A lot of the oldest stories about peoples in Germany involve the woods. However, those woods have continuously dwindled and lessened here, and modern Germany often feels much more connected with slim pieces of paper than with the woods those originally come from.

Today we will look at one specific example, the Arbeitszeugnis. When applying for a job in most countries you’d name previous employers, managers or even colleagues as references. Maybe you could include a good letter of recommendation. In Germany, both would be unusual – though including relevant references might help you stand out for exactly that reason. Here, you’ll instead have the Arbeitszeugnis. So, what is it?

Basically, it is a report card which employers are commonly obliged to hand out if it is requested.

It consists of five usual elements:

  • A sentence or two denoting the employee’s function and length of employment.
  • A brief description of the company, a bit longer if it has a B2B-focus.
  • A list of the employee’s duties and responsibilities while at the firm.
  • A text grading the employee’s performance and behaviour.
  • A closing element for final flourishes and notes.

Because every worker at a German company has the right to request this certificate and almost every German company is legally obliged to comply, a lot of Germans involved in hiring are very used to these papers being attached. Where they are not included, it is often assumed that they were not added due to bad grades. Of course, if you previously worked outside of Germany, you will probably not have such a paper and prospective employers will be aware. However, should other applicants hand in great report cards, that will always leave you at a disadvantage. If you have anything coming close (like a letter of recommendation) or can still ask a former employer to write something for you: Do that and get it translated. It will give many decision-makers comfort to have something in writing.

Now, after landing your first job at a German company you will be able to request such a certificate yourself, and you can do that towards the end of your stay with them or when jobhunting (if it is OK for you to let the boss know what you are up to). The first reviews you will score here are important as other German employers will tend to look at the known format a bit closer than at a foreign letter of recommendation.

When receiving an Arbeitszeugnis, you should know two more things especially:

  • I summarized only one type of Arbeitszeugnis (qualifiziertes Arbeitszeugnis) which includes the graded section. This is what employers look out for and you want. The other Arbeitszeugnis (einfaches Arbeitszeugnis) is a shorted version, omitting any grades. This usually only shows future employers that you didn’t want to be graded for some reason.
  • This might surprise you, but even though it is in German, the wording in an Arbeitszeugnis is almost always positive! This has legal reasons, but the magnitude of positivity in the different categories constitutes the grades. Also, there are some codes that are nearly invisible to the untrained eye. For both reasons even native German skills are not enough to check through an Arbeitszeugnis. You would usually be better off having someone look over it who is a lawyer, works in HR, or for some other reason has read enough of those papers. And yes, those grades are important enough here that sometimes lawyers are consulted, and everything can end up as matters for the courts.

So: Take care of this paper and – when it comes to your job hunt – you’ll be out of the woods soon enough too.