Working in Finland as a foreign talent: Language is a problem only if you make it a problem

13 elokuuta 2020

In the fourth part of our interview series “Foreign talent at work” we meet Marion Boberg, a true foreign talent. Marion holds a Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Eastern Finland and Université de Caen Normandie in France, as well as a Masters degree in Business Administration from Tampere University of Applied Sciences. She has built her over ten-years-long career within user experience research entirely in Finland.

Jonna Louvrier (J.L.): Marion, today you lead the design team at Elisa Viihde. Can you tell us about your career path?

Marion Boberg (M.B.): Okay, so first of all, I’m French. And as you know, French people don’t speak that good English. So when I was studying psychology, I came to Joensuu as an Erasmus student to learn English and to do my third year in psychology. I liked it very much, so when I started doing a Ph.D. I joined a co-tutored program through which I did my doctoral thesis in Finland and in France. So I graduated from both from the University of Joensuu and the University of Caen.

At the time I was super interested in new technologies. I knew someone working at Nokia and she told me that they were recruiting PhDs in user experience research. I didn’t exactly know what it was, but it sounded fascinating. So I applied, and I got the job. And that is really how I got embarked on this career.

I deeply believe that innovation is the product of the mix of background and culture.

J.L.: How has it been to work as a foreigner in Finland? Has it played a role that you aren’t Finnish?

M.B.: Well it really depends. In some organizations it clearly isn’t an issue. And in other organizations you get the feeling that they do value your skills and competencies, but that they just don’t dare to recruit a non-Finnish speaker. I have seen that a lot.

At Nokia I had an amazing experience. Nokia really was a global corporation, and they didn’t care where you came from. There were already so many foreign talents in engineering and in design that it didn’t matter. I think that’s where I really understood the culture of innovation. I deeply believe that innovation is the product of the mix of background and culture. The mix of engineering, business, design, sound engineering, touch engineering, and also having people from India, Chile, France, Finland, the UK. This fusion of different ways of thinking was very helpful in our work. Everything was great: a lot of work and lots of learning. I really loved it. I think it was the best school for my career. But after Nokia it hasn’t always been easy.

At Nokia we didn’t need to speak Finnish. Everyone spoke English. But when I have been transitioning from one job to another language has often been a barrier.

Employers are saying they want to be international, but what they want is to be international by hiring Finnish persons. I don’t get it.

J.L.: How do you see Finnish employers expectations around Finnish language skills?

M.B.: In my view employers send out mixed messages. They say they want to be international. The job adverts are in English, they interview you in English and at the end they tell you the problem is that you don’t speak Finnish! Once when I applied for a consultancy job I asked them in the very beginning about Finnish, and they invited me for the job interviews. They clearly were interested in my profile, but even then at the end they told me they couldn’t offer me a job because of Finnish. So to me it seems that it isn’t always even clear for the recruiters what level of Finnish skills they should require. So I have a feeling that they’re saying they want to be international, but what they want is to be international by hiring Finnish persons. I don’t get it. If you really want to be international, then start hiring foreign talent. What these employers now do is miss out on talent, and create a lot of frustration among applicants.

J.L: How does it work language-wise, in organizations where you have worked in English? At Elisa, has language been an issue?

M.B: At Elisa the recruiters said, ”Oh, you speak Finnish? But that’s perfect.” So it was seen as a plus. So the attitude was completely different from those who hesitate.

If you work for customer service at Elisa, of course, Finnish is the main language and if you work as a marketer the customers are Finns. But there isn’t any barrier in Viihde. If we sometimes need to speak Finnish we ask someone to help us. It’s a problem only if you make it a problem.

J.L.: So your team, the Viihde design team, functions mainly in English?

M.B.: Yes. Even if there is only one foreigner, everyone will switch to English. Sometimes some persons feel that they don’t speak good enough English, but they are Finns. So their English is better than any French people I know! So yes, even though the market we are serving is Finnish, we always speak English with business, with the whole production. Within Elisa design roughly 10% of the employees are foreigners. It is very welcoming, I don’t think language is a problem for anyone.

J.L: What would you like to say to Finnish employers thinking about recruiting their first foreign talent?

M.B: Give it a try! Don’t exclude people just because they don’t speak Finnish. They can bring you new ideas and perspectives, and it may be fun.

Jonna Louvrier, CEO, Includia Leadership,

See also other interviews in the series:

Register now for the bilingual and hybrid event ”Foreign Talent in Finland” by FIBS and Includia Leadership, August 20th 2020.  The event is open to all FIBS members.

Includia Leaderhip is FIBS’ diversity and inclusion Partner



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