If you clicked into this post, you probably understand Danish. If you don’t speak Danish (and got onto my post by pure accident), you probably have a major challenge in finding work in Denmark.
Despite the fact that Denmark was recently rated the second best nation to speak English as a second language, Danes prefer people who speak Danish. So even if you’re among the many global talents studying in and graduating from a Danish University, (perhaps even funded by a scholarship from the Danish Government), you are most likely finding it very difficult to even get an invitation to a job interview at a Danish company, if you don’t venture outside of the international student community to get to know the Danes, and more importantly, the Danish language, while you are still studying.
Regardless of the broadly recognized scarcity of talent, the majority of Danish companies are reluctant to take in employees that don’t fulfill the requirement of speaking Danish. And perhaps rightly so. Investing in International #1 is quite often a huge undertaking in translating the employment contract, personnel handbook, quality management system, project management system etc. from Danish into English.
Even when the practical investment of translations has been made, there is the whole aspect of onboarding a talent, who doesn’t have a Danish social security number. Most larger corporations such as Siemens, Danfoss, Grundfos, Vestas, have internal structures that support internationals in finding living space, getting settled into the local community, identifying international schools and daycare opportunities, supporting accompanying spouses in finding work and much more. But most companies in Denmark are small-medium sized organizations, who barely have an HR headcount in place. How will they attract, onboard and retain people, who don’t speak Danish and don’t already have a strong network to support them in place?
And I haven’t even mentioned the biggest hurdle. Danes prefer Danish in the workplace. Most people are used to sending internal emails in Danish. (At least if the email goes out to the Danish office or the team in Denmark). They speak Danish at lunch in the canteen (and most other social gatherings). Their English is great – but most of them don’t know how to say ‘leverpostej’, ‘rugbrød’ and ‘hygge’ in English. And to be perfectly honest, it mostly has less to do with language than it does with the tribal culture of the Danes. Our culture is so intertwined with our language that it is a real change process for people to socialize at work in Denmark in English. It is scary and uncomfortable for many people. We are so safe with each other in Denmark and a lot of that security lies in our language, which is our foundation and platform to really understand each other. And that understanding builds a very high level of trust!
Nevertheless – how astonishingly arrogant is it to expect that people from every part of the world should learn Danish to work here? I am not arguing whether or not Danish should be a requirement to live in Denmark. Of course it is! If you want to join the tribe, you have to establish real trust and long-term relations with the natives, and that requires speaking their language. I am arguing that working in Denmark should not require speaking Danish. There is scarcity of talent in Denmark. Especially engineering competences are difficult to find. Even more so if you do not have a well-known brand and your offices are not in Copenhagen. So shouldn’t competences, skills and experience carry much more weight than the ability to speak Danish?
5 million people live in Denmark. The population of Shanghai is 25 million. There are almost 325 million Americans in the Unites States. 390 million people are native Spanish speakers. Why on earth would any ambitious career-oriented person taking on an opportunity in Denmark for 4-5 years prioritize their precious time to learn Danish? (if they are not planning to stay permanently?)
We are not an inclusive population. We do not let people into our culture for an interim period of time. We do not give anyone a pass to truly join our tribe without Danish skills. This does not mean we are not polite. We are a friendly people. But talents coming to Denmark consistently report of the coolness of the Danes. The talents who join a running club, find a girlfriend, volunteer – will build a network and blend in. However, if talents are not immensely proactive in seeking out cohesive structures, they will feel lonely and struggle to settle in Denmark.
For Denmark to really become an attractive, global place of work, we have to start opening up and propel the change process of welcoming internationals to our Danish workplace, who do not (and may not want to) speak Danish.
Are we ready for that? Are we able to open up as a society and stop worrying about how letting people into our culture will dilute our unique Daneness? Can we stop being scared that diversity will challenge our unity? I am not sure….
What I am sure about is that there is an untapped reserve of non-Danish speaking graduates, accompanying spouses and refugees, who cannot find work. And many of them have the exact competences, skill set and enthusiastic personality that recruiters are frantically searching for – as you are reading this article – and they will come up empty if they keep looking for someone who on top of being the right candidate for the challenge, also has to speak Danish…
(This post was originally published on LinkedIn on November 18, 2016)