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.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


How easy is it to get an English-speaking job in Germany?

Lots of foreigners in Germany hope to get a job or climb the career ladder. But are there still opportunities for English speakers who don't have fluent German? We spoke to a careers expert to find out.

How easy is it to get an English-speaking job in Germany?

The pandemic turned our lives upside down. As well as having to isolate and be apart from family members, many people found themselves in need of a new job or decided they want a change in career. 

If you’re in Germany or thinking of moving here, job searching is of course easier with German language skills. But many people haven’t had the chance to learn German – or their German isn’t fluent enough to work in a German-only environment.

So how easy is it to find a job in Germany as an English speaker?

We asked Düsseldorf-based career coach Chris Pyak, managing director of Immigrant Spirit GmbH, who said he’s seen an increase in job offers. 

“The surprising thing about this pandemic is that demand for skilled labour actually got even stronger,” Pyak told The Local.

“Instead of companies being careful, they’ve hired even more than they did before. And the one thing that happened during the pandemic that didn’t happen in the last 10 years I’ve observed the job market was that the number of English offers quadrupled.”

READ ALSO: How to boost your career chances in Germany

Pyak said usually about one percent of German companies hire new starts in English. “Now it’s about four percent,” said Pyak. 

“This happened in the second half of 2021. This is a really positive development that companies are more willing than they used to be. That said it’s still only four percent.”

Pyak said he’s seen a spike in demand for data scientists and analysts as well as project managers. 

So there are some jobs available, but can foreigners do anything else?

Pyak advises non-Germans to sell themselves in a different way than they may be used to. 

A woman works on her CV in Germany.

A woman works on her CV in Germany. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

“In your home country you have a network, you have a company you used to work for that people know,” said Pyak. “This might be partly the case in Germany if you worked for an international company. But for most employers you are a blank sheet of paper, they know nothing about you. So unfortunately if they don’t know you or your country, they will assume you are worse (at the job) than Germans. It’s completely unjustified but it’s just how people are. 

“Get the employer to see you as the individual person you are, the professional you are. This requires that you have a conversation with somebody inside the company, ideally the decision maker, meaning the hiring manager or someone in this team.”

Pyak said it’s important to go into details. 

“Don’t think of me as a foreigner, think of me as ‘Mark who has been working in IT for 15 years’,” said Pyak. “Don’t read the job advert (to the manager), ask them what his or her biggest worry is and why is that important? And then dig deeper and offer solutions based on your work experience. Share actual examples where you proved that you can solve this problem.”

READ ALSO: 7 factors that can affect how much you’re getting paid

Pyak says foreigners in Germany can convince managers that they are right for the job – even if their German isn’t great. 

“What I advise clients at the beginning of the interview is to ask very politely if you can ask them (managers) a question. And this question should be: how will you know that I’m successful in this job, what is the most important problem I need to solve for you in order to make myself valuable? And then ask why this problem is so important. And the answer to that achieves a million things for you – first of all you’ve established a measurement by which you should be measured. 

“Then when you get into detailed discussion you can always tie your answer back to the question you can solve, which usually makes up 70 or 80 percent of the job. If you can solve this problem then what does it matter if you do the job in German or English?”

So in answer to our original question – it seems that getting an English-speaking job in Germany can’t be described as easy but it is very possible especially if you have the skills in your chosen field. Plus there are ways to increase your chances. Good luck!