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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Reader question: Is it ever legally too hot to work from home in Germany?

Germany has regulations on working during a heatwave - but does that also apply to people who work remotely? We take a look.

Reader question: Is it ever legally too hot to work from home in Germany?

The number of people working from home shot up during the Covid pandemic, and though employees no longer have the right to work remotely by law, many have chosen to stick with more flexible arrangements and set up a home office at least part of the week.

This is great news for people who enjoy a lie-in more than a long commute, but there are some downsides. One major issue is that it’s not always clear how Germany’s strict employee protection rules actually apply in a home setting. The rules for working during a heatwave are a good example of this.

How does Germany regulate working in extreme heat? 

By law in Germany, employers are responsible for creating a safe environment for their workers. This means that they should try and keep the temperature below 26C at all times and are legally obliged to take action if the temperature goes above 30C. 

That could include putting blinds on the windows to prevent the glare of the sun, installing air conditioning systems or purchasing fans. In some cases – such as outdoor manual labour – it could also involve starting and finishing earlier in the day. 

And in really high temperatures, employers may simply decide to call the whole thing off and give their employees a ‘hitzefrei’ day – basically a heat-induced day off – to go and cool down in a lake. However, business owners are generally given free rein to decide how hot is too hot in this instance (except in the case of vulnerable workers). 

READ ALSO: Hitzefrei: Is it ever legally too hot to go to work or school in Germany?

Do the heat rules apply to ‘home office?’

Unfortunately not. In most cases in Germany, the company isn’t directly involved in setting up the workspace for an employee that works from home, aside from possibly providing a laptop or phone for remote use. 

“The occupational health and safety regulations regarding room temperature do not apply in this case,” labour law expert Meike Brecklinghaus told German business publication T3N. “This is because the employer does not have direct access to the employee’s workplace and in this respect cannot take remedial action.”

That means that on hot days, it’s the employee’s own responsibility to make sure the environment is suitable for working in. 

woman works from home in Germany

A woman works in her living room at home. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Naupold

One duty employers do have, however, is to instruct their workers about the best way to set up a healthy work environment at home, for example by giving guidance on how to regulate the temperature. 

“In the end, it is the employee’s responsibility to maintain his or her workplace in a condition in which he or she can perform his or her work without the threat of health impairments,” Brecklinghaus explained.

What can home office workers do in hot weather?

There are plenty of ways to keep flats cooler in the summer months, including purchasing your own fan, keeping curtains or blinds drawn and ventilating the rooms in the evening or early morning when the weather is cooler.

However, if heat is really becoming a problem, it’s a good idea to communicate this to your employer. This is especially important if you have a health condition that makes it more dangerous to work in hot weather. 

In some cases, you might be able to negotiate for the employer to pay for the purchase of a fan or mobile air conditioner as goodwill gesture. If possible, you could also arrange to travel to the office where the temperature should be better regulated.

Another option for early birds or night owls is to arrange more flexible working hours so you can avoid sweltering at your desk in the midday sun, although this of course depends on operational factors. 

READ ASO: Jobs in Germany: Should foreign workers join a union?