Fear of Foreigners and Strangers Derives from the Human Fear and Missing Experiences – thoughts from the Opinion Festival

The Centre organized two panel discussions at the Value stage at the Opinion Festival, held by the seventh time in Paide. One of these wore a title ‘Fear of Strangers in Working Environment – Prevention and Solutions’, moderated by Sigrid Solnik. The spokers were Laura Eelmaa (HR at Tieto Estonia), Mihkel Tammo (Managing Director at Estanc AS), Piret Mårtensson (HR at Kaubamaja) ja Kelly Grossthal (Equal Treatment Expert at the Estonian Human Rights Centre). The panel was organized in collaboration with the Europe for Citizens program. 

The starting point of the discussion was the contemporary situation and tendency according to which the enterprises and organisations have more and more contact with foreign workers and cultural differences. Everything that happens and spreads in the society and public also finds its way to workplaces and some incidents, driven by the fear of foreigners have occurred. The main question was the role of the managers  and entrepreneurs when the biases and distrust of the society end up with actual words and deeds. Is the development of the organisational culture enough or should the managers intervene forcefully, i.e to censor the social media profiles or to lay off their workers.

Firstly, the panelists noted the fact that fear of foreigners is not only a problem in Estonia: conflicts can occur between other nationalities. A conflict between a Polish and a Thai worker in an Estonian company was given as an example. Additionally, the fear of strangers and the hate coming from that is not only a thing between the workers: conflicts and situations can occur between workers and clients or workers and managers as well. Biases and stereotypes can be seen in Scandinavia as well, in relation to workers who come from Baltic countries, as Laura Eelmaa indicated.

Soon, the panelists started to make generalisations on the reasons behind fear and hate towards strangers and foreigners and one of the aspects brought out was the social and political climate. For example in one Estonian company, there were tensions and conflicts between the Russian and Ukrainian workers at the time and after the Ukrainian conflict.

One of the factors can often be the differences in how people look or behave. The behaviour that can lead to work bullying is often targetting those who seem different in their appearances. all the panelists agreed to the argument that the main reason behind the hate and fear towards foreigners is the human fear of otherness and strangeness.The workers need time to get used to their colleagues coming from the cultures and societies strange to them as well as their different customs.

The panel at the Opinion Festival Value Stage

Mihkel Tammo noted that both historical context and the sensitivity in the context of foreigners can play a big role, that especially in the former Soviet countries. However, he noted, we should already be willing to let that be and to concentrate on the future. As a good example, Tammo described Scandinavian region where the fear and hate are not a subject anymore. In eastern-European countries, the situations is different, according to his experience. Of course, the question about whether there is a difference in the attitudes and tolerance between bigger cities and smaller places in the country, arised. the Estonian Human Rights Centre’s expert Kelly Grossthal aanswered that the studies haven’t showed a big difference so far. The conflicts and issues arising from the fear of foreigners have also happened in Tallinn and Tartu, while at the same time, a Syrian family has nicely settled in Türi, a smaller town. Social media and traditional media are also highly influencing the fears, especially the false information and facts that help to intensify the fears and hate.

Piret Martensson, the HR of Kaubamaja stressed the importance of fact-based thinking to avoid running in the pace of the overall fearful background and tonality. Altogether it was recognized that our societies, families and work collectives are essentially tied and so, the wider background also influences our behaviour at work.

In regarding the management, Martensson pointed how organisational culture and the solutions start from the management: the managers are the first ones who have to notice and react to different manifestations of the fear and hate. Usually, the problems start from the mistakes made on mangement level or from too low inclusion. However, all agreed that it is more difficult to mange an organization or a company with workers from different (national and cultural) backgrounds and different values.

In addition to discussing the given topic, all panelists were asked to share their own experience and positive examples of inclusion. Travelling and gaining experiences helps to increase tolerance as it enables us to understand differences more easily, said Mihkel Tammo. Piret Martensson stressed the importance of proper management in diverse teams: managers should start from the inclusive principles and to establish the values and behavioural principles of the company. Diversity is actually a strength cause due to diversity, some new perspectives and ideas can be implemented, Tammo said. Laura Eelmaa commented how in Tieto, all the newcomers are explained the values and ethical code of the company through trainings and the information days. In case of conflicts, the direct managers are also included in the discussion and solutions.all the participants noted that in addition to training and rising the awareness, it is important to organise team-building events as spending some quality time together, makes workers more close to each other therefore increasing the common understanding. Having lunch altogether or cooking something are a very way to do that.

Kelly Grossthal also brought out how the existence of ‘mentors’ or friends at workplace towards whom a worker can go to if they are experiencing some hate, bullying or fear. So, in every workplace and collective, there should be such a position. Having friends or mentors at workplace is very useful: lonely worker does not feel included and also radicalizes more easily.


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