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Denmark is a good place to work, but socialising is a big problem

In her six years in Denmark, Dutch solicitor Iris Kleinekorte has found plenty of professional success. Outside of work, she has limited contact with Danes. It’s not an uncommon experience, and it’s a hindrance for those foreigners who want to be a part of society here.

By Linda Overgaard

Iris Kleinekorte regularly tells Danes that if they tried working in the Netherlands, they’d run crying back to Denmark after a fortnight. Jobwise, things are so much better in Denmark.

When it comes to working in Denmark, Kleinekorte, a corporate lawyer, has had little to complain about. She found a job quickly and was given a thorough on-boarding, and she liked her co-workers. In May, she started her fourth job here.

On the other hand, she’s found that being included in society here is all but impossible if you aren’t married to a Dane or don’t have some sort of in.

“Danes make their friends in kindergarten, in school and in gymnasium. If they have a job and family, when are they going to find time to make new friends? Or they’re spending time at the gym – lots of time. That’s quite important. I’ve never seen as many gyms in one place as I have in Copenhagen,” Kleinekorte says.

Danish women, she’s noted, work more than Dutch women do, and, as a result, lag when it comes to their soft skills. She doesn’t feel that’s necessarily negative, but it’s different than most other countries, and it means that there isn’t a lot of time to organise get-togethers, which is something that men tend to leave to the women to sort out.

In the beginning

I originally moved with my husband at the time to Stockholm after he landed a good, prestigious job in a bank. It was totally impossible for me to find work in Stockholm, so instead I commuted to a job as a legal counsel in the Netherlands and was only together with my husband and child at the weekend.

Being apart and flying back and forth all the time was hard, and after about a year I found that I might be able to work in Denmark, where my husband occasionally worked. I applied for a job in Copenhagen, was flown in for an interview and, just a few days later, was offered a job as legal counsel for NoV (National Oilwell Varco), an American-owned firm, working out of their Brøndby office.

I guess I was the right person for the right job at the right time, and they appeared to be pleased that Dutch was my native language.

At work       

On-boarding was straightforward. They prepared a list of the things I needed to learn, and they helped me to settle in quickly and they showed me around town and took me out to eat. Their head of HR was really nice and helped me sort out a lot of the practical details – for example, I got my bank account through her sister-in-law. Everyone was good at English, too – probably because they had quite a few foreigners with technical backgrounds working for them, some from DTU, so they were used to on-boarding people from other countries.

One main difference between businesses in the Netherlands and Denmark is that a lot more people here are involved in the decision-making process. Generally speaking, Denmark is a more process-oriented place, so you need to organise a lot more meetings with the people involved. In the Netherlands, there’s much more of a hierarchy.

It’s easy for someone to find a job in my field in Copenhagen – if you are a European, that is. If you are ambitious and willing to work hard, it’s easy to be successful. But, you need the right qualifications, and you need to fit in at the company.

I’m never going back to the Netherlands to work; working in Denmark is so much better. You are taken far more seriously, and, in general, you’re given much more freedom.

Working hours

People work much less in Denmark than they do in the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, if you get to work at 10, people will say something like, “Good afternoon.” If you leave at 5, they’ll say, “Look who’s knocking off early today.”

The Dutch spend a lot of their workday talking and socialising, and that makes it hard to focus on your work, which only makes your day even longer. The job market is more competitive, too. There are a lot of people applying for the same jobs, particularly in Amsterdam. There’s also a lot of back-stabbing that goes on – at least in the legal trade – and it’s much more stressful.

In Denmark there’s generally a better work-life balance, and people are healthier. If you work late too often, you wind up with bad eating habits because you skip meals and resort to unhealthy snacks, or you don’t have time to make your own meals. People in Denmark are much more efficient than people in the Netherlands; they work fewer hours, but they come in, they do their work, they don’t chat as much and they go home earlier.

Co-workers

It’s easy to work with Danes, and everyone you work with is very friendly and helpful. People are normally very sharp and well-educated, very helpful and have a very strong work ethic. Everyone goes to lunch together, and once a week someone is responsible for bringing in something for breakfast.

People in the Netherlands are less friendly because there is more competition for jobs. It’s also more stressful, and people work a lot of hours. Maybe they’re going after your job and you never know if a co-worker is out to steal one of your assignments. There’s a more cut-throat culture. People in Amsterdam are particularly ambitious, aggressive and dominating.

There’s a lot less of that in Copenhagen, and there’s a much better work ethic because you feel more secure. You also have a lot more freedom here. You’re told what to do, and then it’s up to you to figure out how to do it.

A lot more people get a fair shot here, and it’s much easier for women to get a promotion in Denmark. That’s important for me; I would feel like I was being treated unfairly if I only saw men being promoted.

The boss

There’s generally more of an old-boys’ network in the Netherlands, and an employee would never speak to the boss. In Denmark, on the other hand, it’s not unheard to find yourself eating lunch with an executive.

And, if you are a good employee, you get credit for being a good employee. It’s your performance that counts, not who you know.

My current boss is Swedish; she’s good. We have a good relationship and we communicate constructively. It’s all very straightforward.

Dress code

People in the Netherlands dress much more formally at work, and when I go to meetings in Amsterdam I do, too. But, here in Denmark, we’re much more laid back. Copenhagen is also a much more fashion-forward city; it’s trendier, hipper, and you can see that in the workplace. The dress code here at Mærsk has apparently changed considerably in recent years after the arrival of new people in management. Men don’t need to wear ties all the time, and you’ll see people wearing jeans or sneakers with their suit. It’s positive that the dress code has relaxed. I like diversity: people should be able to do what they want, as long as it doesn’t bother anyone else. The most important thing is whether people are happy.

Julefrokost

I’m not a fan of the Danish version of the Christmas party and I always go home after a couple of drinks. We don’t have the same tradition in the Netherlands. If there is any Christmas party at all, it’s a small gathering with the people in your department. In Denmark, some people get really drunk, and I don’t like being with intoxicated people who completely change their personality when they’ve had too much to drink. They act stupid and ask you to dance, but we still need to see each other at the office the next day, so I just say no thanks. The difference probably has a lot do with Danes generally being more introverted and just needing to let it all out during the julefrokost, while the Dutch are just more out-going all the time.

Social life

The only bad thing about being in Denmark is that socialising is such a problem. No-one ever invites you over, for example, and it’s all but impossible to become a part of society here if you aren’t married or have some other in.

My experience is that if you want to do something social with a Dane, you’re going to have to plan ahead. Well ahead. Like two months ahead. So you wind up just giving up. In my experience, it’s easier for foreigners to fit in in the Netherlands than it is here.

Most of the people I see outside of work are foreigners, including some of the other parents at the international school where my son is. That isn’t by design; I actually tried to do things with Danes, but it was always me that was doing the reaching out, so it didn’t go very well. And, to be honest, I’d rather spend time with people who want to spend time with me; you can’t force people to be social.

Maybe it’s something genetic for the Danes. Denmark still isn’t very internationalised, even though there are more Danes who work abroad. Maybe things will be different in five years, or if there are more mixed marriages and more people get exposed to foreigners.

The challenges with socialisation mean that I’m not going to spend the rest of my life here, and I think that is true for most of the foreigners who aren’t ‘love expats’ and have a Danish partner. A lot of people drop Denmark and take jobs in places like Singapore or Hong Kong or the Emirates because they offer a much more international environment – and higher wages.

For me, being in Denmark is very much ‘me and them’, and because I expect to move away at some point I’m never going to be a full member of society here. You need more than just a good job if you’re planning on settling down and living here for the rest of your life.

CV

Iris Kleinekorte

Dutch solicitor. Has worked in Denmark since 2014; started with NoV, which makes equipment for the oil industry; later with Scandinavian Tobacco and A.P. Møller-Mærsk. Began in May as Head of Group Legal Compliance for Nordic Transport Group.

Djøf spoke with Iris Kleinekorte while she was still with A.P. Møller-Mærsk.

Need some strategies for helping Danes be more social?

This is the advice one expert gives to Danes when dealing with foreigners:

  • Assume nothing

    - We are rarely aware of the cultural traditions that are embedded in our company or our team

  • Reach out

    - Most foreign workers are unfamiliar with flat Danish hierarchies

  • Hold the irony, skip the sarcasm

    - Both can be hard to understand and cut deep if the recipient doesn’t know you are making a joke; can be especially damaging for employees who haven’t found their place on the team yet

  • Show interest

    - Cultivate diversity
  • Socialise

    - Just because you meet with your foreign co-workers outside of work doesn’t mean they will assume you are their new best friend

Source: Nanna Hauch, owner of 360 Expatriate Success, which provides counselling to employees and their families prior to being relocated abroad and in connection with their repatriation. www.nannahauch.com

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