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Foreign-sounding names still hamper job search

In Finland, which has traditionally had a small population of foreign descent, an unfamiliar-sounding name can still be a handicap for a jobseeker.

Image: Eemil Friman / Yle Uutisgrafiikka

Nicoletta Kekoniemi's father is Italian. She was born and raised in Finland, but while using her maiden name, Poverini, regularly had to convince potential employers that Finnish was her mother tongue.

The situation changed in 2012 when Kekoniemi got married and took her husband's Finnish surname. The language questions stopped at job interviews, which were easier to obtain.

Nainen hymyilee ulkona torilla.
Nicoletta Kekoniemi found her job search was easier after a name change. Image: Jari Tanskanen / Yle

In largely-homogenous Finland, a foreign-sounding name can still make it difficult to get a job interview. In a 2012 study commissioned by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, two equivalent applications each were sent in response to 1258 job ads. The applications were nearly identical – except for the applicants' name. One of each pair of applications was sent under a traditional Finnish name and the other with a Russian-sounding name.

The applicants with Finnish names were twice as likely to be called in for interviews than those with Russian names – even though many native Finnish families have Russian names dating back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the country was part of the Russian Empire.

Inga Jasinskaja-Lahti, a professor of social psychology at the University of Helsinki, believes that if the study was repeated today, the results would be roughly the same.

"I don't think that in today's atmosphere much change has taken place. International studies indicate that the more an applicant differs culturally from ourselves, the more bias there is, and you would certainly get similar results in Finland," she tells Yle.

Name changes to aid job search

In standard Finnish spelling, Alex can become Aleksi, Christina is Kristiina and Tatyana perhaps Tanja. Some job-seekers change their foreign-sounding names in an effort to fit in. Rainer Hiltunen, Head of the Office of the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman, sees this phenomenon as worrying.

"It's sad if someone has to give up such an essential part of their identity as their name. A name should not have anything to do with working. This is also an extreme example of how much of a society's resources are left untapped if a person's known-how is not utilised because his or her name suggests a different ethnic background," he says.

"Discrimination in recruitment is more hidden than other discrimination. Intervening in it is much more difficult than in discrimination that takes place at work," says Hiltunen with a sigh.

Unconscious bias

Labour officials are still rarely contacted about cases of suspected recruitment discrimination.

"Applicants don't necessarily realise that they are being discriminated against, or if they do, they don't know where to report their suspicions, or they may not want to contact any authorities," notes Jenny Rintala, an occupational safety official at the Regional State Administrative Agency of Southern Finland. She says that an applicant may not want to report such incidents for fear of harming future job prospects or earning a reputation as a troublemaker.

Inga Jasinskaja-Lahti, sosiaalipsykologian professori, Helsingin yliopisto
Jasinskaja-Lahti says that few employers consciously decide to discriminate solely on the basis of applicants' names.

"We often subconsciously favour applicants who are similar to ourselves, for instance those who have similar education or employment background. We don't necessarily trust other applicants as much," she says.

Anonymous recruitment has been suggested as a possible solution, and has been tried by the cities of Helsinki and Espoo, for example.

Anonymous recruitment seen as time-consuming

Managers at Helsinki's Youth Department see the method in a positive light, but have been surprised by how much more work the process involved.

"Anonymous recruitment was definitely a good thing, but there were two problems: we had to cover up some of the information on the applications by hand, and there were very few multi-cultural applicants for the positions, so we weren't able to get everything out of the method," says Tommi Laitio, Executive Director, Culture and Leisure at the City of Helsinki.

"When certain details were concealed in the applications, I realised how much attention we pay to them and make assumptions based on them. By covering them up, you focus more on the things that are essential in terms of the work," he adds.

Jasinskaja-Lahti agrees that anonymous recruitment is only a partial solution.

"An entirely anonymous application process is a good idea in principle, but we should think about how to prevent discriminatory procedures in the following stages," she suggests. "Even if we try to handle the initial stage as well as possible, that doesn't guarantee that the final result won't be biased."

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