Young people with minority backgrounds emphasise their Norwegian identity to have a chance in the job market
Exaggerating their dialect and emphasising typically Norwegian leisure interests were among the strategies used by young Norwegians with a minority background to land an interview, and perhaps a job.
Speaking in dialect "can make you seem more Norwegian than you might be", says one of the nine participants in a new study.
Another of the interviewees applied for a job internally. On a daily basis, he used a name that did not stand out from the majority, but his actual name was different. His employer had forgotten this and automatically pulled his application.
"You said you had applied for the position, where’s your application?" asked the boss. "You just put me in the ‘no' pile without reading about my work experience," the employee replied. He told the researchers that he had not realised until then that having a foreign name made such a difference.
But it does – as research has repeatedly shown over time.
The question is: How do minorities deal with this reality?
Don’t want to be taken for first-generation immigrants
Social scientists Mathushiga Thiyagarajah and Julia Orupabo are behind the new study, which forms part of a larger research project that will try to answer this question.
"Few have clear stories about having been subjected to discrimination, and they may be unsure about its impact. Nevertheless, they have strategies to avoid discrimination," Orupabo says. She is a a researcher at the Institute for Social Research and the project leader.
“In particular, they’re afraid of being perceived as first-generation immigrants with poor language skills. A lot of their strategy involves avoiding that stigma so that employers will see them as qualified.”
The nine who were interviewed are all job seekers with higer education and an ethnic minority background, aged between 25 and 28 years. Five of them immigrated to Norway as children, four were born and raised in Norway.
Four of them were very concerned about ethnic discrimination, several because they had experienced it. Mohammed said that he "removes the Somali part" during the job search process. He never volunteers information about where he is from or that he came here as a child.
Other job seekers were not particularly worried. They had not experienced discrimination, something they attributed to their light skin colour and Norwegian-sounding names.
Being super-Norwegian in the outdoors
What all the interviewees had in common was that they employed some strategies to downplay their minority background and promote their Norwegianness to get a foot in the door.
“Minorities are often aware that they can be judged negatively based on stereotypical perceptions. Therefore, they try to control how they present themselves to the the majority population,” Orupabo says.
Language was important. The goal was to write impeccable Norwegian. And speaking in dialect was a clear advantage.
“You call the employer and really intensify your Bergen or Trønder dialect to signal your Norwegianness and get called in for an interview,” she says.
Another strategy was to highlight outdoor interests.
“It's about showing similarity in behaviour and interests – for example, ‘I like to go for walks in the woods and fields – like most Norwegians',” Orupabo explains.
“It could well be that minority immigrants spend a lot of time hiking in the forest or love to ski, but the point is that they assume the employer will interpret this information in certain ways. Immigrant applicants feel that certain aspects of themselves are more important to highlight.”
Interviewees are prepared
60 people were interviewed for the larger project. Data from population registries have also been collected and experiments conducted. The work of analysing the data has just begun.
“What I can say is that we’re seeing that people are prepared and have a number of strategies to avoid discrimination,” Orupabo says.
“These are strategies that are often invisible to the majority population, but a lot of energy is spent on them. Many respondents say that it isn’t the big, ugly events that weigh on them, but the small everyday incidentss that exhaust them. The employer who discriminates or does not call certain job applicants for an interview can’t see all the extra work and energy that immigrant applicants face.”
Orupabo and colleagues discuss similar findings from working life in the book Rasisme (Racism) from 2022:
“A lot of people believe that dark skin is associated with low or no education. A researcher is assumed to be an assistant, a lawyer is presumed to be a client, the doctor is thought to be a healthcare worker.”
Experiences of not being recognised as a doctor lead to quickly stating "I am the doctor".
“The individuals we interviewed, for instance, used clothing to signal status or were quick to say certain things to avoid offence. Most hide their sadness, or anger, when they get upset in these situations. Many choose to overlook such incidents, and some laugh it off, even if they’re left feeling that they’ve been belittled,” Orupabo says.
Ambiguous and risky
The threshold for speaking up is high.
“The situations are often ambiguous. Background and skin colour play a role in how others see and meet you, but it’s unclear what the motive of the person who mistakes you for a healthcare worker is. They might not have meant to offend you, and it's hard to pinpoint exactly what caused it to happen," the researcher says.
Many of the respondents are highly educated and do not want to be seen as victims; they may resort to other explanations, according to Orupabo. To call incidents like this discrimination and choosing to confront them also involves risk.
“Speaking up involves social risk; it creates a bad atmosphere. You're also the reason the other person loses face. And then there’s the labour market context – you’re entering into a dependent relationship with someone. Confrontation might mean losing opportunities,” she says.
In Norway, it took a while before studies were conducted to determine whether employers were screening out applicants with foreign names, Orupabo explains.
"One of the reasons for this delay was ethical concerns, considering these studies involved actual employers," se says.
The first study was published in 2012. 1,800 ficticious job applications were sent out to actual job listings. The same application was sent with a typical Norwegian name and a foreign name. The likelihood of being called in for an interview was 25 per cent lower with a foreign-sounding name. Several studies have since confirmed this finding in the Norwegian context.
“It’s depressing to find that discrimination turns out to be such a stable finding. It has not decreased over time, and it also affects the children of immigrants. And we see this across time and countries,” Orupabo says.
“Norwegian employers don't differentiate between first-generation immigrants and descendants when they review job applications from candidates with ‘non-Norwegian-sounding’ names. Our study shows that this reality has an impact on how Norwegians with immigrant backgrounds present themselves in the job application process.”
Adopted, not an au pair
“This study is important because it reveals something about how the working world operates and what Norwegian-born individuals with immigrant parents have to do – or what they think they have to do – to get a job,” Mariann Stærkebye Leirvik, a researcher at OsloMet, says.
“It's not enough to simply state that discrimination occurs. The next step is to find out how people deal with it, and what this tells us about how society, and in this case the labour market, functions.”
Earlier this year, Leirvik and colleagues were involved in a study on the experiences of internationally adopted individuals with racism and discrimination. Those who were adopted from abroad also tend to emphasise their ‘Norwegianness’.
“If they're going to send an email to someone they haven't contacted before in a work context, they make sure to use their Norwegian-sounding name. And they use dialect for all it's worth in an attempt to control impressions, both when applying for a job and in other contexts as well,” Leirvik says.
Another strategy that minority applicants employ is to distance themselves from other immigrants.
“They do this not because they look down on immigrants, but to avoid the stigma they feel is associated with immigrants, which is linked to negative things, such as being seen as a terrorist, an au pair, or a prostitute. So they want to signal in every possible way that they are Norwegian and belong. They work actively to try to be allowed to belong in Norwegian society,” she says.
Important to delve deeper
In another study, Leirvik interviewed police officers with minority backgrounds to find out if they experience racism in the workplace (link in Norwegian).
The racism surfaces not in the form of major events that are clearly racist, but rather as small, ambiguous trickles, known as microaggressions – such as comments that their Norwegian is good, even though they’ve lived in Norway their whole lives. Or assumptions that they cannot ski, do not celebrate Christmas, or do not drink alcohol if they are Muslim.
“We need more research that goes into depth on this in the workplace,” Leirvik says. “I don't think the experiences I found within the police force are unique. I think they apply to other sectors of the workforce as well."
Translated by Ingrid P. Nuse