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Danish Working Culture

What can you expect on your first day at work? What to wear? And how do you get along with your Danish Boss? Get a personal introduction to Danish working culture from Kay Xander Mellish, who has worked for several large Danish companies.

Kay Xander Mellish is an American who has worked for several large Danish companies and has collected her insights on working culture in Denmark into books, podcasts, and lectures.

Get her insights and tips on Danish working culture, including:

  • Your First Day at Work
  • Your Colleagues
  • What to Wear to Work
  • The Danish boss
  • Flexible working hours
  • Danish meetings
  • Networking in Denmark
  • Understanding your pay slip

Listen to the podcast or read some of her tips here.

Listen to podcast

Danish Working Culture
“Given the egalitarian environment in Denmark, a Danish boss might seem to be acting more like a coach or a friend than a superior, which can be confusing to newcomers – because at the end of the day, a boss is still a boss”
- Kay Xander Mellish

Danish Working Culture

Your First Day at Work

Make sure to be right on time or slightly early for your first day at work; in Denmark, being on time is a sign of trustworthiness. Male or female, you are likely to find an attractive bouquet of flowers on your desk welcoming you to your new financial services employer. These flowers can be taken home with you at the end of the day.

One of your colleagues will probably be assigned to be your mentor and show you around. He or she will show you where to sit (or stand – many financial industry offices include flexible sitting-standing desks) and help set you up with the necessary computer passwords and entry cards.

You'll also have the chance to meet many of your new colleagues – so many you will have a hard time remembering their names. The most important thing to remember is to look each person in the eye and smile, shake their hand, and say your name, perhaps adding something about how you're looking forward to working together.

Danish society believes strongly in egalitarianism, so you should greet the top boss with precisely the same enthusiasm you use to greet the cleaning lady. Remember also to treat the administrative staff with great respect. If you come from a country with a large number of people or high unemployment, you may be used to an environment with many administrative people; Denmark is a high-wage country with very few. The administrators will mostly be teaching you how to do your own administrative tasks (like booking expenses or ordering equipment) using online tools.

At lunchtime, sit together with your closest colleagues and discuss the events of the day. Danish lunches are usually only 30 minutes long, after which everyone goes back to work. If you have special dietary needs, tell your mentor or administrator, and they will generally be happy to accommodate you. Alternately, you can bring your lunch from home, but you should still eat it together with your colleagues.

Your Colleagues

Your Danish colleagues can be one of the best parts about your time in Denmark; Danes are generally kind, trustworthy, and have a good sense of humor about themselves.

That said, you shouldn't expect your Danish colleagues to become friends outside the office. Danish life is largely centered around the home and family; at the end of a workday, Danes want to go back to their family circle, not hang around drinking coffee or beers with their colleagues. They rarely get together on weekends or during vacation periods.

To build up friendships in Denmark, join outside organizations where people work together for a common goal. Running clubs and football clubs are popular if you are the athletic type; knitting clubs and volunteer organizations work well if you're not. One foreigner even told me he made his best friends at a local pub that offered board games. If you take Danish classes, you'll meet some other new arrivals there, and if you are a parent, your children's school will offer you plenty of opportunities to socialize with other parents.

Some of the larger financial services companies also have in-house clubs where you can do everything from discuss art to go on mountain-climbing trips together – ask your HR department which types of employee clubs are available at your company. Colleagues also get together to participate in fitness events like charity runs. Joining in is a good way to get to know your colleagues informally and show you're a part of the team.

During the actual workday, there will be a few opportunities to socialize with your colleagues, but people often bring cake or cookies to celebrate their birthdays or an upcoming vacation. Make sure to take 10 minutes out of your schedule at mid-afternoon to enjoy a chat or a cup of tea along with these treats – it's a good chance to get to know your colleagues on a personal level.

Most financial services companies also plan parties twice a year, one around Christmas time and one around the summer vacation period. These parties tend to include a lot of alcohol, but it's important to attend even if you're not a drinker just to show you are part of the team. Sticking to non-alcoholic drinks and then leaving early once the heavy partying has begun is just fine.

What to Wear to Work

Danes dress informally. While some of the larger financial firms still require a well-pressed shirt and tailored trousers, complete business suits are becoming less common in the financial industry. Bankers who meet with corporate customers or high-end private customers still generally wear them, sometimes with an open collar, but back office employees rarely do.

For most financial office environments in Denmark, you will be fine in a quality pair of business trousers and a shirt or sweater in a subtle color, such as blue, brown, grey or black. You can personalize your look with a nice watch, some colorful eyeglass frames, one piece of simple jewelry, or a scarf.

Designer labels are not necessary: to Danish eyes, they seem a little too flashy. And cologne is generally not worn in the workplace in Denmark.

Women who work in the financial industry in Denmark can wear a skirt or dress if they would like to, but it is not expected, and high heels are seen as impractical. Make-up and hairstyles are usually quite subtle.

If your financial industry job involves meeting clients outside the office, the best investment you can make is a good coat. During the long Danish winter, you will be meeting and shaking hands with many business contacts while still wearing your coat, so a nice one will help make a good first impression. You can buy one in Denmark that will match the local climate and style.

The Danish boss

One of the greatest challenges for many foreigners working in Denmark is understanding their Danish boss. If you come from a culture with a strong hierarchy where a boss barks orders for her underlings to follow, Danish bosses will take some getting used to.

Given the egalitarian environment in Denmark, a Danish boss might seem to be acting more like a coach or a friend than a superior, which can be confusing to newcomers – because at the end of the day, a boss is still a boss.

Danish financial services businesses believe strongly in a flat hierarchy, in which there are relatively few layers of management and even the lowest employee can chat casually with the big boss. While this has some advantages, it also means that there are relatively few people guiding you as you pursue new innovations or watching over your shoulder if you run into trouble.

Instead, Danish employees are relatively self-directed: your boss will present you with a project that needs doing and then leave you to do it, trusting that you have the skills to make it happen. If you run into roadblocks, it's considered your responsibility to knock on her office door and ask for 15 minutes of her time to help resolve them.

Ask for help as quickly as possible if you run into trouble, because failing to deliver a project on deadline is one of the few things that can make a Danish boss angry and disappointed. Lying or concealing a mistake is another one; your Danish boss and colleagues will forgive an error if it was made in good faith, but covering one up wrecks the trust in each other that is so important in Denmark. Admit your error quickly and get started on fixing the problem.

Danish bosses freely socialize with their staff at office lunches and parties, and they rarely give direct orders. When they do, their orders can sometimes sound like suggestions. If your boss says, "Wouldn't it be a good idea to get this done by Friday?" she probably means "I want this done Friday." If you're not sure, ask for clarification.

Flexible working hours

You may come from a culture in which long working hours are a way to show your dedication to the job and to the company. In Denmark, long working hours are not necessary unless there is a special rush project. The idea is that most jobs should be do-able in the 37.5 hours per week you are paid to do them in.

That said, you are expected to be focused on your work during working hours; personal phone calls, web-surfing and non-work related errands should be done on your own time. (Taking time off for medical or dental appointments is OK - but try to book them at the very beginning of the workday or the very end. Remember that members of the Finansforbundet are covered for dental care up to DK30,000 a year, which means that only your teeth will hurt, not your wallet.)

You will notice that many of your financial services colleagues begin leaving the office around 3pm to pick up their children from day care: both men and women will do this, although they sometimes log on to their computers again after their children are in bed. Try not to book meetings around this time, because some of your colleagues won't be able to attend – or they'll have to re-arrange their schedules to do so.  It's also considered poor form to ask your colleagues to check their email during vacation or on weekends, with the possible exception of Sunday night, a time when many professionals prepare for the work week ahead.

When you're sick, it is considered good manners to stay home from work in Denmark, so you don't make your colleagues sick as well. Don't bother a colleague who is home sick unless the matter is very urgent. You'll also find that some of your colleagues will take time off work to care for a sick child at home. (Parents can take up to five days off to care for a sick child if their company has an agreement with the Finansforbundet.) If the colleague himself is not ill, it's OK to mail him or call him with simple questions or ask if he is able to participate in a phone conference.

Some companies will allow you to take a "work from home" day as often as once a week. This is a great way to catch up on paperwork or concentrate on an important assignment. Never abuse this privilege; if you are found to not actually be working from home, it will be a serious break in the trust that is so important in Danish offices. If what you really need is a day off to rest, do errands, or welcome visitors, take an official vacation day to do so.

Vacation days are generous in Denmark, and financial sector employers that have an agreement with the Finansforbundet offer even more than the average. Each year on the job comes with 25 vacation days, and you may have the option for five more. In addition, all financial sector employees have five "self-care days" per year. These can be used like vacation days when you need some personal time off work.

Schedule your vacation as far in advance as possible, particularly for peak periods; your Danish colleagues will, and you can expect some competition for who gets to take off during the best parts of summer or around the Christmas holidays. Note that travel prices are also the highest during these peak periods, so you can save money if you take your vacation at another time.

Danish meetings

When you're invited to a Danish meeting, you're invited because they need your expertise on whatever the meeting topic might be. Come equipped with a well-researched opinion and a cup of coffee.

Like most other parts of the Danish working environment, Danish meetings are not hierarchical. The big boss may be there, but everyone's opinion will be sought and listened to, right down to the student intern. Disagreement is welcome, if it is expressed politely and backed by facts.

One of the most difficult things for many foreigners to do is to disagree with their boss in front of others; this is taboo in many cultures.

Your Danish boss, by contrast, hired you because he believes that you command a specific body of knowledge. He trusts that you know your field, and he is paying you because he hopes you will contribute with your expertise. In fact, he will be disappointed if you don't speak up and he goes on to do something stupid that could have been avoided. (Why didn't you tell me?)

To avoid being too harsh when disagreeing, you can use wiggle words like "In my eyes, it looks like a good alternate approach might be…" or "Another way to look at it would be…."

Networking in Denmark

Even if you have a great job in the financial industry, you should never stop networking in Denmark. A good network will help you move up in the company where you're already working or ultimately help you find a new or better job in another company.

The most important networking tool in Denmark is LinkedIn; you should have a well-constructed profile that includes a clear, recent photo of you looking professional but friendly, like someone it would be pleasant to share a coffee break with. (Don't use a passport photo or a wedding photo.)

Posting regular LinkedIn updates about aspects of your industry will help you grow your online network; if you're a good writer, LinkedIn also allows you to blog. A well-written blog post that is shared widely can go a long way towards establishing you as a name in your field in Denmark.

Networking meetings like events sponsored by the Finansforbundet are another way to meet people. That said, Danes are not always good at striking up conversations with people they don't know. I always recommend carrying something that serves as a good conversation piece – maybe a book that's currently controversial in your industry, or a small piece of equipment that people in your field will want to look at and talk about.

Bring business cards to networking meetings: the harsh truth is that it can be difficult for Danes to remember foreign names (I get called "Kate" all the time), so having your name written down will be useful to them. If someone gives you his or her business card, connect with them on LinkedIn as soon as you get home, perhaps with a short professional message like, "Great to meet you today! Let's connect."

Always remember to put into your network as much as you take out. Offer online congratulations when someone has a new job, support when they have lost one, and suggestions when they're asking for input on a topic you know about.

Finansforbundet facilitates a wide range of networks adapted to various areas of interest and job functions in the financial sector.

Read more on networks

Understanding your pay slip

The extensive public services that make Denmark such a pleasant place to live are costly, and you will see who pays for those services when you get your first pay slip. A good proportion of what you thought was your salary will have been deducted for taxes.

Several different levels of government and agencies will have taken their cut of your paycheck. For example, Denmark's national government will have deducted a labor market contribution called the AM-bidrag, plus an income tax percentage called the bundskat, or bottom tax. If you earn a comfortable income, the national government will also deduct a top tax, or topskat.

Meanwhile your local municipality, or kommune, will take a cut called the kommuneskat. Different municipalities have different kommuneskat, so you can raise or lower your taxes by moving from one to another – but different municipalities also have different levels of local services. (For example, a municipality with higher kommuneskat might have more sports programmes for children on offer.)

Another tax that will have been deducted from your paycheck is the sundhedsbidrag, which goes to pay for the Danish national health system, and the kirkeskat, the church tax, which supports religious services and the maintenance of church buildings. The church tax is actually optional: if you're not a Christian and don't want to pay it, you can go to your local head church and sign a statement saying you are not a believer.

The Danish tax system is very efficient. Your tax form is filled out for you automatically every year, with standard deductions (like your Finansforbundet membership fees) already taken out. All you need to do is examine the previous year's form in the spring to make sure it is accurate; sometimes you will have to pay a little extra tax, and sometimes you will get a refund.

That said, if you suddenly find yourself earning much more or much less, it's a good idea to inform the tax office so it can adjust the tax percentage deducted from your pay. Otherwise you could be faced with an unhappy surprise when you see your tax form in the spring.

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