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I am working in a IT company in Germany. For the future opportunity in the industry, I asked my adviser to write a recommendation letter for me. He said that he needs at least two weeks to prepare that. He included some sentences in the letter which can seem positive but could be seen as negative. For instance; "limonik is so social person" seems positive but it could be interpreted as "limonik is so social that she is always chatting with her colleagues and decrease their work productivity". Therefore, I am really sceptical about my recommendation letter. Also German is a foreign language for me; I cannot judge the implication in the letter. I do not want to use a negative recommendation letter for applying new jobs in Germany.

  • How can I validate my recommendation letter?
  • Does this type of recommendation letter only exist in Germany?
  • What are the basic differences between recommendation letter from Germany with other European countries' recommendation letters?
  • You may want to edit the layout of your question with bullet points, carriage returns... That would make it more readable and attractive. Thanks for accepting my answer. However, I encourage you to wait a bit before accepting an answer. It will give incentive to other contributors to bring their ideas, and possibly help you better. – Puzzled Aug 18 '16 at 14:43
  • Thank you for your tip. You are also free to edit my question. – limonik Aug 18 '16 at 14:57
  • @limonik If you still have interest, you can ping me here and we can hop into chat and go over it together (My native language is german) and I can make you aware of passages that may not be positive despite sounding so. In general, its true, that because the courts require a formal recommendation letter to be strictly positive, the HR people have developer lots of tricks to convey different information. But its fairly obvious if you show it to a native german speaker. – Magisch Aug 19 '16 at 9:05
  • If I remember correctly, "limonik is a (very) social person" actually indicates that "limonik might have a drinking problem" so please make sure to have the letter read by a native speaker/attourney! – MyCoworkerIsActuallyANiceGuy Aug 19 '16 at 16:02
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    @Magisch: "its fairly obvious if you show it to a native german speaker" - I kind of disagree with that claim. See, for instance, the seemingly innocuous phrasing in MyCoworkerIsActuallyANiceGuy's comment. – O. R. Mapper Aug 26 '16 at 10:34
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In Germany, there are two types of recommendation letter:

  • Arbeitszeugnis : this is a formal certificate. It is more about confirming that you worked in that company from time A to B. There will be details about the work you achieved, your attitude. However, they are generally exaggerately positively phrased. When reading it, if it sounds good, it means you were OK. If it sounds awesome, you were good. German companies are used to reading between the lines in that regard.
  • The more european/western common recommendation letter: the contents and tone are similar to the US/rest of Europe one.

To come back on the Arbeitszeugnis, as Christopher Estep stated, ask a native speaker to tell you what the message in it is. As said, the positive turn given to the letter seems to be aimed at avoiding the employee sueing his former company.

About validating your letter, I am afraid you don't have a choice but to accept it, unless it is factually incorrect/incomplete.

If you read German, or can do that with a native speaker, I recommend this article decode an Arbeitszeugnis

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    Just a "native speaker" will not be enough to evaluate an Arbeitszeugnis. It's a secret code packaged in normal German sentences. – nvoigt Aug 19 '16 at 11:20
  • @nvoigt Actually it isn't a "secret" code at all, it's quite simple too. Essentially an Arbeitszeugnis can not contain negative statements, therefore omission of some qualities (e.g. teamwork) means the person was terrible, "ok" means poor, "good" means ok, and "excellent" means good. Of course there's a bit more to it, but there is no "secret" there. – Peter - Unban Robert Harvey Aug 19 '16 at 17:20
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    @Peter I agree that it's not super secretive, you can order books on Amazon about it. But for a normal native speaker, you cannot know if something was omitted or if "social" actually means "drunk". You should know the code, you cannot just read it and understand it. – nvoigt Aug 19 '16 at 20:59
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That's a problem even native speakers have with the "Arbeitszeugnisse". By law they have to be positive. There can't be anything negative or critcising in it. Even if the employer had proof of the employee stealing or slacking of all day and fires him for that, they can't write that in the Arbeitszeugnis.

Employers want to give negative feedback, if there is reason for it. That lead to employers hiding negative feedback in positive phrases. But as this is kind of law breaking, there is no universal code that is always used as there is no official authority to create such a code. So there are a plethora of books which all claim to be the code and most of them contradict each other in some way. And the codes have evolved over time. So you can never be sure if the person who wrote it and the person who read it use the same code.

There are some things that are rather common, though:

  • "er bemühte sich" / "he tried to" => he tried but failed
  • "zu unserer [.../vollen/vollsten] Zufriedenheit" / "met our [...]/full/fullest] satisfaction" => no adjective = okay, adjective "vollen"/"full" = good, superlative "vollsten" / fullest" => very good
  • if the employee leaves the company and there is no sentence about them "pity his leave" and "wishing the best for the furture" it's usually seen as negative

That said, i recommend a rather short and formal Arbeitszeugnis (dates, details about ocupation and activities, maybe even key-projects) without too many "codes" (watch for the "necessities" like "pity/wishes") and then asking for an informal recommendation letter of the line manager (and maybe some others) where no codes have to be used and ask if they will add contact information so they can be contacted as reference later.

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Even native German speakers are not always used to decipher the code phrases used in an Arbeitszeugnis. If you are worried that it might contain hidden bad messages, you might consider hiring a specialist that reads and asseses your Arbeitszeugnis. (you can find companies offering that service on the internet if you search for "Arbeitszeugnis prüfen" or similar).

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Before anything else can be answered, you really need to know what the letter actually says to someone who speaks German fluently.

I would suggest finding someone who is very fluent in English (or your first language if it's not English) and who is also very fluent in German, preferably as a first language. Have them read the letter and discuss with them the concerns you've mentioned here. There are so many nuances in language that can only be discerned by a fluent or native speaker. It's not just the words that they use but the context in which those words are used, i.e. the phrases leading up to and following the "questionable" phrases.

The bottom line is that you can't begin to make decisions regarding the letter until you can understand the tone of the letter as far as how it would be received by a native speaker. And of course, the person helping you with this should also be familiar with German culture as well.

  • Finding a native speaker who are also familiar with German culture is really good idea – limonik Aug 18 '16 at 14:50
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    Google for "Zeugniscode" or ask your native speaker to google it. You can easily find lists of common phrases and their meaning in plain German. – Sumyrda - Reinstate Monica Aug 18 '16 at 16:27
  • @limonik If you want to, I'd volunteer to analyse your letter for you. – Magisch Aug 19 '16 at 9:06
  • @Magisch thank you very much for the offer. When I get them, I will inform you. Because of the privacy issues I have to chance my name company name and such a stuff and it takes a bit time. – limonik Aug 19 '16 at 9:26
  • @limonik right. When you are done with that, send me a invitation to a chat room or ping me here and I'll invite you. Do note that I most likely wont be available much on the weekend, but on monday I have time for certain. – Magisch Aug 19 '16 at 9:29
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Its important to note that Arbeitszeugnisse in German must be positive by case law. In order to avoid getting sued, companies will never put directly negative statements on there.

To still convey information, they use lots of nuances, for instance:

"XYZ has performed his duties to our satisfaction"

would be considered very negative,

"XYZ has always performed his duties to our satisfaction"

would be still negative but better and something truly positive would look like:

"XYZ has always performed his duties to our fullest satisfaction"

As you can see, there is a lot of nuance for it, and you really need a native german speaker to decipher it properly for you.

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You asked whether this is true for other countries as well.

In Switzerland, we have only one type of recommendation letter called Arbeitszeugnis. As in Germany, it has to be positive. Thus, a code has been developed to let other managers know about flaws of a person.

Your "social person" actually means "quite talkative", and "good work" is below standard, it has to be great or superb or outstanding.

It works in the other direction as well. "Outperforming" can be "overqualified", "overmeeting standards" can mean that one cannot adhere to and subject himself to standards.

There are books on the market to decipher the language, and there is a cope out, as most hr people of small companies do not know the code either. A recommendation letter can state that it is "not coded".

Some phrases can be found here (Swiss phrases/German), with their deciphered actual meaning.

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