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Can an employer in Switzerland ask about an employee’s ethnic background?

Switzerland’s UBS Bank recently asked its employees online to divulge their ethnicity. But is such a question legal?

Can an employer in Switzerland ask about an employee's ethnic background?
UBS is asking uncomfortable questions. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

The respondents have the choice among four categories: Asian, Black, Latin American, and White. Another option is “two or more ethnic groups” and “other ethnic group”. The last choice is “no answer”.

Answering this questionnaire remains optional, however. To illustrate the document, the bank placed a photo with eight espresso cups in colours ranging from black to white to brown.

“This approach created debates among employees”, with some expressing annoyance, according to a report in Swiss media.

Legally speaking, Swiss employment law prohibits discrimination against employees based on their age, religion, race, disability, and political affiliation.

However, the law does not expressly forbid such questions from being asked.

UBS’s purpose in sending the questionnaire to its employees was “to further promote issues of diversity, equality and inclusion”, according to the bank’s spokesperson.

“UBS wants to have a better overview of the ethnic makeup of its staff, so that it can identify and address any challenges related to the notion of ethnicity.”

Daniela Frau, head of diversity issues at the University of Zurich, noted that such a survey will benefit employees.

However, human resources expert, Ann Forster, said UBS employees were taken aback by the questionnaire, because “we are not used to such surveys in Switzerland”.

They are more common in other countries. For instance, in the US, all businesses with more than 100 employees are required by law to conduct such data collection to show how women and minorities are represented in private companies and administration, as well as in sectors and regions.

In Switzerland, such approach is rare, but things could change.

“If a company is committed to diversity and wants to monitor whether there are issues of discrimination or inequality, then such data collection is necessary”,  Frau noted.

Are there any other questions that a Swiss company is not allowed to ask a prospective or current employee?

In addition to the questions of personal nature mentioned above, the ones about sexual orientation, marital status, family situation, or plans for pregnancy are strictly forbidden.

As is the question about the employee’s Covid vaccination status or plans.

READ MORE: Switzerland: Can your employer ask if you are vaccinated?

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For members


Which countries does Switzerland have working holiday visa agreements with?

Switzerland has made reciprocal agreements regarding working holiday visas with several countries. Here's what you need to know.

Which countries does Switzerland have working holiday visa agreements with?

Over the past few decades, countries around the globe have rolled out ‘working holiday visa’ agreements.

These visa schemes, largely targeted at young people, allow people to work and live in a particular country, usually for a set period of time and pursuant to certain conditions.

In recent years, Switzerland has expanded its own form of a ‘working holiday visa’, although there are some important differences to be aware of.

Unlike some of the better known schemes like those in place in Australia, applicants are discouraged from moving around and are generally required to stay with the one employer for the duration.

The goal of the visa scheme is to allow applicants to “expand their occupational and linguistic skills in Switzerland”.

The visa scheme runs for 18 months and cannot be extended.

Which countries does Switzerland have working holiday visa agreements with?

The agreements are made between countries, meaning your fate will depend on whether your government has at some point struck a deal with Switzerland.

EXPLAINED: What’s the difference between permanent residence and Swiss citizenship?

If you are from the European Union or an EFTA country (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland), then you will be able to live and work in Switzerland as is – and will not need to go through this process.

If you come from outside the EU, you will only be able to apply for this visa if you are a citizen of the following countries:

Australia, Argentina, Canada, Chile, Indonesia, Japan, Monaco, New Zealand, the Philippines, Russia, South Africa, Tunisia, Ukraine and the United States.

What does ‘reciprocal’ mean in this context? 

Where these agreements have been struck, they have entitled citizens of both countries to certain rights and permissions in the other country. 

However, while these arrangements might be reciprocal, they are not identical. 

For instance, while citizens of Australia can enter Switzerland and work, the rules for Swiss citizens in Australia are significantly different. 

Therefore, if considering each program, be sure to study all of the relevant details as these will change from country to country and from agreement to agreement. 

More information is available at the following link. 

EXPLAINED: How to get a working holiday visa in Switzerland