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It's nearly all about you

We met with Canadian-British expat Matthew for a talk about Danish workplace culture and why understanding it is so important for your career here.

Matthew came to Denmark after many years as an expat living in Africa and Asia. His wife had landed a job with the UN here, and this time it was Matthew’s turn to follow her. Matthew, who is Canadian and British, and his wife (from Tajikistan) had been traveling with their work for a decade, so a move to a new country was nothing new.

For example, Matthew had worked for the UN and international orgs in Afghanistan, Myanmar, Central Asia, Ukraine, South Sudan and elsewhere.

...I thought Denmark would be very similar to my native Canada. I could not have been more wrong, and the culture shock was thick. Far thicker than in moving anywhere else.

 

So, when he came to Denmark, Matthew thought that his professional background and nationality it would make it easy for him to navigate Danish work culture, and he could spend most of his energy on a planned change of career.

“My field experience was that the world’s development does not depend on NGOs or aid, but on corporations. Danish companies have a powerful global reputation and great influence, and I knew it was now or never to fully commit to try to crack into the private sector, which meant also navigating and penetrating the Danish labour market.

“We moved here from Myanmar, and I thought Denmark would be very similar to my native Canada. I could not have been more wrong, and the culture shock was thick. Far thicker than in moving anywhere else.”

In Denmark, I realized that half of the battle was skill-transitioning, and half was culture navigation. I’d never seen any work culture like this, so I had to dive in, because it had an impact on my success in the job market.

A new world opens up

Matthew was able to ease into life in Denmark — he was on parental leave when he got here, and then he was enrolled part-time at Oxford University — but eventually the time came to start working. Matthew’s goal when he set out was clear: leave aid sector and find a job in the private sector. His first step, however, was to start with what he knew.

“I started in my comfort zone and found work with two Danish NGOs. From there I had a good foundation to know Danish work culture to position for a corporate shift. I was promoted to an Executive Role which gave me more C-level exposure (boards, strategic planning, Danish stakeholder navigation), though ultimately, it only convinced me that global change was with the Corporates.”

“In Denmark, I realized that half of the battle was skill-transitioning, and half was culture navigation. I’d never seen any work culture like this, so I had to dive in, because it had an impact on my success in the job market.”

 

Without a network in Denmark, Matthew had to take whatever opportunity that presented itself to get to understand the work culture here, because it was just as much an obstacle as reframing your CV and skilling up. So, he rolled up his sleeves and made it a point to speak with anyone. And it worked.

“I talked to everyone I met. I’m a hockey coach and player, so I spoke with Danish parents and teammates. And parents, at my kids’ school.  Social events are good places to learn more about working life in Denmark. I asked all my local and expat friends who work for Danish companies if they could give me their advice. I would even ask shop owners with entrepreneurial minds.”

 

 

Your personality is important. In other countries, people wave their references around, or to try to impress you with their job titles or where they went to school. That isn’t so valued in Denmark.

It’s (not just) all about you

After hundreds of cups of coffee, a ton of research and a handful of applications, Matthew began getting called in to interviews. It didn’t take him long to realise that he was being judged on more than his professional competencies.

“Your personality is important. In other countries, people wave their references around, or to try to impress you with their job titles or where they went to school. That isn’t so valued in Denmark. Industries know each other, and you will be checked up on. People will know if you’ve burned any bridges.”

In Matthew’s experience, Danish companies go to great lengths to protect their workplace culture.

 

 

“The Danish labour market is very pragmatic. You’re assessed on more than just your competencies. As a foreigner, you may have to hide some of your personality away, since being different from the others might be seen as a possible mismatch. So, hold back a little in the beginning. People will be more willing to accept you if they know you can adapt to the culture.”

Or, as they say: when in Rome, do as the Romans.

Employers really care about your intent to stay in Denmark. You could talk about how your kids are in school, you are studying Danish, your spouse loves it here etc. Particularly, show you’re learning Danish.

 

“Employers really care about your intent to stay in Denmark. You could talk about how your kids are in school, you are studying Danish, your spouse loves it here etc. Particularly, show you’re learning Danish. You will need it for some jobs, you will not for others. But for all, you need to show you’re trying. That’s vital here.”

After a period of hard work and a lot of talks with Danes, Matthew found the job that would allow him to say goodbye to his career in humanitarian and international development and to open a new chapter in the private sector.  

Today, Matthew works for Morningstar’s Sustainalytics as an Associate Director position that allows him to draw on his previous experiences while continuing to be motivated by his ambition of making a difference for others.

But, getting to where he is now required a crash course in some of the more peculiar aspects of the labour market here.

Culture shock on the job

Matthew’s encounter with Danish work culture has been a bit of an eye-opener and a source of frustration.

“Danish workplaces are an informal world where everyone is equal. There are minimal hierarchies or formal frameworks. But that also means that everyone’s opinions have equal weight. If a company doesn’t think you fit in with the other employees, then you’re the problem. Companies here protect their corporate culture, and it’s not your place to come in and revolutionise the workplace with new ideas.”

That said, Matthew has found that it’s important to give a little of yourself when you’re at work. In his experience, people find it odd if you are too reserved – especially as a foreigner. 

Your professional and your private lives aren’t so separated in Denmark. For some people, it’s even a social cornerstone.

 

“I found Danish work culture odd initially. I’m used to showing up at work and putting my skills to use, and I don’t have time to use my social energy at work. I save it until after work where my other life is.”

“Your professional and your private lives aren’t so separated in Denmark. For some people, it’s even a social cornerstone. Breakfast is served several times a week. Everyone leaps when cake is in the office. And not going to fredagsbar is almost enough to put you in bad standing.”

“From my experience, Danes have structured social lives, and work – somehow - is a part of that structure. Again, personality is important, but you can’t be yourself. I learned you should be only 80% of yourself, but always be 100% socially and professionally present.”

Matthew’s helpful hints for expats

  1. Nearly 2 out of 3 of jobs aren’t posted, so you need to be brave, be strategic, be prepared, and to knock on doors. Join clubs, the market’s small, your teammates may know people – Danes know the networking game. They embrace ‘Walk & Talks’ (especially with curious and interesting foreigners), so make them happen.
  2. Talk to Danes abroad and expats in Denmark who can explain what Danish workplace culture is like and how it might differ from a work culture you are familiar with.
  3. Try to understand Danish culture and society outside the workplace. Workplace culture is an extension of them.
  4. Find a mentor (Djof, A-kasse, private coaches, your university alumni) to tailor your experiences, navigate cultural codes, and align to the labour market.
  5. People aren’t who their job is now, they are who they have been. They may have contacts from previous jobs (Danes change careers 2 or 3 times on average), so talk to everyone.