Jobseekers switch to “Finnish-sounding” surnames to avoid discrimination

People with a foreign background who are struggling to find employment in Finland should change their surname to a Finnish one.

That’s advice Ilja Timonen, a Russian immigrant who did just that.

Timonen, who studied physics, mathematics and education in Russia, moved to Finland in 2006, but could not find work in selected fields.

He wanted to be an electrical engineer, but couldn’t secure a place even as an unpaid trainee.

"Some companies even advertise that “we have Finnish technicians”," he said.

In addition to his career as a technician, Timonen also applied for a position as a Russian translator and teacher of mathematics and physics – but to no avail. This made him see what would happen if he made his application under a fake Finnish name.

"I was called back within a week and offered a substitute teacher position," he said, adding that he then began to think that he should give up his Russian name altogether because it caused him so much trouble in the job market.

There will be Ilja Timonen

In the end, the decision was easy.

"At first I tried to cherish my identity in Finland, but in the end it was useless. My name doesn’t matter to me. How do i do my job" Timonen said.

He decided to change his first name from Ilja to Ilja and got his new Finnish surname from his Karelian grandparents. He no longer wants to reveal his former last name.

"According to my family history [former] The name has no long history and means nothing" he said, adding that it had also been incorrectly translated from the Cyrillic alphabet in his Finnish passport.

After officially changing his name, Timonen decided to apply for an interpreter position at a company that provides translation services to cities and hospital districts. He had applied to the same company twice before without even being invited for an interview.

This time, however, applying for the name Ilja Timonen, she received an invitation to an interview within a week. After three years, he is still employed by the company.

The person responsible for recruiting the company at that time has since left. However, the director who decided to hire Timonen told Yle that the name had no effect on the decision, a view echoed by the company’s director of translation services.

"Most of our interpreters speak foreign languages. The name doesn’t matter" The director said, but recalled that another member of staff also changed his foreign name to Finnish.

The story continues after the picture.

Timonen was twice dismissed by the same company that later hired him after the name change.Petteri Sopanen / Yle

Another member of the company’s management told Yle that although they were not personally involved or aware of Timonen’s recruitment, they acknowledged that the applicant’s name could be an important factor in the recruitment process.

"Recruitment is often in a hurry and time can be wasted," they said.

The name of the company is not mentioned in this story, and representatives of the company have agreed to comment if they can remain anonymous.

Timonen is not able to fully prove why the same company had previously rejected him, but he said he was sure the foreign last name was a disadvantage.

“ethnic hierarchy”

Earlier this autumn, the Faculty of Theology at the University of Helsinki approached four students about the opportunity to teach Islam at primary school and informed them that they had been selected on the basis of their “Finnish-sounding” surname.

Other students in the same faculty were excluded from the process.

Equality Ombudsman Kristina Stenman has requested a report from the faculty on this practice. Stenman told Yle that recruiters often discriminate on the basis of an applicant’s name, but this phenomenon is rarely complained about.

Evidence of discrimination is difficult to provide and legal costs are usually borne by the losing party. Therefore, a victim of discrimination is unlikely to take such a risk.

Recruiters are also likely to never directly acknowledge that some applicants may be excluded from the recruitment process because of their name.

However, an anonymous recruiters survey According to a survey conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Health last year, as many as 39 percent of HR professionals admitted that a surname that sounded foreign to an applicant weakened the invitation to an interview.

"The most common grounds for perceived discrimination were ethnic or national background and gender. In most cases, it was assessed that the discrimination by the recruitment manager was mostly subconscious or unintentional," the report found.

Discrimination in recruitment has been studied more extensively in Finland in recent years, and evidence of the ethnic hierarchy of the labor market has been revealed.

Sociology researcher Akhlaq Ahmad sent about 5,000 false job applications under Finnish and foreign names as part of an extensive experiment in 2016 and 2017.

The aim of the study was to find out whether the applicant’s name influenced whether he had been invited for an interview.

The results were amazing.

Ahmad created five categories of applicants representing five different ethnic backgrounds: white Finnish, English, Russian, Iraqi and Somali.

He sent a thousand applications from each group through the Employment Office website. Jobs were in the restaurant, catering, retail, office, cleaning and customer service sectors.

Counterfeit applicants were equally strong. They had the same education, the same experience, they had all attended school in Finland to show that they had lived all their lives in Finland or at least moved to Finland before school started.

Everyone spoke excellent Finnish.

The story continues after the picture.

Akhlaq Ahmad, a sociologist at the University of Helsinki.
Sociology researcher Akhlaq Ahmad.Henrietta Hassinen / General

If the qualifications of each applicant were a key factor in the recruitment process, each group would theoretically have had an equally good chance of gaining access to a job interview.

However, the differences were drastic.

By far the largest number of invitations to interviews were received by white Finnish-speaking applicants, 390 interviews per thousand applications. English applicants received 269 invitations to interview, while Russians received 228, Iraqis 134 and only 99 Somali applicants.

Last year, only 12 percent of HR professionals reported attempting anonymous recruitment – a process in which job seekers are selected for interview without the recruiters knowing the applicant’s name, gender, or age.

According to Ahmad, anonymous recruitment can even out the chances of getting an interview, but it doesn’t secure a job for anyone.

If the discrimination is based on the applicant’s presumed foreign language or ethnic origin, it may be reflected not only in the name but also in the work experience and qualifications acquired abroad. Therefore, Ahmad added that anonymous recruitment basically means plaster for a problem that can only be solved by tackling discriminatory attitudes.

His research revealed that there may be discrimination in recruitment, even if the applicant has a level of mother tongue and education and work experience in Finland.

As was the case Carolin Piotrowski.

Assumptions based on last name always exist

Now 33, Piotrowski started working at the age of 15, first as a hotel cleaner, then as a restaurant and receptionist. He was often criticized by Russian clients who thought he spoke Russian because of his Polish surname.

"We have a couple of words in common. I speak Russian as well as an ordinary Finn speaks Estonian," he said.

Piotrowski told Yle that assumptions based on his last name have followed him throughout his career, and they generally follow the same formula.

"Even if I search in Finnish, I get the answer in English. If I get a job interview, there will always be a discussion about my last name at the beginning. Then I have to talk about where I come from and how many years I have lived in Finland. And then comes the praise for how well I speak Finnish," Piotrowski said, adding that he was born and lived in Helsinki all his life.

The story continues after the picture.

Carolin Piotrowski.
Carolin Piotrowski.

The Piotrowski family has Polish roots and their original surname was Sajur, who is Jewish. The family changed their name during the rise of the Nazi party in Germany.

In Finland, however, the name has been a burden.

"As a child competing in athletics, my name could not be disclosed. I was called at school Piot-garbage [roughly translated as Piot-trash]," he recalled.

After his studies, Piotrowski worked for a few years as a graphic designer in the gaming industry. There he did not feel that his name was a problem among his colleagues, as the company’s employees had arrived in Helsinki from all over the world and the working language was English.

Piotrowski currently works as a computer science teacher, and his students and co-workers know him as Sajur. This, he said, has been easier for everyone.

Although the name change is not yet official, Piotrowski said he plans to officially confirm the change as soon as his current passport expires. A few of his relatives have also switched back to their former names to get better jobs.

"I have noticed a big difference in the number of interview invitations depending on whether I use a Polish surname or a more neutral surname. As a whim, I also don’t have to type my name at the hotel reception or at the Starbucks checkout," he said.

It also happened that his first job at Sajurina became permanent.

Source: The Nordic Page


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