How to understand the codes in a work reference

Work references: learn the language of references and your rights

Your work reference can be the entrance ticket to an interview or block the door to your dream job. To ensure that you are fairly treated, you should know the standard codes of reference language and what rights you have as an employee.

Whatever happens: you are guaranteed a reference

In Switzerland, you have the legal right to a work reference at any time, this means also during your current employment.

What must the work reference include?

Purely formally, a work reference must contain the most important information about you (name, place and date of birth, marital status) and your employment (job description, type and duration of the employment). A professional work reference also contains an evaluation of your professional performance, your successes, the way you work and your behaviour, as well as an appropriate closing line. If certain professional elements are missing, it is normally referred to as a confirmation of employment, which is the short form of a work reference.

Your work must be described at the beginning in such a way that a knowledgeable third party can understand it. The sequence of your tasks should be organised according to importance, or alternatively, according to areas of responsibility. The subsequent assessment of your performance ideally includes a whole series of criteria that can be used to illustrate your skills and knowledge. How you integrated into the company, fit into to teams or lead teams, and what professional expertise you bring to the job all play a role here for example.

Every word in your reference counts

Further training you have participated in can also be mentioned in the work reference and demonstrate your professional initiative. If you have shown special motivation or can demonstrate specific achievements, this is the right place to let your future employer know about it. Depending on the job, the work reference usually contains information about how you cope with stress or deal with challenges. One point that must not be missing in any reference: your behaviour towards superiors, colleagues and customers. The sequence of this is very important: in conventional reference language, the superiors should be mentioned first, otherwise this points to a bad relationship.

Understand reference language and identify subtleties

The difficulty with reading work references are the hidden codes. Because references must always be formulated "sympathetically"* according to Swiss law, the language of references can often confuse employees. What is the difference between “very satisfied” and “completely satisfied”? What impact does the word “always” have? The devil is in the detail as always: for example, anyone who has acted “satisfactorily” would have only gotten an “unsatisfactory” in school. You can identify a “very good” in the superlatives: “The employee always fulfilled their tasks to our complete satisfaction.” Words like “constantly” and “always” are especially significant.

To make this clearer, here are a few examples of how your way of working can categorised differently:

  • Very good: “always with great meticulousness and precision”
  • Good: “with great meticulousness and precision”
  • Satisfactory: “with meticulousness and precision”
  • Sufficient: “generally with meticulousness and precision”

Gaps in your reference are suspicious

If information is missing, for example your relationship to your superiors, in reference language this means a negative verdict. The same applies to when the success of your work is not mentioned. This plainly means: you made an effort, but weren’t successful. On the other hand, passive formulations express passivity: If you “always followed all instructions without delay”, you didn’t show any of your own initiative.

Even worse than missing or passive assessments are hidden clues to bad behaviour. Anyone who is “open and likes to be seen by colleagues in other departments” is a chatterbox who spends more time drinking coffee than working. The fundamental rule is: any assessment that doesn’t directly refer to your work is a negative verdict.

If you have earned a “very good” as an employee, your superior will usually say goodbye to you in the closing lines by expressing that you will be missed, thanks and with best wishes for your private and professional future. A more restrained farewell with the expression “all the best for the future” can therefore be sign that your work together was not always positive.

In doubt? Then ask the professionals

For all codes in reference language, the following applies: a deviation doesn’t have to mean a negative verdict, but can also simply be a careless mistake. Also, not all human resources managers interpret these codes the same way. In an experiment, Manager Magazine gave the same work reference to three human resources managers and a human resources consultant. The result: their opinion ranged between “very good” and “catastrophe”. Very large companies also even sometimes have their own reference language. Precisely for this reason, you should read your work reference carefully and if you are in doubt, ask a professional consultant.