“Where are you from?”, “No, where are you really from?”, “Where are your parents from?”, “What are your origins?”, “You’re really from Switzerland?”

While these questions seem pretty innocuous, they often carry an underlying tone that denotes discrimination on the part of the inquisitor. The person asking these questions often does so from a position of privilege and/or from the majority group. Even in multinational corporations, where employee populations may be quite diverse, these questions can generate discomfort among teams. Though some people ask out of genuine care, others ask solely to sate their curiosity. They create an “othering” of people and, in the business environment, can alienate and ostracise employees, harming cooperation.

Why is it essential to discuss such questions in the context of antiracism in business, especially in a country like Switzerland? Highlighting these questions opens the door to uncovering deeper discriminatory issues that need to be eliminated in the workplace. According to the Swiss Federal Statistical Office, 54% of the reported discrimination cases occurred specifically in the workplace, with nationality being the primary reason stated by victims as the reason for discrimination. Even employees who carry a Swiss passport may still be perceived as “foreign” and not respected because of their appearance.

As an American working with leaders here, there are times when executives say to me, “But Christian, Switzerland is not as bad as the U.S. We don’t have Black people getting killed here.” That statement is not valid, and the United Nations acknowledges such. Though when I bring up cases such as Roger Nzoy Wilhelm or Mike Ben Peter, leaders can be skeptical because they see those as too far removed from their workplace. However, if I discuss the question, “Where are you from?” the topic of racism begins to resonate, often because leaders have asked that question to employees.

That question can be considered a microaggression, gaslighting, or both. Once leaders I work with understand the detrimental impact that such forms of microaggressions and gaslighting can have on employees (i.e., health issues), we discuss a tangible solution they can implement in the workplace. Rather than ask questions of employees in an exclusionary way (based on unconscious biases), ask in an inclusionary way.

Inclusionary Questioning

An inclusive type of questioning assumes that a person is part of the in-group (geographically in this context) rather than already placing them as an outsider. This line of questioning respects responses as valid because the individual responding is a unique human being who deserves respect. Instead of assuming someone is from a region or place outside of Switzerland, rephrase the question so that people can state where they are from without biases. Their reaction to this question allows for a deeper conversation and a connection among team members. As a leader, how can you transform this question into more inclusionary?

  1. Exclusionary Questioning
    Where are you from?
  2. Inclusionary Questioning
    Are you from Zurich as well?

Do you notice how the change in wording creates inclusion? This style of questioning allows the respondent to say whether or not they are from the region. Though the government does not collect data on race, there are Swiss people from all kinds of backgrounds who deserve to be seen as Swiss. There are also foreigners here who look to integrate and want to thrive in the workplace. Inclusion helps them to do so.

An inclusionary style of questioning is a way to start discussions around race and ethnicity in your organisation, but that’s just the beginning. Are you wondering what else needs to be understood and discussed to allow all of your employees to harness their full potential at work? Contact the Competence Centre for Diversity & Inclusion to learn more.

About the author(s)

Christian Pierce

M.SC. Christian Pierce Project Manager


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