Moomins, some of Finland's best workers. Photo: iOso /

Thursday 15th October 2015

Globetrotting HR: Finland

Work with Moomins and get sweaty in wooden boxes

On the second leg of our world tour, we’re stopping off in Finland, lesser known and slightly odd sibling of the other Nordic nations. It’s isolated geographically and pretty damn cold, facts which have preserved many of its particular quirks.

Their language is famously one of the hardest to learn in the world. Their words are often so long that crosswords pretty much don’t exist.

Sisu – ‘Perseverance’

Something most people associate with Finns is a quiet, reserved attitude. That, and an unnatural aptitude for racing cars. However, in Finland itself, the most prized national characteristic is known as sisu. Pronunciation is something along the lines of a sneeze.

There is no direct translation in English that captures the whole meaning, but courage, determination, and endurance are all aspects of the idea. A useful sort of trait when working in bleak winters that drop below -30 degrees Celsius.

Sisu is often credited as the main reason Finland managed to beat the far larger and better equipped Russia in a multitude of wars in its history.

However it can manifest itself in an unhelpful way for Finnish HR, as it means Finns are reluctant to let on about any difficulties. Not only that, but it often comes across as stubbornness to outsiders — once a Finn has made their mind up about something, it can be notoriously hard to make them change it. Mediation and compromise are less tools of the trade than they are in the UK.

In that sense, in employer relations there’s more of a focus on finding novel solutions that work around problems rather than patching things up and coming to a mutually agreed compromise.

Sauna – ‘Sauna’ (obviously)

Yes, if you didn’t know already, saunas are probably a Finnish invention. It is the only common Finnish word in the English language, and almost every single Finnish house contains a sauna.

They come in all shapes and sizes, work in different ways, and produce unique löyly – the ‘character’ of the heat. This is a country where the proverb goes: ‘If tar, liquor and sauna will not help, the disease is fatal.’

Saunas are not just for winding down occasionally. Many Finns use a sauna several times a week, even daily, and the most resilient of Finns even crank the mercury up to 160 degrees Celsius. Visit, and you too can know what it feels like to be an oven-baked lasagna.

Business meetings happen in saunas. Even the Parliament has one. Legend has it that Prime Minister Urho Kekkonen sweated Khrushchev in a sauna for hours during the Cold War, and succeeded in obtaining some very generous trade agreements.

Photo: Shutterstock

Despite the reputation for fierce heat, Finns believe that saunas are a contemplative place and celebrate them as a place for resolving disputes. They believe nothing is hidden (no kidding, as towels are a concession only for wimpy foreigners) and that it puts people on equal terms. Time to install a sauna in your office?

Yhteiskuntavastuu – ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’

Pull the other one, you might say. CSR is nothing exclusive to Finland. Why, HRville recently covered up that pothole outside our offices after three years of people falling down into the centre of the Earth.

CSR in Finland is more of a cultural way of life than the window dressing it can often be in the UK. Finland ranks highly on worldwide CSR rankings. But they tend to have less impressive philanthropic campaigns than some major UK organisations, instead choosing to focus on environment issues.

In Finland, having a rural home is extremely common – far commoner than it is for an equivalent British worker. They value their natural environment highly, so recycling and green campaigns in the office tend to be taken very seriously.

There is a summer cottage, or ‘mökki’ for every ten people in Finland, and almost every family has access to one. To put that in perspective, that would mean the UK would have over 6.5 million holiday homes.

Finns believe strongly in self-sufficiency, and will commonly be chopping their own wood and even building their own cottage from surrounding trees.

The Finnish transition from an agricultural society is far more recent than many nations, so lots of Finns are born rurally and maintain a connection to the countryside.

Opintovapaa – ‘Study Leave’

Finland often ranks best in the world for education. It has the highest rate of university attendance in Europe, and one of the highest rates of high school graduation in the world.

There is a culture of lifelong learning. The state guarantees anybody who has worked in an organisation for three months a chance to take five days of study leave to learn new skills.

Cultivating skills is considered extremely important in Finland. Imagine — workers actively seeking out new skills. It really is a wide world out there.

Even their driving test is notoriously tough, possibly why so many rally and F1 drivers hail from their little corner of the world.

Suorasukainen – ‘honest criticism’

Famous (at least in Finland) is the tendency of Finns to tell it exactly how they think it is.

Unlike the UK where we like to hide criticism behind wishy-washy qualifiers and damn with faint praise, Finns much prefer the direct approach.

In the UK where ‘It’s interesting, I quite like it’ roughly translates to ‘It’s awful, I hate it.’, Finnish speakers align word and thought as much as possible.

In many ways this makes HR in Finland much simpler. Passive aggression is not in a Finn’s vocabulary. Finns do not take professional criticism personally, something many other nationalities would be hard pressed to claim.

A harsh critique is not something to be surprised at or offended by.

This goes hand-in-hand with taking words at face value, which can cause some issue for any English person abroad. What may be seen as politeness here looks more like indecision and idiocy in Finland.

And with that we leave you with the most useful phrase in Finnish: Ilmatyynyalukseni on täynnä ankeriaita — ‘My hovercraft is full of eels’.

About the author

Jerome Langford

Jerome is a graduate in Philosophy from St Andrews, who alternately spends time writing about HR and staring wistfully out of windows, thinking about life’s bigger questions: Why are we here? How much lunch is too much lunch? What do you mean exactly by ‘final warning’?