On International Company Culture in The Netherlands

This was written on 2021-11-26 but it is retro-dated so as to not appear among my recent posts, and thus avoid embarrassing certain unnamed entities.  It is written in past tense even though a few paragraphs down the page it begins describing my current experience, because in the near future I intend this to become my past experience.

In 2015 I decided to leave Greece and its destroyed economy, and to go live and work elsewhere in Europe. I started an international job search, and within a couple of months I had a few offers to choose from. I picked the one from a company called Topdesk, in the nice little university town of Delft, in The Netherlands, mainly because of tax benefits available to expats in that country, but also, and in no small part, because The Netherlands has the reputation of being one of the most foreigner-friendly countries in Europe. The Netherlands achieves this reputation in a number of ways, one of which is the fact that the Dutch rank number one in the world (1) in English-as-a-foreign language proficiency, making it possible to live in The Netherlands without ever having to learn Dutch.

So, Topdesk brought me to Delft with all expenses covered, and even though as a foreigner I represented a trifling minority of maybe 2% of the employees in the office, my colleagues did an excellent job of helping me integrate, which is definitely something I am grateful for.  

For example, as I entered a room, they would all switch from speaking Dutch to speaking English among themselves, even if some of them were just discussing how their weekend was. That's how sensitive they were towards having a foreigner among them and making that foreigner feel included.

Later I worked for another company, also in Delft, where more than 50% of the employees were non-Dutch, so obviously, virtually all spoken and written communication in that place was in English. The impression that I formed was that when the Dutchies had a rare chance to speak Dutch among themselves, the foreigners were likely to think "let the poor folks speak their own native language for a change!".

Then later, the seemingly impossible happened: I somehow managed to find myself in a workplace which, despite also being located in Delft, did not have a sufficiently foreigner-friendly culture. I was amazed by how sharply I felt the difference; it really made me appreciate the international culture of the previous workplaces.

I suppose that the difference can be fully attributed to the fact that this particular workplace was a branch of a larger company which was headquartered outside of The Randstad area of The Netherlands. I have delved outside the Randstad a few times, and there is indeed a noticeable change in the varieties of Dutchies observable out there: things tend to be less international, people who struggle with English are actually common, and there is a decidedly more rural look and feel to everything, including the mindsets.

In this particular company I did once communicate with a headquarters employee who was in fact struggling with English, and mind you, I am talking about a person holding a high position in the high technology sector. How this is possible, I do not know. Apparently, the company is accommodating towards employees who are not comfortable with English, and as a result they attract employees that are not comfortable with English, so it is a vicious cycle. This culture appears to overflow to other branches, even in areas of The Netherlands where English fluency is the norm.

Here is an example of a very foreigner-unfriendly situation that I came across once, in the Delft branch:

My colleague next to me tells me that our code is causing something unexpected to appear on his screen, and asks me to come take a look. So, I roll my chair from my desk to his desk, I take a look at it, and we start discussing it. Another colleague overhears the discussion, and joins. The three of us continue discussing in English for a few more minutes or so, and then suddenly the two of them switch to Dutch. I am left sitting there waiting to see if they will switch back to English, but no such thing seems to be happening. After some more wondering what my purpose in life is, I quietly roll my chair back to my desk, while they are still discussing the problem in Dutch.

Now, I am not saying that either one of them had the intention of offending me, nor am I blaming them for not realizing that their behavior would be offending to me; this is the type of thing that may easily go unnoticed by everyone but the foreigner. However, from an organizational point of view this lack of anyone to blame means that situations like this cannot be corrected by expecting individual employees to take the initiative to adjust their own behavior and their own sensitivities; it can only be corrected by having a company culture which promotes international workplace awareness. That particular company decidedly had no such culture.

Of course, that was one of the most glaring examples of things going wrong, and it was not happening very often. There were, however, many other things which were less glaring, but they were occurring more frequently, some even on a daily basis, contributing to making the overall experience of working in that place unpleasant. 

For example, in that company there were talks and presentations every once in a while on various subjects related to our work, most of them physically taking place in the headquarters but available in Delft via videoconferencing. Many of them were being conducted in Dutch so I was excluded. Some were announced in English, but when I would join I would invariably discover that they were also being conducted in Dutch. In theory I could interrupt them and ask them to switch to English, but I was unwilling to do so, because the company culture gave me no such mandate. When the head of the company gives his yearly talk in Dutch, he sets a precedent. When many of the communications that arrive every week in my inbox are in Dutch only, this sets a precedent. When e-mails contain an English-translation but their subject lines are nonetheless in Dutch, this sets a precedent. When non-Dutch speakers are being treated as second-class employees, not by salary or by nature of work, but simply by communication, this sets a precedent. That is how company culture is formed.

Working for that company made me realize that my earlier colleagues at Topdesk were doing above and beyond what was necessary to make me feel included, and in that sense they may have actually been spoiling me. Of course, I do not expect anyone to switch to English just because I happen to be within hearing distance. As a matter of fact, not being able to understand Dutch can be considered as an advantage, because it allows my ears to easily cancel the environmental noise and focus on my work. However, when I am invited, or otherwise included, or in any other way entitled to participate in a discussion, to deny me participation by speaking Dutch it is highly unprofessional.

Here is a checklist of things to look out for with respect to international employees in the workplace:

  • If you post a job advertisement in English, and in the list of requirements you refrain from including knowledge of the Dutch language, and an international candidate shows up, and you hire them, you are essentially promising a job that can be performed in English. 
    • So, this is an obligation you have now picked up, which you must fulfill. 
    • There is very little that the employee can do to foul up their end of the deal; it is not like they can start submitting their work in Swahili tomorrow, and expect you to cope with it.
    • It is only the employer's end of the deal that can be either done right or fouled up.
  • In the high technology sector, these individuals have not come to The Netherlands asking for favors or "willing to cope with adversities".
    • They are highly valued professionals fulfilling important roles. 
    • These jobs are available not because Dutchies are unwilling to do them, but because there are not enough Dutchies around to do them. 
    • So, it is best if these individuals are not made to feel like fruit-pickers.
  • Any and all verbal communication directed to a group of employees which may potentially contain an international employee should be in English. If the speaker is unsure about the composition of the group:
    • The speaker should either assume that the group contains international employees, or ask.
    • The speaker should not assume that the group does not contain international employees, and expect them to interrupt and request that their presence be taken into consideration.
  • Words spoken in the presence of an international employee, and in the context of work, (such as in a live or virtual meeting,) should be in English, regardless of:
    • Whether these particular words are work-related or not.
    • Whether the words are deemed relevant to the international employee or not.
    • Whether the meeting has started or we are still waiting for everyone to join, etc.
The international employee is present in the meeting as part of their job, so professional rules of engagement apply.
  • Any and all written communication directed to a group of employees should be in English, not just for the narrow reason that the group may potentially contain an international employee, but more broadly, because that is what having an international company culture means. If Dutch must also be included:
    • The Dutch text may of course precede the English text, but it should not fail to begin with "=== ENGLISH FOLLOWS ===".
    • Both texts should have an equivalent status in all other respects, including formatting, pictures, etc.
    • For e-mail, subject lines should always be in English.
  • Mistakes that will inevitably be made need to be detected, corrected, and prevented from being repeated. For example, a newly hired employee may write an e-mail introducing themselves in Dutch only, and send it to the entire branch.
    • The correction in this case consists of management asking that employee to re-send the e-mail, this time translated in English. 
    • For this to happen, management must be on the lookout for such mistakes.
    • For this to not be repeated with the next fresh hire, management must examine what it is about the hiring process that fails to get the message across that there are non-Dutch speakers working in the company.  (Hint: simple measures, like changing the predefined e-mail signature from "Met vriendelijke groet," to "Kind regards," can work miracles.)
  • Any and all written communication that for whatever reason must be in Dutch should be in a format which facilitates single-click machine translation, because it may fall in the hands of an international employee, (even at some point in the distant future,) who must be able to very easily make sense out of it even if only to discover that it is irrelevant to them.
  • Any web sites or applications that international employees must regularly use should be 100% in English, without requiring machine translation, not even single-click machine translation.
    • This includes not only the messages displayed by the application itself, but also all verbiage added by means of data entry.  For example, it is not of much use to have the header of a table translated from "type velof" to "type of leave" if the entries in the table still contain words like "bovenwettelijk". 
    • Doing this right might require purchasing world-class software and investing in its customization; this is a price that must be paid in exchange of the benefit of hiring non-Dutch speakers. 
    • Doing this right may also require consultation with labor law experts, taxation experts, etc., and this is also a price that must be paid in exchange of the benefit of hiring non-Dutch speakers.
  • If the employee must choose the English language from a menu, they should not have to do that more often than maybe once every couple of years. Tools that offer a language choice only for demonstration purposes, without actually remembering the user's preference, are unacceptable. Sometimes fixing such a tool to make it behave correctly is seen as a feature request which gets filed along with other feature requests, prioritized according to how many users need it, and acted upon accordingly, meaning, never. Having an international company culture means giving such feature requests a very high priority.
  • Employment contracts should ideally be in English. If a company finds it hard to provide international employees with contracts in English, then each printed contract in Dutch should be accompanied by a copy in electronic form, along with a statement affirming that the electronic copy is identical to the printed copy, so that the employee can at the very least have it machine-translated so as to make sense out of it.

(1): English-as-a-second-language proficiency world-wide top rank in The Netherlands: See https://www.ef.nl/epi/

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