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What’s in a name? For call centre, more Swissness

Life insurance company Swiss Life has long offered its call centre staff the option to use fake Swiss names instead of foreign ones, in a little-known practice now raising ethical questions.

Swiss Life introduced the practice 21 years ago. It allows staff to adopt an alias such as Wenger or Kunz, which are common Swiss names, rather than use their own real but foreign-sounding name. The company says it is only meant to simplify communication.

“It has nothing to do with discrimination,” the company said in a statement.

Employees are also told that they stand a greater chance of closing a deal if they use a conventional Swiss name, Swiss newspaper SonntagZeitung reported. That could add to pressure on staff with non-Swiss names, since as a significant proportion of the staff’s wages are linked to performance.

Nine of 19 employees at Swiss Life’s call centre adopted an alias, which requires them to have two different email addresses communicating in writing with clients.

Swiss Life claims that using aliases in the call centre business is a common practice. However, Dieter Fischer, president of the call centre association Callnet, denies that is the case.

“Such an approach is not tolerated,” he told the Zurich-based Sunday newspaper. According to him, the practice violates Callnet’s code of ethics for ensuring trustworthy and transparent customer contacts.

Martine Brunschwig Graf, president of the Federal Commission Against Racism, said she disapproves of the practice. She said it was problematic that foreign-sounding names are perceived as undesirable, since it reinforces the perception that they are a disadvantage. Despite the criticism, Swiss Life’s board of directors decided to continue with the practice.