An Estonian bank’s experience in international recruitment – Agne Sokolov

When recruiting foreigners to work in Estonia, there are many aspects to consider, from cultural differences and the weather to the difficulties of finding a doctor or a kindergarten spot for the employee’s kids, writes Agne Sokolov, an Estonian bank’s support services lead.

“Estonia is clean, quiet and safe,” says an employee of Bigbank who has come to work in Estonia from overseas. Another one adds that Tallinn has free public transport, it is easy to use the ID-card and it’s nice to ride a bike on the illuminated roads. These are every-day things for Estonians, but important factors for foreign employees when choosing their career and place of residence.

At the moment, the bank’s Estonian office employs 12 foreigners who have come to work both at the company’s technology area and customer service positions. Some have found their way through a public advertisement, others have been recruited by headhunting. Why have these people come to Estonia and to work for us?

Domestic IT recruiting is more expensive

We are a bank specialised in loans, which includes both regular banking positions, but also such exciting positions as data migration lead, scrum master, site reliability engineer and many others.

As we operate in nine European countries and the people at our headquarters often communicate with all countries, we have also unified many official titles. This way the employees at different countries can understand the work of their colleagues in a more similar way. Our goal is digitalisation and so the technology area constitutes 17% of the whole bank’s and 31% of Estonian staff. In recent times, we have recruited the most to the technology area.

Most of our foreign employees have started work in the past few years, as we understood that recruiting IT workers from the domestic market was more and more time consuming and expensive. We also organise campaigns for the employees of our company where we pay a bonus of e.g. €2,000 for a person recommended to us. Both the employee campaigns and the good work of recruitment companies have been successful in finding hard-working people.

“Estonia has stood out to them as an innovative place with potential for development”

The people who come to work for us decide to come to Estonia, for example, because they have an Estonian girlfriend and are therefore looking for a good job; or because Estonia has stood out to them as an innovative place with potential for development, where a person can continue to develop their career. For example, according to employees from Brazil, the IT labour market there is so competitive that finding a good and well-paid job while competing with a million other people working in the field is very difficult.

Cultural differences are an issue for all employees

We carefully considered the decision to recruit employees from other countries, but understanding its daily implications took some time.

Our official internal language is English and the internal documents are mostly in English, but first, we understood that even though we may use English at the company level, people tend to talk to each other in their mother tongue. Thus, a foreign employee can easily be left out of the communication around them. What helped and is helping is constantly reminding the staff that in the kitchen or in the room there are also people who do not speak Estonian. Within the last year, we have recruited employees who have at least a basic level of English.

Secondly, we realised that cultural differences are an issue that needs to be discussed both among foreign employees and also existing employees. It is necessary to discuss different behaviours, traditions and established rules, which may be ordinary for Estonians, but could scare a foreign employee. For example, while in Spain it is completely normal to begin meetings with a 15-minute delay, in Estonia it is considered rude. This year, we are planning a separate training in cultural differences in cooperation with our partners.

Naturally, our climate is also an issue and it is not to be underestimated. It is not enough to tell a person that it is cold here, as in Brazil or Ukraine, “cold” can mean temperatures way above freezing.

“It is not enough to tell a person that it is cold here, as in Brazil or Ukraine, “cold” can mean temperatures way above freezing”

Once, we have had to even turn to the prime minister of Estonia to get an employee through the border control. If the employee happens to have a pet, we also need to consider when the pet is vaccinated or whether the pet needs to be quarantined to be even allowed to enter the country. Now, these are fun stories to remember, but the stress and wasted time have been great for both the new employee and us.

As a bank, we also check the background of every new employee and it could be a stumbling block for foreign workers from third countries. It is difficult to find reliable sources; problems are caused by the number of people of the same name and the difficulty of obtaining proof.

We have also learned that a new person might not have enough available funds to make the down payment to a rent a flat or to pay the €200 fee for opening a bank account. Also, there have been difficulties in finding an English-speaking GP, as their lists are full.

Room for development

Unfortunately, all possible problems do not become apparent right away and certainly we have learned new things in a particular case of every new foreign employee. We are a lot smarter than a few years ago and are now able to prevent many issues and rely on our partners who help us with organising the employee’s documentation and integration with regard to introducing the city, options for spending one’s free time and also the general cost of living.

Many companies certainly try to support the foreign employee and their family themselves, but this may turn out to be quite expensive. An employee who arrives in Estonia with their family, needs support in finding a kindergarten or school, a job for their spouse. As the children need to go to a private kindergarten or school, the payments for that may not be affordable for the family or there might not be any available spots.

Certainly special associations, communities and cultural events may help with the integration of the employee to the Estonian society. Some nationalities have taken initiative and organise meetups together from time to time.

While we are more and more knowledgeable in handling foreign employees, there is quite a lot of room for development in the country in general.

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The opinions in this article are those of the author. The cover image is illustrative.

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About the author: Agne Sokolov

Agne Sokolov leads Bigbank’s way of working support services in Estonia, which includes HR, internal communication, office and document management services. She is helping each employee and manager to be a valuable asset for the organisation every single day.