers that may not be familiar with the different contexts.

I suppose in both languages, a letter of reference that simply stresses the employee’s most basic expectations is always a negative. “She was a model of punctuality” is a kiss of death, implying that once at work on time, the employee did nothing at all of value. In that spirit, I am going to stop posting and make sure that I at least get to work on time today. I do think, however, that it would be a remarkable achievement to obtain a Zeugnis that mentioned one’s comprehensive sensitivity to and efforts on behalf of workers both within the company and without, always keeping one’s own – and the company’s interest in mind – as well as one’s sociable temperament during all of these endeavours. Especially where this was dated after the employee left the company!

One thought on “Getting Hired (or fired) in Germany Part IV

  1. In any normal, civilized country, if a bunch of businesses communicated to coordinate their operations, align their positions against customers, it’d be called a cartel or monopoly and forbidden by the Federal Trade Commission or local equivalent. Except when the national (or world-wide) alliance of employers communicates with letters and phone calls to strengthen their position against job applicants, that’s somehow o.k. and not the blatantly fascist, totalitarian act that it appears to be.
    Whem embracing such attitudes, does the blog author here consider that stuff, once published on the web, will probably be preserved for eternity? Authoritarian positions such as professorships seem to breed a smugness that’s dangerous either for “us” or for “them” – time will tell.


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