“Unemployed immigrants challenge Danish tolerance”

Torben Hansen, director of the Association for New Danes, wants more businesses to take a chance on immigrants and ethnic minorities – and he's got the data to back up why it's a good idea

Finding a job in Denmark can be difficult if you don’t possess the  language skills or diplomas from a Danish education centre. It can be especially frustrating when, as an immigrant, you know you have plenty to offer – you just need a chance to prove yourself.

This is the challenge Torben Møller Hansen is dedicated to addressing as director of the organisation Foreningen Nydansker (The Association for New Danes).

The organisation works with over 100 companies to help ethnic minorities and immigrants into work, while also encouraging the labour market to appreciate the value of a diverse labour force.

What is your background, and how did you get into this line of work?

As a kid, I attended a Catholic school even though my parents were not particularly religious. The principal really emphasised the idea that all religions should be treated equally and that everybody had to respect each other. So in a way I was raised with diversity even before I knew what diversity was.

When I finished my Master’s degree at Copenhagen Business School, I realised that diversity was a big challenge for Danish society, but there were few strategies to address the issue. I was offered the CEO position with Foreningen Nydansker a couple of years later and realised very quickly that this was the place that I was looking for. I am really lucky to have the job I have – working to promote our belief that businesses are stronger and more powerful if we properly manage diversity.

How is diversity in the workplace viewed in Denmark?

Since 1995, politicians in Denmark have regarded diversity and different religions as value-related problems. Newspapers often carry stories about head scarves, prayer during work and issues concerning food that are framed as challenges that are very difficult to overcome.

What’s interesting is that while politicians are eager to talk about a conflict between work and private life, companies often don’t see the conflict – they just want the best brains, regardless of race or gender. They don’t see it as a problem to have rooms where people can pray, since the rooms can be used for all sorts of other purposes too. When it comes to food, people who are training for a marathon have to change their diet in the weeks before a race. And afterward they might walk a little strangely for a week. But the business doesn’t care, that’s just part of running a marathon.

If you’re fasting because of your religion, however, then we suddenly look at it like some sort of challenge or problem. But there are small and very elegant solutions to these supposed problems, and for the past sixteen years, we have seen businesses resolve them without issue.

How do you communicate diversity to these companies? What do you hope to achieve by working together?

Our prime minister has already asked us as a country to become better at managing diversity. This is especially important now as we try to integrate the large number of refugees that have arrived here. It is critical that we get them into the labour market as soon as possible.

But it’s not straightforward. Novo Nordisk recently called us and said, “we don’t really know how to be a part of this. We have some ideas and we would like to be challenged on how we could be even better”. So we came in and set up a whole new way of working with the immigrants in that organisation.

Foreningen Nydansker’s primary strategy is to distribute solutions that companies have already invented through their experiences of managing diversity. We rarely invent anything new, though we have started a number of mentorship programmes, including one specifically designed to reduce youth unemployment.

We found that many young people are skilled, they just lack a network and inside knowledge from the business world. After four months in a mentor programme, around 70 percent are either in work, education or apprenticeships. Because of our success, we have grown from working with three municipalities to twenty-three, and we currently have around 1,260 businesspeople working for us as volunteers.

How do businesses benefit from having a diverse labour force?

There is a huge benefit. I have just published a report together with the facility services business ISS that concluded that Danish companies with diversity in their senior management are 10 percent more successful than companies without. In another report, we managed to show that diverse teams were 4.1 percent more successful than Danish-only teams in companies.

The point is that if you have only engineers writing an engineering textbook, then probably only professional engineers will understand the material. If diversity is present in management, products, development programs and services, then you are better able to meet the needs of diverse customers. This is why I believe that it is crucial for the success of businesses to have women in management. It’s important to include all of the best brains from all over the world.

Ultimately, understanding, implementing and working with diversity in everyday life is a crucial part of business. Diversity is a tool, not a goal. For a lot of these organisations, diversity training is a very good idea. For example, the Nordic countries are very focused on getting women into top management. But if you look at Danish companies, around 95 percent do not have a budget to promote diversity. You have to motivate the companies, give them feedback, and show how they can achieve great success with just a little effort.

Why is it so important to get immigrants and refugees into work quickly?

There’s no reason for immigrants not to be in work. When you take a walk across the city, you can see that a lot of work is not being done. A lot of lawns are not being mowed, a lot of walls are not being painted. And yet, there are a lot of immigrants who are unemployed. Something is malfunctioning.

Like most Nordic countries, we have a welfare system in Denmark, and if you don’t work, you are still paid quite well. But if we have a lot of people coming to our countries who do not work and receive benefits, the people of the Nordic countries are going to say, “no more”. The low employment rate of immigrants only strengthens the anti-immigration sentiment in Denmark. But I think that if immigrants started working within months of arriving, then Danes would totally accept immigration.

The thing is that Danes are actually very tolerant – you just have to obey the law, vote when there are elections and earn your own money. So it’s a shame that Danish tolerance is challenged by unemployed immigrants. A lot of Danes are pretty frustrated that they have to pay for people who don’t work. For me that is challenge number one.

What could job centres do differently to meet the needs of migrants?

Job centres need to better understand the needs of private businesses. When job centres know they have to integrate 50 migrants into the labour market over the coming year, they need to communicate with businesses so they can outline the skills the migrants will need to learn in order to work there.

They also need to find out what sort of work is relevant to the different migrants when they arrive in Denmark, and which businesses need people with their skills. When we do that, we often find ten to fifteen different companies that are listing positions and into which 85 percent of the people will get hired.

That means we also need to tell immigrants entering Denmark that it is more important to develop relevant skills for the Danish labour market, and once they are employed, they can pursue their own interests.

What about immigrants, what can they do to improve their chances of finding work?

Capitalise on your difference. Look at your background in regards to language, culture, or whatever is relevant to you and make that an advantage. Help us, the Danes, to discover that your diversity is good for business. I think that we are at a tipping point at which Danish managers are starting to recognize the benefits. M


By Natasha Jessen-Petersen

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