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Job hunters switch to 'Finnish-sounding' surnames to avoid discrimination

Finland's Equality Ombudsman says recruiters often discriminate on the basis of an applicant's name.

Ilja Timonen tarkistaa tietoja kännykästään.
Ilja Timonen, a Russian electronics technician and translator, moved to Finland in 2006. Image: Petteri Sopanen / Yle
Yle News

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

That's the advice of Ilja Timonen, a Russian immigrant who did exactly that.

Having studied physics, mathematics and educational science in Russia, Timonen moved to Finland in 2006 but he could not find any work in his chosen fields.

He wanted to be an electrical technician, but he was unable to secure a position even as an unpaid intern.

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

In addition to pursuing a career as a technician, Timonen also applied for positions as a Russian translator and as a teacher of mathematics and physics—but all in vain. This prompted him to see what would happen if he applied 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 he should give up his Russian name entirely as it was causing him so much trouble in the labour market.

Becoming Ilja Timonen

In the end, the decision was easy.

"At first I tried to cherish my identity in Finland, but ultimately I found that was pointless. My name doesn't matter to me. How I do my work does," Timonen said.

He decided to change his first name from Ilya to Ilja, and he took his new Finnish surname from his Karelian grandparents. He does not wish to disclose his former surname anymore.

"According to my genealogy, the [former] name doesn't have a long history and it means nothing," he said, adding that it had also been incorrectly translated from the Cyrillic alphabet onto his Finnish passport.

After officially changing his name, Timonen decided to apply for an interpreter position, working for a company that provided translation services to cities and hospital districts. He had applied to the same company on two previous occasions, without even being invited for an interview.

This time however, when applying under the name Ilja Timonen, he received an invitation to an interview within one week. Three years later, he is still employed by the company.

The person in charge of recruitment at the company at the time has since left. However, the manager 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 are foreign language speakers. The name does not make a difference," the director said, but recalled that another member of staff also changed their foreign name to a Finnish one.

Story continues after the photo.

Ilja Timonen työskentelee kuulokkeet korvillaan.
Timonen was rejected twice by the same company that later hired him after he changed his name. Image: 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 admitted that an applicant's name can be an important factor in the recruitment process.

"There is often a rush to recruit and time could be wasted," they said.

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

Timonen cannot fully prove why he was previously rejected by the same company, but he said he is certain that having a foreign surname is a disadvantage.

An 'ethnic hierarchy'

Earlier this autumn, the Faculty of Theology at the University of Helsinki approached four students about the possibility of providing lessons on Islam at a primary school and informed them they had been selected based on their 'Finnish-sounding' surnames.

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

Equality Ombudsman Kristina Stenman has demanded a report from the faculty on this practice. Stenman told Yle that recruiters often discriminate on the basis of an applicant's name, but people rarely file complaints about this phenomenon.

Providing evidence of the discrimination is difficult, and the costs of litigation are usually borne by the losing party. A victim of discrimination is therefore unlikely to take such a risk.

Recruiters are also unlikely to ever directly acknowledge that some applicants might be excluded from the recruitment process because of their name.

However, an anonymous survey of recruiters carried out last year by the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health found that as many as 39 percent of HR professionals admitted that an applicant's foreign-sounding surname made it less likely that they would be called for an interview.

"The most common basis for the observed discrimination was ethnic or national background and gender. In most cases, it was estimated that discrimination by the recruiting supervisor was mostly subconscious or unintentional," the report stated.

The issue of discrimination in recruitment has been studied more extensively in Finland in recent years, and evidence of an ethnic hierarchy in the labour market has been uncovered.

Sociology researcher Akhlaq Ahmad sent out some 5,000 fake job applications under Finnish and foreign names as part of a large-scale experiment in 2016 and 2017.

The objective of the study was to find out if a candidate's name affected whether they were invited to an interview.

The results were startling.

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

He then sent a thousand applications from each group via the Finnish Employment Office website. The jobs were in the restaurant, catering, retail, office, cleaning and customer service sectors.

The fake applicants were equally strong. They had the same training, the same amount of experience, all of them had been to school in Finland to indicate that they had lived their whole lives in Finland or at least had moved to Finland before they started school.

All of them spoke excellent Finnish.

Story continues after the photo.

Helsingin yliopiston sosiologian tutkija Akhlaq Ahmad.
Sociology researcher Akhlaq Ahmad. Image: Henrietta Hassinen / Yle

If each applicant's qualifications were the main factor in the recruitment process, each group would—in theory—have had an equally good chance of getting a job interview.

However, the differences were stark.

Applicants with white Finnish names received by far the most invitations to interview, with 390 interviews from a thousand applications. English applicants received 269 interview invitations, while Russians received 228, Iraqis 134 and just 99 for Somali applicants.

Last year, just 12 percent of HR professionals reported having tried anonymous recruitment—the process by which job applicants are selected for interview without the recruiters knowing the applicant's name, gender or age.

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

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

His research revealed that discrimination can occur in recruitment even if the applicant has a native level standard of English and their education and work experience have been acquired in Finland.

As was the case for Carolin Piotrowski.

Assumptions based on surname always present

Now 33, Piotrowski began working at the age of 15, first as a hotel cleaner, then in a restaurant and as a receptionist. She was often criticised by Russian customers who presumed she spoke Russian because of her Polish surname.

"We have a couple of words in common. I speak Russian as well as the average Finn speaks Estonian," she said.

Piotrowski told Yle that assumptions about her based on her surname have followed her throughout her working life, and they usually adhere to the same pattern.

"Even if I apply in Finnish, I will get the answer in English. If I get to a job interview, the beginning always involves a discussion about my last name. Then I have to talk about where I am from and how many years I have lived in Finland. And then comes the praise about how well I speak Finnish," Piotrowski said, adding that she was born and has lived all her life in Helsinki.

Story continues after the photo.

Carolin Piotrowski.
Carolin Piotrowski.

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

However, in Finland the name has been a burden.

"As a child competing in athletics, my name could not be announced. In school I was called Piot-roskis [roughly translated as Piot-trash]," she recalled.

After completing her studies, Piotrowski worked as a graphic designer in the gaming industry for a few years. There, she did not find that her name was a problem among her colleagues as the company's employees had come to Helsinki from all over the world and the working language was English.

Currently Piotrowski is working as a computer science teacher, and her students and colleagues know her as Sajur. This, she said, has been easier for everyone.

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

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

It also happened that the first job she received as Sajur became a permanent one.

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