Working in Denmark: Danish Business Culture
Danish business culture is characterized by a strong sense of equality and a low power distance between different layers of the corporate hierarchy.
The boss’s door is usually open and he or she is available for a chat with employees of any job level.
Job titles are rarely used and thought rather pompous.
It’s considered OK to disagree with your boss, even in front of others in a Danish business meeting.
Danish business culture is more relaxed than Swedish business culture or German business culture. In fact, people from those countries can be frustrated by the relaxed Danes.
Even when a conclusion is reached via consensus in Danish business culture, it can be changed the next day if new or better information emerges.
Danish business culture depends on a great deal of openness and trust. If you make a mistake, your Danish business partners will expect that you admit your error immediately and get started fixing the problem.
On your first day at work in Denmark, you may find a pretty bouquet of flowers on your desk to welcome you.
(This terrified a Chinese acquaintance of mine, who was accustomed to receiving flowers on her last day at work. She thought she’d been fired before she ever sat down.)
In Denmark, the bouquet is just a way to say “welcome” and to add some sunshine to an arduous day that is sure to include many handshakes and computer passwords.
As a keynote speaker, I’m often asked to give presentations that help Danish companies understand their American colleagues and vice-versa. One of the biggest cultural clashes between the two countries is the differing role of the boss. Here’s a look at the contrasts between Danish managers and American managers.
1. The motivator vs the consensus-seeker
American bosses see themselves as motivators, cheerleaders, energizing their team to get the best performance out of them. A great boss is inspiring and able to bring employees along on a journey that can boost their own careers. This is why Americans buy books and watch TV shows about charismatic business leaders – from Lee Iacocca to Donald Trump to Jay-Z to millennial “Girlboss” Sophia Amoruso. A boss is a star, and employees revolve around her like planets revolve around the sun.
There are few books about famous Danish bosses. Danes are, in general, suspicious of people who think too highly of themselves and make too much money.
Many Danes meet their future spouses at work. Yet there are also strict laws in Denmark against sexual harassment.
Where do you draw a line between harassment and two adults developing tender feelings for each other?
In an anti-authoritarian country like Denmark, being a boss is a precarious (social) position. Danish bosses don’t like to flaunt their authority.
In fact, when you enter a room of Danes, it is often difficult to tell which one is the boss. The social cues that point to a big cheese in other cultures – the flashy watch, the oversize office, the glamorous yet servile executive assistant – are considered poor taste in egalitarian Denmark.
On-the-job benefits in Denmark come in three categories: the kind every Danish worker gets, the kind everyone at your company gets, and the kind only top dogs at your company get.
When you talk with a future employer, there’s not all that much room for negotiation, unless you’re coming in at a very high level or have a highly sought-after specialty.
In most cases, as American kindergarteners say, “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.” Fortunately, job benefits in Denmark tend to be generous.
If you’re coming from abroad to work in Denmark, you may be bringing along your spouse. That can be great – it’s nice to have someone to shiver through the Danish summer with.
But unhappy spouses are one of the main reasons that people who come to work in Denmark end up leaving.
Denmark is not an easy place to make friends, given that Danish culture tends toward “respecting your privacy” by not striking up conversations with strangers.
It can also be tough for spouses to get jobs in Denmark, particularly well-educated spouses seeking jobs at their level of expertise.
When I do How to Live in Denmark presentations, I generally ask for just a few simple items – a screen, a remote, and a glass of water.
On a recent gig, I was provided with everything except the water. And since I had met several of the company’s employees when I arrived – handshakes with Mette, Søren, Nikolaj – I asked one of them to kindly get me a glass of water. I asked Nikolaj.
Nikolaj smiled, walked off, and brought me back a glass of water.
It was only after the presentation was finished and I was home making connections on LinkedIn that I found out that Nikolaj was Senior Vice President for Europe, with more than 650 people working for him and a salary that must have been in the 3 million-kroner-a-year zone.
But Nikolaj had never mentioned his title to me, because that’s just not done in Denmark.
When you first arrive in Denmark to work or look for work, the last thing you need is another monthly expense. So many foreigners “save money” by not joining a union.
And I was one of them. To be honest, joining a union never even occurred to me.
In the US, unions are either for hands-on workers – steelworkers, hotel maids – or for civil servants, like schoolteachers and cops. Knowledge workers and creative types are almost never unionized.
But that’s not true in Denmark, where engineers, doctors, lawyers, bankers, managers, and writers regularly join unions.
Unions can arguably be even more important for foreign employees than they are for Danes.
I was at a high-level networking meeting the other day. Not on purpose, but because they originally asked me to be their speaker, and then decided they wanted somebody else to be their speaker instead and were too embarrassed to un-invite me.
So there I was in a vast room of men (and it was mostly men) wearing pretty much the uniform of the male Danish executive: blue business suit, pale shirt open at the collar, a few neckties – not many – and pointy leather shoes.
And they were all wandering around the room like children lost in a department store at Christmastime looking for their parents. They were all there to network and meet each other, but they didn’t quite know who to network with. So they mostly ended up talking to people they already knew. They did not expand their networks.
When you work in a Danish office, you’ll often find yourself invited to impromptu in-office social events with your Danish colleagues. Somebody’s birthday, someone’s having a baby, somebody has been with the company for 10 years, someone is going on vacation the next day. And they almost all involve cake.
Cake is very important in Denmark. Cake builds bridges. Cake makes friends. And when there’s cake on offer, as a foreigner, it’s a good idea to show up and accept it.
When I first started working in a Danish office, I made a big mistake. I said no to cake.