Do ‘foreign-sounding names’ trigger racism in German HR?

Through hundreds of interviews with Human Resources departments in Germany, careers coach Chris Pyak saw day-to-day discrimination in the hiring process.

Do 'foreign-sounding names' trigger racism in German HR?
Photo: Depositphotos/eabff

My last column spawned a heated debate on The Local's Facebook page. The title of the column triggered a lot of feelings and many commented without reading the actual article first. The topic: Racism in HR.

Last week I talked about research results by a German government agency that proves a substantial racist bias in the recruiting process. The German Institut zur Zukunft der Arbeit (Institute for the Future of Work) tested prejudice in HR with a sample of 1500 “job applications”.

READ ALSO: Working in Germany: It's a myth you need to know German to land a job

This survey shows that – all things equal – candidates with a “foreign sounding” name still have to apply to significantly more jobs in order to land an interview.

To be very clear: We are talking about German citizens, born and raised here in Germany, native German speakers, who went to a German school and university.

The only thing that's “different” about them: Their name sounds “foreign”.

A woman at a job interview. Photo: Depositphotos/eggeeggjiew

Which brings me to the real obstacle that international professionals face in Germany.

Everyone will tell you that “German language” is the obstacle to hiring you. But in most cases, it is not.

Over the years I heard stories of thousands of expats like you. They share their experiences with me in my annual Expats Career Survey and in my coaching sessions.

At the same time, I also get to hear the stories of HR managers, recruiters and department heads. They talk openly to me and tell me their real motivations. Something that they will never do with a candidate.

Because in many cases it would allow you to sue them for discrimination and more importantly: They simply don't care enough about you to provide you with real feedback, instead of the most convenient feedback.

'They know nothing about the actual job'

To be clear: There are great HR people out there. But the majority that I have spoken to over the years know very little about the profession for which they are hiring. 

They are like referees at a soccer game who don't know that the whole point of soccer is to score goals. But they are still tasked with evaluating the players.

Additionally, HR attracts a certain type of personality. People who otherwise would have taken a job in government administration. They have a very strong desire for “safety”. Not the safety of the company though, but safety from criticism.

Their number one goal in life is to be “safe”. But then you come along and you are very “different” from the “normal” candidate.

What will a person do, who seeks “safety” above all? Will they take a risk or avoid a risk?

Of course they avoid the risk. And you are out.

When they reject you, they might say: “Oh, your German is still not good enough.”

Just what do recruiters say?

When they talk to me, they say things like this:

“I don't even read the CV from an Indian applicant. They play our software and know exactly which keywords to include in order to come out at the top. I reject them right away.”

“I cannot evaluate these foreign applications” (In this case, the person held a Master's degree from Cambridge University!)

“Simple rule: If I can't spell the name, then neither can our clients.”

This general study shows the prevalence of workplace discrimination in Germany compared to other countries. In 21 percent of a cases, it was said to be triggered by racism. Graph prepared for The Local by Statista.

“I look at the picture and invite those who seem fitting.” (This is 2019! Unbelievable!!) Guess what: That particular recruiter has so far never deemed a non-white person “fitting”.

I could go on and on.

It's not just foreigners, though. The fear of everything “unusual” is also holding back others who dare to be “different”.

“She got promoted way to fast and is too young for this position” (Guess what: How can you ever hire high achievers if you seed out the people who got promoted “too fast”? That's what *describes* a high achiever!)

“He is too old”.

“She is the right age. But she just got married. She probably wants children soon”. (To hear this from a female HR person amounts to betrayal of the sisterhood. Worse than any man.)

Just what jobs are available in Germany?

I regularly analyze nearly the complete German job market with our partner Textkernel B.V., combing through more than 53.000 job portals, companies websites, etc.

As of today (September 27th) there are 818,000 full-time positions available in Germany, and 24.400 of them are in English. A little less than three percent.

READ ALSO: How to get a job in Germany if you don't fit all of the criteria

At the same time, the Top 10 jobs in demand are:

-Software Developer
-Customer Service Consultant
-Web Developer
-SAP Consultant
-Sales Manager
-Account Manager
-Project Manager
-Business Development Manager
-Product Manager

Which of these jobs could you not do while also learning German? What I regularly experience when I talk with managers: “You need German” is not an evaluation. It's a gut reaction.

When you look closer at the actual goals, challenges and tasks in a position you very often find: The things that create the biggest value in the position can be done in English.

For other tasks, you can find a replacement. (Like Google Translate or hiring an intern to translate in contact with factory floor workers),

But in most cases you never get the chance to explain *how* you would help the hiring manager to achieve her goals. You get rejected based on superficial criteria that have no relation to the actual job.

Which let former Deutsche Telecom board Member Thomas Sattelberger to exclaim once: “How do you double performance in HR? You fire half the people.”


Chris Pyak is the Author of “How To Win Jobs & Influence Germans“. The managing director of Immigrant Spirit GmbH has worked in four different cultures and lived in five different countries.

Chris returned to Germany in 2011. His mission: Bring the Immigrant Spirit to his home country. Chris introduces international professionals to employers in Germany.

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7 tips for how to survive as a freelancer in Germany

Taking the decision to go it alone and freelance in Germany can be a daunting prospect. But, if you do it right, it can be an exciting and liberating path. Here are some of our top tips on how to survive.

7 tips for how to survive as a freelancer in Germany

1. Get a tax advisor

The German tax system is complicated, even for Germans. All the associated paperwork uses the Amtsprache (authority language) which is more like legalese than ‘normal’ German, and mistakes when filling out tax forms can cause you, at best, a massive headache and, at worst, a costly fine. So it’s best that you employ someone who knows what they’re doing to help you out.

That person is called a Steuerberater (tax advisor) in Germany. They will help you register with the tax office, correspond with them and submit your tax declarations.

Be aware that, in Germany, different deadlines apply for tax returns depending on whether you employ an official tax advisor or not. If you are doing the tax return on your own, the deadline for submitting your annual tax return is earlier than if you use a tax advisor’s services. 

READ ALSO: What NOT to do when you’re freelancing in Germany

When looking for a tax advisor, a top tip is to use your network to get recommendations. Ideally, you want someone who will do more than just fill in the forms for you, but who will actually advise you on how best to manage your business finances so that you can make tax savings.

2. Keep your accounting in order

The better you keep your own accounts in order, the easier it will be for your tax advisor to compile your tax declarations and therefore the cheaper their services will be.

As a freelancer, there are a lot of costs you can deduct from your taxes – from train tickets, working materials, to meals out – so it’s best to keep hold of all your receipts and to keep them in good order.

2 euros and 50 cents lie on a receipt in a beer garden. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel

In Germany, you’re obliged to keep hold of receipts for two years, in case of a tax inspection, so it’s a good idea to photocopy the type of machine-printed receipts you get from restaurants so that they stay legible for a long time.

There are also a few things to be aware of when writing your own invoices. Firstly, make sure that you include your tax number. This isn’t the 11-digit Steueridentifikationsnummer that everyone gets when registering in Germany, but the 10-digit Steuernummer you get from the Finanzamt after registering yourself as a freelancer. 

Most companies won’t pay you if you don’t have this on your invoices so make sure you include it.

You should also make sure that you number your invoices properly – ideally in ascending order so that you can easily keep track of them. You are not allowed to issue two invoices with the same number and if you do so and the finance office notices, you could face an inspection of your whole accounting system.

There are numerous great accounting software programmes you can use to help you, such as Lexoffice and Sevdesk and, even if you have to pay for them, the costs will be tax deductible!

3. Find out if you’re eligible for financial support

In Germany, there are several opportunities for freelancers to gain financial support and to cut their outgoings, and its worth finding out if you’re eligible for them.

If you’re claiming unemployment benefits under ALG 1 and are thinking about becoming a freelancer, the employment office offers a special type of financial support to help you to get your freelance business off the ground.

Called the Grundungszuschuss (“foundation grant”) the payment is a six-month grant equalling your monthly entitlement under ALG 1 plus €300 towards your insurance costs can be applied for those in receipt of this unemployment benefit.

READ ALSO: Will freelancers benefit from Germany’s €300 energy allowance?

If you are engaged in some form of artistic profession in Germany – which can include journalism to pottery – you may be entitled to membership to the Kunstlersozialkasse (artists’ social insurance).

Being a member of the KSK means you only have to pay half of your health insurance and pension contributions, and the KSK will pay the rest.

4. Work out how much you think you will earn

As with starting any business, you need to have some idea of your expected earnings from the outset.

If you’re just starting out as a freelancer, or have some freelance gigs on the side of an employment position, then it might be worth considering registering yourself as a Kleinunternehmer (“small business”).

As a Kleinunternehmer, you can currently earn up to €22.000 per year without having to charge VAT and having to submit only yearly tax declarations. 

An income tax declaration form lies on a table. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Hans-Jürgen Wiedl

Be aware that if you are registered as this kind of freelancer, you must include the following sentence in your invoices: ‘Gemäß § 19 UStG wird keine Umsatzsteuer berechnet’ which means ‘In accordance with Paragrah19 of the German VAT law, no VAT has been added to this invoice.’

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about your German tax return in 2022

If you think you will earn more than €22.000 per year, you will need to pay Umsatzsteuer (VAT) and will have to submit tax declarations in advance and more often. Depending on how much you earn, this could be every month or every quarter. 

5. Get your insurance in order

In Germany, it’s a legal requirement to have health insurance.

If you’ve just made the move from employment to being a freelancer and want to keep the same health insurer, you should get in contact with your health insurance provider straight away to tell them about your change of circumstances. They will ask you to re-register and to tell them your projected freelance earnings for the year, so they can amend your monthly fees.

If you don’t keep your health insurer provider updated, you could continue to be charged the higher rate that you had from your previous salary.

The insurance cards of the health insurance companies DAK, AOK, Barmer and Techniker-Krankenkasse TK lie with euro notes under a stethoscope. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Daniel Karmann

It’s not just health insurance you need to think about as a freelancer. It’s also wise to think about protecting yourself from any sort of claims that could arise as a result of any working mishaps. 

If, for example, you lose your laptop which contains confidential client information, you need to be protected against claims.

That’s why it’s good to have both Betriebshaftversicherung (business liability insurance) and Rechtschutzversicherung (legal protection insurance).

6. Plan your time wisely

All of these bureaucratic obligations take time. So it’s really important that you take account of that when planning your time. For example, planning half a day a week to deal with your invoices, filing, emails to clients, and conversations with authorities can be really beneficial when scheduling your working time. 

7. Grow your network

As a freelancer, networking is absolutely crucial to success. 

Keep an up-to-date profile on websites like LinkedIn and German equivalent XING and keep in contact with anyone you’ve ever worked with, no matter how brief the contact was. 

Having a network is not only about getting more clients, but also about building a support network in your field to exchange advice, tips and generally for your own enrichment. 

Participating in workshops related to your field, going to seminars, and meet-ups, can be great ways of broadening your network.