How Important is German or French to Work in Switzerland?

This is one of the most common questions I get asked when I talk to job seekers in Switzerland. It’s long overdue to write about this topic. I will give you my insights from my experience and from what people tell me that successfully secured a job in Switzerland as an English speaker.

In case you want to learn more about how to get a job in Switzerland as an English speaker, I highly recommend to download the Career Excellence Toolkit for Switzerland.

 

The Outsourcing Convention

A while ago, I attended an outsourcing convention in Switzerland with around 100 participants. It was organized by someone I know and who has shown great leadership abilities in hosting these types of events.

After the initial round table discussion, we moved to the networking part. We all grabbed some food and drinks and went to the standing tables to start getting to know each other. I ended up at a table with three people. One of them was working at Swisscom and has been in a hiring position since many years.

Being a very curious person, I asked him a few questions, at the same time trying not to make it look like an interview with a journalist. He happened to be a very open minded personality and shared some insights from his career with me.

I was very curious to know more about the people he hires and asked him about language requirements. I asked him how important it is in his organization to speak fluent German (as he was from the German speaking part of Switzerland).

His immediate reaction went something like this: “Speaking or writing German is not necessarily that important. It’s more important to understand technical documents and meetings that are held in German (Not Swiss German). However, people are welcome to speak or write in English as long as they understand what is happening around them. Therefore it is very important to at least understand intermediate German but it is not a must criteria to speak fluently.”

His answer surprised me as most of the job descriptions I have seen from Swisscom are in German or require at least very good German language skills. I am going to tell you a bit further down in this article why this is.

 

Many of my friends

The major part of my friends in Switzerland does either not speak German or French at all or only intermediate. Maybe this is one reason I became a career coach for English speakers in Switzerland, who knows.

They have all been job seekers at some point but now they are working in Switzerland. Interestingly, most of them found their jobs through building and leveraging genuine and meaningful relationships.

 

Focusing on the Right Companies

It is certainly not possible to work at every single company in Switzerland if you only speak the local language at an intermediate level or not at all. Many companies are still very inclined to hire locals or somebody with fluent local language skills.

However it’s also true that at many of these companies, HR requests something different in their job adverts than what the hiring manager needs. More about that later.

You need to focus on the right companies. For some people these companies are large international corporations like Novartis, UBS, Credit Suisse, Roche or Nestle. 

For other people it might be more interesting to work for a small to medium sized enterprise. Unfortunately for the sake of comfort, these companies are not easy to find on job boards. They may not advertise their jobs on the expensive job boards like jobs.ch. They may work with recruiters instead to fill their vacancies. However, it’s much more likely that they recruit differently. 

But what tools are available out there to hire somebody if it’s not job boards or recruiters? It’s called talking to people, also known as asking the network.

I know for a fact that many of the smaller companies recruit many of their employees through their own network as they are not willing to invest money into solutions that simply provide them CVs but are willing to invest time in hiring the right personality.

Next time you are looking for potential companies to hire you, think about which ones are the most likely to see your native language skills as a larger benefit than your lack of the local language as a killer criteria.

 

Recruiters, HR and Hiring Managers

There are some major differences between what each of these three parties requests in terms of languages. To be able to successfully work with these companies, you need to understand their needs and their world view.

 

1. Recruiters

Most recruiters I know only work with job seekers who speak a local language at least very well. To understand why, you need to understand their business a bit more. 

A recruiter is paid to provide additional value to a company, more than the open market itself could. That means there usually has to be a bigger benefit for the company to work with a recruiter than to hire somebody from direct applications.

The biggest value a recruitment agency can provide, from my point of view, is to introduce people with a personality, values and leadership abilities instead of simply CVs. Unfortunately in many cases this is not what reality reflects (I’m ok here with offending some recruiters).

Fortunately there are also exceptions out there and I was fortunate to meet some of them during the last couple of month.

So in those cases where the recruiter won’t provide the additional value of these factors, he has to choose something else. And something else may very well be a local language.

 

2. Human Resources

HR is usually the first point of contact when you apply for a job. However, it’s crucial to realize that HR is not the source of jobs, the hiring manager is.

HR usually receives some vague specifics from the hiring manager and in many cases it is very difficult for HR to clearly understand what is needed. Not in terms of skills of course, that can be written in a manual or job description but in terms of personality. In a world where everybody is expected to demonstrate leadership abilities, not only on a management level, how do you write a job description for a leader? What does “Excellent communication skills” and “Leadership abilities” even mean? It means something different for every individual.

The miscommunication also happens when it comes to languages. The hiring manager may not need somebody with fluent local language skills but because HR can choose between 100s of applicants, why not add it as a requirement? Why not write the job description even in German to make sure fewer people apply and therefore less work for HR is created?

 

3. Hiring Managers

We arrived at the source. This is where the jobs are created and the question of German or no German, French or no French arises the first time.

In many cases it is desirable to have somebody on board with local language skills but then, an interesting ending is added to this statement. “… but for the right candidate, we can also live with intermediate German or French language skills”.

What does “the right candidate” mean? I think what it means is somebody bringing the right attitude, personality and values alongside with the skills and experience.

 

Conclusion

Therefore, if you want to secure a job in Switzerland, my recommendation would be to focus on the companies hiring personalities instead of the ones trying to fill boxes. When a company is more interested in hiring you because of you and not your CV, there is more room for the job to be suited to you instead of you fitting into that box.

If you are not sure if a company is hiring for attitude or skills, why not ask for a feedback about that company in the Career Network Switzerland on LinkedIn?

If you don’t speak a single word in French or German, it is certainly advisable to take some lessons or spend time with locals to learn the language, at least to understand it.

Get to an intermediate level as fast as possible, talk to companies that hire for attitude instead of skills to fit a box and your chances to get a job in Switzerland as an English speaker will significantly increase.