A recommendation letter or letter of recommendation, also known as a letter of reference, reference letter or simply reference, is a document in which the writer assesses the qualities, characteristics, and capabilities of the person being recommended in terms of that individual's ability to perform a particular task or function. Letters of recommendation are typically related to employment (such a letter may also be called an employment reference or job reference), admission to institutions of higher education, or scholarship eligibility. Recommendation letters are usually specifically requested to be written about someone, and are therefore addressed to a particular requester (such as a new employer, university admissions officer, etc.), although they may also be issued to the person being recommended without specifying an addressee. The person providing a reference is called a referee.
Some employers may not be willing to provide reference letters because they may be worried about potential lawsuits. In this case, the employer may only provide the job title, dates of employment and salary history for the employee. Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Bulgaria are the only countries in Europe where employees can legally claim an employment reference, including the right to a correct, unambiguous and benevolent appraisal. In Germany and Switzerland the reference letter is called Arbeitszeugnis, in Austria Dienstzeugnis. An employment reference letter is usually written by a former employer or manager, but references can also be requested from co-workers, customers and vendors. Teachers and professors may also supply references; this typically applies in the case of recommendations for academic purposes, but also for employment, particularly if the person is applying for their first job.
References may also be required of companies seeking to win contracts, particularly in the fields of engineering, consultancy, industry and construction, and with regard to public procurement and tenders. Such references are usually supplied by parties to which the company has provided similar services in the past, and are used to assess its ability to deliver the required level of service.
The employment reference letter can cover topics such as:
- the employee's tasks and responsibilities
- the duration of employment or tasks/ responsibilities
- the position relative to the author of the reference letter
- the employee's abilities, knowledge, creativity, intelligence
- the employee's qualifications (foreign languages, special skills)
- the employee's social attitude
- the employee's power of rapport
- reason(s) of employment termination
- some text with the actual recommendation itself (e.g. 'I unequivocally recommend ... [name] as a ... [function/ role] and would be happy to hire him/ her again').
In some countries, elements of performance are evaluated using established forms of expression, sometimes euphemistic. For example, in the German-language Arbeitszeugnis, the following terms are frequently used:
- Excellent = stets zu unserer vollsten Zufriedenheit erledigt (always done to our complete satisfaction)
- Good = stets zu unserer vollen Zufriedenheit (always to our full satisfaction)
- Satisfactory = zu unserer vollen Zufriedenheit (to our full satisfaction)
- Adequate = zu unserer Zufriedenheit (to our satisfaction)
- Poor = hat sich bemüht, den Anforderungen gerecht zu werden (has endeavored to meet the demands)
This language established itself as an unwritten code in the employment world. Its purpose was to give even weakly performing employees a letter of recommendation that does not sound negative. However, the euphemistically glazed-over descriptions are now codified and generally known, so that the original cryptic intent is no longer served. 
Checking of references
Most potential employers will contact referees to obtain references before offering a job to a new employee. A survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that eight out of ten resource professionals said they regularly conduct reference checks for professional (89%), executive (85%), administrative (84%) and technical (81%) positions. Candidates are advised to ensure that they provide a suitable list of referees to their new prospective employer or institution, and to contact those referees to ensure that they are able and willing to provide a suitable reference. In some cases employers will contact a candidate's former company for a reference even if no contact is supplied by the candidate.
- Doyle, Alison. "References for employment". Retrieved 2 May 2012.
- Heinz-Günther Dachrodt, Erich Ullmann: Zeugnisse lesen und verstehen. Formulierungen und ihre Bedeutung. ÖGB-Verlag Wien 2000, ISBN 3-7035-0809-4
- Peter Häusermann: Arbeitszeugnisse – wahr, klar und fair. Tipps und Anregungen für verantwortungsbewusste Arbeitgeber. 6. Auflage. Spektramedia, Zürich 2008, ISBN 978-3-908244-08-0
- Günter Huber, Waltraud Müller: Das Arbeitszeugnis in Recht und Praxis. Rechtliche Grundlagen, Musterzeugnisse, Textbausteine, Zeugnisanalyse. 12. Auflage. Haufe, Freiburg/Breisgau, Berlin, Planegg bei München, Würzburg 2009, ISBN 978-3-448-09322-3
- Thorsten Knobbe, Mario Leis, Karsten Umnuß: Arbeitszeugnisse: Textbausteine und Tätigkeitsbeschreibungen (dt./engl.). 5. Auflage. Haufe, Freiburg/Breisgau, Berlin, Planegg bei München, Würzburg 2010, ISBN 978-3-448-10118-8.
- Doyle, Alison. "References - Will They or Won't They?". Retrieved 2 May 2012.
- Karl-Heinz List: Das zeitgemäße Arbeitszeugnis. Ein Handbuch für Zeugnisaussteller. 3. Auflage. BW Bildung und Wissen Verlag, Nürnberg 2008, ISBN 978-3-8214-7676-6.
- Hein Schleßmann: Das Arbeitszeugnis. Zeugnisrecht, Zeugnissprache, Bausteine, Muster. 18. Auflage. Verlag Recht und Wirtschaft, Frankfurt am Main 2007, ISBN 978-3-8005-3083-0.
- Volker Stück: Das Arbeitszeugnis. In: Monatsschrift für Deutsches Recht. 60. Jg., Bd. 2, 2006, S. 791–799.
- Arnulf Weuster, Brigitte Scheer: Arbeitszeugnisse in Textbausteinen. Rationelle Erstellung, Analyse, Rechtsfragen. 11. Auflage. Richard Boorberg Verlag, Stuttgart, München, Hannover, Berlin, Weimar, Dresden 2007, ISBN 978-3-415-03862-2.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Employment reference letters.|
- arbeitszeugnis.de – PDF file
- Info-Arbeitszeugnis – Secret language
- Codes or Language used in German reference letters