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In Austria, Germany and Switzerland, your employer is obliged by law to write you (the employee) a reference letter ("Arbeitszeugnis" in German) when you leave. In some cases you can even ask for it in the middle of your employment but I don't feel like researching which cases these are.

For instance, here in Germany the law is as follows:

§ 109 Gewerbeordnung

(1) Der Arbeitnehmer hat bei Beendigung eines Arbeitsverhältnisses Anspruch auf ein schriftliches Zeugnis. Das Zeugnis muss mindestens Angaben zu Art und Dauer der Tätigkeit (einfaches Zeugnis) enthalten. Der Arbeitnehmer kann verlangen, dass sich die Angaben darüber hinaus auf Leistung und Verhalten im Arbeitsverhältnis (qualifiziertes Zeugnis) erstrecken.

[...]

It is becoming increasingly common that employers ask you to draft your own reference letter. Some people consider this practice ethically wrong, some consider it illegal. I usually agree to draft my own letter, on company time because it's the company's responsibility to produce the letter. Then I get my boss to edit and sign it. For jobs that play no significant role on my CV, I tend to just go without the letter.

For various reasons a prospective employer might ask if I wrote my own reference letter. Maybe it's something about the style, I slipped in details the employer wouldn't emphasize (or even know of), or the letter is too good, or too bad, or matches my self-image too closely, or I don't know what. Definitely a reasonable scenario.

How do I deal with this scenario in an interview?

  • Is there any scenario where it could reflect positive on me to mention this fact without prompt? E.g. as an example that my employer trusts me a lot or is lazy or both?
  • Is it sensible to be upfront that I wrote my own reference letter whenever the interviewer has detailed questions about the content of the reference letter?
  • Should I bring it up as soon as I get a hint that the interviewer is suspicious about contents of the letter?
  • Should I only bring it up when asked point blank, "Did you write this yourself?"?
  • Is it better to deny at all costs?

Note:

Tags are for Austria, Switzerland, and Germany because I think the culture is similar and I may very well apply for jobs in either of those countries in the future. Feel free to differentiate your answer by country if you deem it necessary. Please indicate your country if you don't have any knowledge of the others. Other context such as the industry might be helpful too.

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    Some people consider this to be illegal? Why on earth would that be illegal as long as it's signed by your boss? You make something quite common sound super shady. It's unethical if they sign a bad letter written by someone who didn't know better, but otherwise, who cares who wrote the letter?
    – DonQuiKong
    Jul 13 at 5:22

4 Answers 4

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How do I deal with this scenario in an interview?

As you probably know, German reference letters are a highly coded thing. While it looks like proper German sentences, it is actually code, wrapped into a natural language.

German courts ruled that those reference letters have to be "constructive and not detrimental to finding new employment". So basically what happend is that German HR departments invented a code, so that they can have a positive sounding sentence that have a negative meaning. So they can still express the fact someone was not that good at their job, without being sued.

This code is far from secret. You can buy fistfuls of books from Amazon. You can even buy programs, where you can enter school grades for different parts of the employees job and the generator will generate nice and positive German sentences from it. Even if you entered all "F"s (or "6"s in the German school system's grading system) it will read like the employee of the year to someone unaware of the code.

Obviously, any HR department worth it's salt also has the magic decoder ring, to know, when reading those sentences, what they actually mean.

I'm always joking that "very social and good with rescue equipment" in such a reference letter means "was fired because they attacked their boss with an axe when showing up totally drunk the fifth day in a row". So yes, this is an art form.

However... once in a while, something unexpected happens. Someone actually writes those references. With the best intentions. They write it without knowing too much about that code and they find nice sounding sentences. And they mean those sentences at face value. "good employee" actually means that it was a pretty good employee. While in HR terms, "good employee" ranks maybe second to last on their scale.

As you probably speak German, an example in German: "zu unserer vollen Zufriedenheit" (to our full satisfaction) for example sounds like a great phrase. Completely satisfied with their behaviour. Great. Until you realize, in HR speak that is barely a "c". "zu unserer vollsten Zufriedenheit" (to our fullest satisfaction) is one better and "immer zu unserer vollsten Zufriedenheit" (always to our fullest satisfaction) is another one-up.

So when people ask whether you wrote the reference yourself, what they probably want to know is: was this written in codified HR language, or did you wing it?

Because references that someone without HR knowledge writes to the best of their abilities and well-meaning, when read with the magic HR decoder ring, sound like that person is maybe vaguely qualified to stand in for a potted plant. Temporarily, until you get a real potted plant that might do a better job.

So as for many questions here, the answer is simple: tell the truth.

If someone from HR wrote it or you wrote it and you consulted one of those books with the "secret" (as in "sold on Amazon for 5.99") knowledge, then tell them. If someone wrote it with no knowledge of that and just wrote what should be taken at face value, tell them, too.

Because if you read one of those things with the wrong expectations, it will be about the exact opposite of what the writer wanted to say.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Kilisi
    Jul 15 at 5:50
  • @nvoigt Nowadays, at least in Switzerland, it happens that letters of reference will contain a sentence at the bottom like "this letter is not coded" ("Dieses Zeugnis ist nicht codiert.") or similar - exactly to make the distinction obvious to the reader. I don't know if this is also becoming popular in Germany and Austria, might be worth a mention in this excellent answer...
    – fgysin
    Jul 18 at 6:38
  • I think I have seen it before. However, that requires the writer to know there is a code, which makes it kind of a random chance... if they knew there was a code, they probably would have used it. The main problem I see is with people that mean well, but don't know there is a code. But generelly speaking, it's a good thing.
    – nvoigt
    Jul 18 at 7:02
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If your boss has made their sign, then the responsibility of the content belongs to them, irrespective of the fact whether they conceptualised, drafted, typed-in or proof-read the letter.

I do not see a reason to mention who drafted the letter. Let it be. In case you're asked explicitly, you can mention that you had a discussion and provided inputs, and leave it at that.

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Trying to find a balance between the two existing answers.

  1. It's perfectly normal for an employee to contribute to their own reference. You know best what you worked on what the results were. You also know best what you want to prominently feature on your reference and what you don't care about.
  2. A manager would typically review, edit and add or adjust the actual ratings.
  3. A reference has significant legal significance and associated risk. So no reasonable manager or HR person would sign it without reading it first carefully and making sure it adheres to the company policy + practices and any local law.
  4. Yes, Germany has some coded language around this, but it's not all that complicated and easy to figure out (see for example https://www.arbeitsrechte.de/arbeitszeugnis-geheimcode/). The grades are just coded as 5 or 6 standard sentences. Even if you don't know the code, chances are very high the manager or HR will clean it up before they sign it. Otherwise they would exposing themselves to considerable legal risks.

How do I deal with this scenario in an interview?

It's standard practice and it's fine. There is no reason to talk about it unless someone specifically asks (which would be highly unusual). If they do ask: just tell the truth: you provided in input to your boss who edited and signed it. The End.

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Don't mention it if they don't ask it directly, they probably don't care much. If they ask, just give them an honest answer. As long as the company signed the reference letter, it means they agree with the content regardless of who wrote it, and this is what matters.

Regarding the question of whether this is normal or not, as a manager in Switzerland I'm not surprised by this. At least at my workplace it's common to ask the employee to contribute to the list of activities, tasks or duties that will appear in the reference letter/work certificate, then the manager will handle (with HR supervision) the general comments that go around.

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