Work references play a significant role in the hiring process of a new employee. Under Swiss law, each employee is entitled to an interim and/or a final job reference which describes the nature and the duration of the employment relationship, the quality of the employee's work and his or her conduct.

Information which must appear in a work reference includes:

  • Job title;
  • Name and address of the employer;
  • Name and date of birth of the employee;
  • Place and date of the work reference;
  • Nature and duration of the employment;
  • Performance of the employee in qualitative and quantitative terms;
  • Behaviour of the employee in the work place towards colleagues, supervisors and clients;
  • Reason for termination of the employment relationship; and
  • Employer's signature.

Legal risks of inaccurate job references

A potential new employer's recruitment decision often depends, at least to a certain extent, on the references of previous employers.  As a result, the employers' and the employees' interest in the contents of the work reference are not always without conflict. Whilst the employee wishes to obtain a good reference, a potential new employer is only interested to learn about the true strengths and weaknesses of a job applicant.

In an attempt to balance out the conflicting interests, Swiss law requires a work reference to be both benevolent and true.

Examples in Swiss case law demonstrate that a former employer who issues an inaccurate work reference may be held liable by either the employee or a new employer. Moreover, an untrue work reference may qualify as a criminal offence.

How to limit the legal risks

  • Every fact mentioned in a job reference (e.g. duration of the employment, job title) must be true and, ideally, the employer should be able to submit evidence in the event of a dispute.
  • As a general rule, the language used in a work reference should be clear and transparent.  
  • Subjective assessments, for example concerning the behaviour or the personal achievements of an employee, must be appropriate and based on sufficient and correct facts and evidence.
  • Any attempt to create a false impression of the employee's performance, tasks or behaviour should be avoided.  
  • Information without any relevancy for the overall assessment of the employee should not be mentioned. However, an offence committed by an employee which may be repeated at a future work place should be referred to in the work reference.