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Career Services at the University of Zurich

Employment Reference Letter

Most employers in Switzerland attach relatively high importance to the employment reference letter. Providing information on the candidate’s professional qualifications and personal qualities, it often forms the basis - in combination with the certificates - for deciding whether to invite a candidate to an interview or not.

In principle, employees have the right to an employment reference letter at any time which gives information on the type and length of their employment, their performance, and their conduct. It is forbidden in Switzerland to use ‘coded language’ in these letters. At the same time, many managers in smaller companies have little experience in compiling employment reference letters while others suspect a secret message hidden in every turn of phrase. It is therefore in the interest of all involved to communicate openly and clearly in order to prevent misinterpretations as far as possible.

A comprehensive employment reference letter should include the following points:        

  • Personal details of the employee (name, date of birth, place of origin)
  • Name of the employer
  • Begin/end of the employment relationship (exact dates)
  • Detailed list of responsibilities and duties
  • Description of the employee’s position (hierarchical position, promotions, and transfers)
  • Effective assessment of performance and conduct
  • Reason for the exit
  • Legal signature of the employer 

The statements must be true – clear – comprehensive – favorable.

HR will check if the reference letter is written in a personal and appreciative tone or if it only contains empty and standard phrases. Frequently (and particularly when time is short due to so many applications), a reference letter is often read from bottom to top, meaning that the final sentence is particularly important as this gives an indication as to whether the employment relationship ended because the employee was dismissed or if the employee’s departure is sincerely regretted.

An employee can also ask for an Interim Reference Letter at any time and with no reason. This is particularly advisable in the event of upcoming staff changes (change of superior) or if the employee wishes to change position. An interim reference letter differs from a full reference letter only in the fact that the start of the employment is mentioned, not the length. It is also to be assumed that the employment relationship is still ongoing (not contractually terminated). An interim reference letter is generally written in the present tense.

A Confirmation of Employment merely contains the employee’s personal details, length of employment, and functions performed. Performance levels and conduct are not assessed. A confirmation of employment is often interpreted by HR staff as a sign that the former employer was dissatisfied with the employee’s performance and conduct. It is therefore advisable to be cautious about asking for a confirmation of employment.

In addition, the employee is entitled to correct the letter of reference, i.e. to add contents that in their view are missing and/or to propose new phrasing. The best idea is to take the revised reference letter to your manager as most employers do not deliberately intend to cause detriment with a badly compiled reference letter. If no agreement is reached, an employment reference letter can be contested in a labor court. However, this is generally an emotional and time-consuming undertaking and you are better advised to find a solution on a bilateral basis.     

Weiterführende Informationen

Recommended Reading

Edi Class (2014), Das Arbeitszeugnis und seine Geheimcodes.

Irmtraud Bräunlich Keller, Gabriela Baumgartner (2013), Fair qualifiziert? Mitarbeitergespräche, Arbeitszeugnisse, Referenzen.