Global Spotlight on Switzerland

The country that is home to the headquarters of many multinationals can surprise recruiters with its high degree of regionalism

January 2014 | By Colin Cottell


The country that is home to the headquarters of many multinationals can surprise recruiters with its high degree of regionalism

“If we are attracting someone for a finance director role, it would probably be easier to attract someone from outside the country than from Basel,” says Sarah Peck, talent acquisition consultant at international power management company Eaton Corporation.

Given that is only 200km between Morges on the shores of Lake Lausanne in the South-West of Switzerland, where Eaton is based, and Basel on Switzerland’s Northern border, such a statement might appear surprising.  

However, in Switzerland, recruiters who underestimate ties of region, culture and language do so at their peril. “It’s about people being rooted in their own area,” explains Peck of a country that is divided into a German-speaking part, a French-speaking region and an Italian-speaking area, and sub-divided into 26 cantons. “It’s hard to relocate someone from the German-speaking part to the French-speaking part, and vice versa.” This problem is accentuated by workers’ reluctance to commute, she adds. A fourth language, Romansh, which is spoken by 0.9% of Switzerland’s 8m population, only adds to the challenge faced by recruiters.

For one recruitment firm, Nicoll Curtin, the divisions along language lines are so marked that it has created a matrix splitting the market up into the different language areas, says the manager of its Zurich office, Tom O’Loughlin. 

Laurence Briola, head of Nestlé’s competence centre, based in Geneva, says the effect of the country’s language divisions is to dissipate Switzerland’s talent pool. “When we recruit for Nestlé Switzerland and the Swiss market, we want somebody who speaks both French and German, and potentially English as well, so they can speak with the headquarters. It makes the pool of talent tiny,” she says. 

Customer-facing roles, in particular, bring the issue to the fore, she says. “We cannot have a sales person dealing with a chain of supermarkets in the German-speaking part of Switzerland who doesn’t speak Swiss-German.”

Some hiring managers don’t always help themselves either, says O’Loughlin. They effectively narrow the pool of candidates by specifying in adverts “we would like somebody between the ages of x and y, and speaking a certain language”.

However, Abid Kanji, country manager for NonStop Recruitment Schweiz AG, which has an office in Zug, says that life has become somewhat easier since the beginning of 2013 for companies looking for Swiss-based talent. “Big pharma names such as Bausch + Lomb, Actavis, Crucell and Merck Serono have closed down HQs, making a higher number of candidates available on the market,” he says. 

Even though candidates may no longer hold all the cards, many companies, unable to find the talent within Switzerland’s borders, continue to look abroad. “A third of our candidates never worked in Switzerland, and at least 50% are foreigners,” says Peter Zürcher, branch director at Adecco HR.

Briola recognises the need for an international company such as Nestlé, with its global HQ in Switzerland, to seek out international talent, and particularly English-speaking talent. “We are faced by two different realities,” she says. “On the one hand [for global HQ positions] the job market is the world, and there is no issue getting good candidates; notwithstanding it can take time and is costly.”

On the other hand, for positions beyond HQs, where language and cultural issues intrude, “it is a very different story”, she says.

Key indicators

Switzerland’s population in 2012 was 7.99m (source: World Bank) and its unemployment rate in October 2013 was 3.1% (source: official government figure)

Women mainly work part-time. In 2012, 58% of women worked part-time (2007: 57.1%). In contrast, only 14.3% of men work part-time, although this percentage has also increased since 2007 (+2.3 percentage points)

Foreigners account for 23% of the permanent residents. In 2012, 68.9% of foreign nationals in work were EU or EFTA nationals. Almost half came from Germany (26.6%) or Italy 22.3%. Of foreign workers who have moved to Switzerland in the past 10 years, 81.9% have secondary- or tertiary-level qualifications

Colin Cottell

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