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To whom it may concern

Ian McMaster ist Chefredakteur von Business Spotlight
Die Briten mögen vielleicht eine Schwäche für Geheimagenten haben - von Geheimcodes im Arbeitszeugnis halten sie nicht viel. Eine persönliche Empfehlung ist ihnen mehr wert als ein Blatt Papier. Wer ein Zeugnis will, muss ausdrücklich danach fragen.
Some years ago, a friend in England asked me for a job reference. John was applying for jobs as an English teacher in Saudi Arabia and thought my status as a doctor would help. Although we had worked together for only a few months, I agreed. After finishing what I thought was a good reference, I gave it to him and said I would change anything he didn't like.

At first, he was clearly delighted. I had described him as committed, conscientious, reliable, punctual, and a good team player. When he came to the last sentence, however, he looked as though he had seen a ghost.

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As I re-read the reference, I saw his problem. I had meant to finish with one of the classic endings in an English reference: "I have no hesitation in recommending him to any future employer." Instead, I had written: "I have no intention of recommending him to any future employer." Embarrassed, I snatched the paper from his hand, apologized and quickly rewrote the reference. A simple mistake or a Freudian slip? I have no idea.

This incident illustrates some of the differences between the German and British/ American systems of references (also called "testimonials"). The biggest is that British and American employees do not automatically receive written references from each employer, which they then include with future job applications. They have to ask for references if they want them, and they have no clear legal right to them.

Indeed, it is common in job applications simply to list two or three people as referees (US: references) who can be contacted for information about you. This gives employees some choice over their referees - one reason why many people are sceptical of the value of references. For example, when John and I worked together, I was not his boss, although it is usual to list your superior. Another alternative is simply to write "references available upon request" in your application, without listing names. Also, you can ask a company not to approach your referees without informing you beforehand. This gives you the chance to warn your current employer that you are seeking a new job. However, you should never give a referee's name without their permission.

Usually, companies contact referees only after they have decided in principle to offer you the job. Some companies even tell applicants that they have been offered the job "subject to references". In other words, the position is yours, so long as your references are OK.

Not all referees are asked for written testimonials. Sometimes, they are asked to fill in questionnaires or to answer questions about the employee's suitability for the job in question. Also, referees may be contacted by phone, which potentially allows for a more open and honest assessment.

In each case, however, referees must provide truthful, accurate and reliable information - they have a legal responsibility to both the applicant and the company.

As a result of the different systems, it is probably not worth having all your German testimonials translated into English. However, if there is one that is specifically relevant - or from a particularly well-known referee - there is little harm in including it.

Open written references in English often have the heading "To whom it may concern". They then start with "Please accept my recommendation of X", followed by a statement of the period when the person worked at the company, what their position was, and a description of their duties.

When discussing the way somebody worked, the following phrases are typical:

  • She carried out every aspect of her work professionally to the highest (possible) standard.
  • His pleasant manner made him popular with the rest of the staff. (This does not sound as negative as it might in German.)
  • I have at all times found X a pleasure to work with.
  • He's a very capable and efficient employee.
  • I wish X all the best for her future.
  • We are (would be) very sorry to lose X.
  • I can give him the highest possible recommendation to any future employer.
  • I have no hesitation in recommending her to any future employer.

    A reference can end with a sentence such as: "Should you wish to speak to me personally about X, please feel free to contact me."

    Because open written references are not as common in Britain or the US as in Germany, there is not the same degree of secret code. Nevertheless, there are a few phrases that should be avoided, since they can be ambiguous. For example: "You will be lucky to get him to work for you" or "She left us fired with enthusiasm". Other words can also have negative meanings, including "attentive to detail" (pedantic), "independent" (stubborn) and "flexible" (indecisive). However, there is no universally accepted secret code.

    Finally, of course, the phrase I used in John's reference should definitely not appear.
  • Dieser Artikel ist erschienen am 21.01.2002