Ethnic Penalties, Assimilation, and the Role of Public Attitudes


This project circles around three core questions: Does assimilation work? Does discrimination vary with exposure to competition? Do public attitudes directly translate into immigrant disadvantage?

(1) Assimilation Proofs: Initially, we analyze whether the origin of immigrants and/or their level of assimilation to the host country (birth and naturalization) can explain labor market trajectories. Among the manifold domains in which individuals with a migration background may face disadvantages, we focus on labor market re-integration because it has been proven to be a key factor in fostering long-term social integration into the host country. Although empirical evidence for discriminatory practices by employers is generally difficult to provide with registry data, our design minimizes potential alternative explanations. Our study benefits from a unique dataset combining registry and survey data, which were collected in the Swiss Canton of Vaud among all newly unemployed individuals between February and April 2012. The findings are based on real labor market behavior and show that when controlling for encompassing information on human and social capital and other employability criteria, individuals whose provenience is from outside the European Union face periods of unemployment that are up to 50% (or 3 months) longer than those of Swiss natives. Surprisingly, observable assimilation proofs in the form of naturalization or birth in the host country do not improve labor market re-integration. We explain this finding by employers’ discriminatory hiring behavior.

(2) Assimilation Signals: In a related study, we test whether HR managers’ discrimination against candidates with a nonnative background can be counteracted by these candidates signaling assimilation into the host society. In our study, HR managers evaluate descriptions of fictitious CVs in which we vary the nationality of the candidates and different signals of cultural attachment to their migration background or to the host country. The findings reveal that candidates with Polish- and Turkish-sounding names are evaluated worse than candidates with Swiss- or Spanish-sounding names. More interestingly, however, participating in civic engagement within a traditional Swiss volunteering organization increases the opportunities given to individuals with Polish and Turkish backgrounds, while participating in an organization connected to their origin dramatically damages their evaluation by prospective employers. We also show that candidates with Polish or Turkish backgrounds who adjust their CVs to appear native by indicating fluency in only the local language (either German or French) fare much better than those who reveal a language attachment to their country of origin. We conclude that there are limited opportunities to ameliorate the evaluation of a CV by signaling assimilation into the host country; conversely, non-adapted CVs and CVs that convey multiple signals of attachment to one’s culture of origin are heavily sanctioned in the assessment by HR managers.

(3) Competition: Subsequently, we want to examine whether the prevalence of ethnic discrimination varies with a discriminator’s exposure to competition.  First, we use a representative online survey experiment in Germany in order to ask participants to take over the role as a football manager and to rate players in three different tasks. First results show that participants on average prefer White (rather than Black) and Western (rather than non-Western) players, especially when they need to choose between two candidates. We conclude that discrimination likely occurs when there is pressure to select.

(4) Housing: In a related study, we examine ethnic discrimination in the housing market. The progressive increase of housing prices and the depletion of affordable dwellings in Swiss urban centers have brought attention to the population's housing conditions and residential mobility. Recent studies have shown that some precarious groups have a more difficult access to adequate housing, especially lower-income households and foreign-born populations. In Switzerland, where the majority of individuals live in rental units, landlords and rental agencies act as gatekeepers and play an important role in the spatial distribution of precarious populations across neighborhoods and to what type of dwelling they have access to. As a result of the landlords’ decisions, ethnic minorities might have limited choices as for where they live. They might be stuck in more deprived housings or neighborhoods, access relatively overpriced dwellings, experience higher rates of crowding, etc. Consequently, our study proposes to investigate mechanisms of discrimination that might take place in the Swiss housing market amongst landlords, professional agencies, and private persons (renters), each of whom potentially having different incentives to discriminate.

(5&6) Attitudes: Do public attitudes directly translate into immigrant disadvantage? We aspire to answer this question with two original studies on the effect of public referenda in Switzerland. Such regularly occurring votes are also directly referring to the country’s position vis-à-vis the international community and immigration and usually are heatedly debated prior to the referendum. We exploit such immigration-related referenda by linking salient public discourses to economic and political outcomes of foreigners living in Switzerland. Concretely, we investigate whether such debates, everything else equal, affect the propensity to find a new job during the months of the most heated public exchanges. We hypothesize that a group being pushed into the spotlight by a referendum experiences detrimental effects on its aggregated re-integration chances. Similarly, we expect local politicians with a foreign-sounding name to have a harder stand if the local election falls in the period prior to such a public controversy.

(7) Perception: Eventually, we seek to shed light on the mechanisms of perceived discrimination: Who, among recent immigrants, is more likely to feel discriminated against and report it when asked in a survey? Social scientists typically define discrimination as an observable and unjust difference in the treatment of distinct groups. In order to personally feel discriminated against, people must be aware of the differential treatment and perceive it as unjust. We show that reporting discrimination when asked in a survey depends substantially upon individual traits, including aspects that shape whether discrimination is accepted and whether immigrants feel attached to the host society. Although respondents report less discrimination if their job situation has improved after migration, people more likely report discrimination when they originate from countries in which the national legislature represents ethnic minority groups relatively well. Earlier difficulties related to the migration process and the lack of supporting networks continue to affect the perception of unfair treatment. Moreover, we show that individuals distinguish to a surprising degree between discrimination in and outside the work environment. For instance, when they are proficient in the local language, respondents often report discrimination in the workplace but not in a public environment. This distinction between discrimination in the workplace and discrimination in public also depends strongly upon the immigrant’s origin. We conclude that contemporary individual-level measures and policy recommendations merely approximate discriminatory patterns; we urge future research to consider factors that affect individual perception of discrimination.

Main content

Selected Publications

Auer, Daniel/Fossati, Flavia (2018): "The Absent Rewards of Assimilation. How Ethnic Penalties Persist in the Swiss Labour Market". In: Journal of Economic Inequality, S. 1-15.

Liechti, Fabienne/Fossati, Flavia/Bonoli, Giuliano/Auer, Daniel (2018):  "The Matching Hierarchies Model: Evidence from a Survey Experiment on Employers’ Hiring Intent of Immigrant Applicants". In: International Migration Review.

Fossati, Flavia/Bonoli, Giuliano/Auer, Daniel (2017): "Why do immigrants have longer periods of unemployment? Swiss evidence". In: International Migration Vol 55, No 1: p. 157-174.

Project Management
Prof. Dr. Giuliano Bonoli (University of Lausanne), Prof. Dr. Flavia Fossati (Uni Vienna), Julie Lacroix (University of Geneva), Dr. Fabienne Liechti (University of Lausanne), Dr. Didier Ruedin (University of Neuchâtel)
Lea Portmann (University of Lucerne)
2018 -
Bundesamt für Wohnungswesen BWO Switzerland, Swiss National Science Foundation, SFM Swiss Forum for Migration and Population Studies, HR Swiss