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Difficult Crossings: Challenges with Diversity in the Labor Market


When Shang Lee was still a Chinese citizen, he was invited to come to Denmark by a Danish company, trying to establish a foothold in the booming Chinese economic market. Unlike most foreigners, Mr. Lee was trained to understand different cultures: his degree from Beijing University was in diplomacy; he was comfortable straddling the bridge between culture, time, and nationality, and had a promising career in Denmark. He left China and his position as Director of the Ministry of Technology and Science in China, poised for success. The work progressed well. His wife and son moved to Denmark to live with him, as his stay was extended and extended again by his employer. Yet in the mid-1990s, the company went bankrupt: the company’s bridge to China was broken, and, for reasons that were too personal to confess, Mr. Lee severed his bridge to China. An immigrant without work and with a family to support, he did not look back, at least not for a while.

We met Mr. Lee, working as an employee of Parking Copenhagen (Parkering København). He is a portly man with a cautious smile. He wears his work uniform with the pride of committed employee.  One gets the impression that if the managers never checked on him, his uniform would still be cleanly pressed everyday. Despite his curriculum vitae and dedication, he has only found steady employment for the last year and a half, giving out fines for illegal parking. Mr. Lee has been living in Denmark for 17 years.

During the 8 years between leaving his original job and finding his new one, Mr. Lee took courses in Danish and business courses at Niels Brock School. Both of which were paid for by the government of Copenhagen and were intended to facilitate the integration of foreigners into the labor market. By his own estimation, he applied for over a thousand jobs, rejected every single time. He found temporary jobs to make ends meet, but nothing permanent, and nothing that corresponded with his qualifications. After 7 years, Mr. Lee obtained Danish citizenship.  Without any colleagues to correct his pronunciation and grammar on a regular basis, his Danish skills failed to improve with time.

Tolerance is a Virtue that Denmark Cannot Afford to Forget

 Immigrant Danes, even those fluent in Danish, suffer from labor market exclusion and marginalisation. Time plus citizenship plus fluency does not equal integration. He and his wife, who faced similar problems finding work and colleagues with whom she could speak, decided not to return to China because they could not face the shame of failure from their families. For Mr. Lee, these were, “the toughest 8 years of my life.” (Interview with Lee, 2007)

In Denmark, political discourse on immigration is less than inviting.  The dominant discourse remains assimilationist (Wrench, 2007). Kenneth Kristensen, the head of the Danish People’s Party Youth, is an ardent supporter of assimilation. To be a Dane is to pledge loyalty to the Danish people (Kristensen, 2007), as opposed to pledging allegiance to the principles which the Danish people support. In this view, Muslims cannot be Danes, unless they give up their Muslim heritage. In dictum, any view that conflicts with the views of the Danish people, that is, the majority of the Danish people is treasonous and bespeaks disloyalty. To be fair, Mr. Kristensen represents a radical, albeit influential group of Danish people. But in presentation after presentation through out the HIA program in Copenhagen, spokespeople from the major newspapers and television emphasized how Denmark is a homogenous group of people. Homogeneity seems to be a crucial component to the Danish national identity. For immigrants, this is necessarily exclusionary.

Multiculturalism—the idea that different cultures can exist simultaneously in the same state and contribute the values of their heritage—has not taken deep roots in Denmark in contrast to the United States. In the context of the United States, this multiculturalism has been extolled through a number of metaphors: a salad is tastier with a cornucopia of vegetables and fruit; a symphony is more mellifluous with many different instruments; a patchwork quilt; and so on. It seems that one way to appreciate diversity is to describe diversity with a diverse array of metaphors. Yet in Denmark, the multicultural ideal seems to conflict with their national identity as a homogenous people.

This exclusive culture and national identity has practical consequences for integration into the labor market. Immigrants are unable to find work as readily as ethnic Danes because they are often stigmatized as outsiders. The statistics bear this conclusion out. Among immigrants from non-western countries, the unemployment rate was 13.8 percent in 2005. In comparison, the unemployment rate among immigrants from western countries was 5.8 percent and among Danes it was 4.5 percent (Statistics Denmark, 2007). The differential employment rates are consistent across educational levels. The employment rate among Danish men with vocational training is 72.9 percent; whereas the employment rate among foreigners with the same educational level is 61.1 percent. Additionally, the employment rate among Danish men with long term university degrees is 80 percent; whereas, the employment rate among foreign men with the same educational level is 61 percent (SOPEMI Report to OECD, 2006). According to Buffy Lundgren in Diveristy in Denmark: An American Diversity Practitioner and Colleauges Share their Observations, “the difference in employment rates between White Danes and…immigrants is one of the largest in Europe.” (2007) Mr. Lee puts a human face on these statistics. He gave up trying to find employment that matched his qualifications and settled for underemployment. Like many immigrants, he had no choice.

Immigrant medical doctors are the exception to this rule.  In Denmark, medical doctors are in short supply, so they have an easier time finding employment. However, according to Susanne Nour of the Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR), many immigrant doctors and highly educated immigrants leave Denmark for the U.K and the U.S.A, where they expect to find a more tolerant culture—a culture that is predicated on the idea of multiculturalism. The paradoxical aspect of the exclusive culture is that Denmark needs both low skilled and highly skilled labor in order to maintain the high standard of living and generous welfare state, as well as to fill jobs that Danish people either would not choose to fill or do not have enough supply to fill. Tolerance is a virtue that Denmark cannot easily afford to forget.

Diversity Management – Diversity as a Strength not a Burden. 

Corporations routinely find themselves at the forefront of clashes between immigrants and ethnic Danes. Corporations, managed in large part by ethnic Danes, are the employers, and their decisions account for the discrepancy between immigrant employment and ethnic Dane employment. The desire for access to wages and a sustainable life in Denmark manifests itself as a desire for work. A survey conducted on immigrant priorities put access to the labor market at the top of the list (Wrench, 2007).

The moral imperative to hire employees based upon qualifications and give all applicants an equal opportunity is unassailable. Yet, if economic decisions drive corporate strategy, moral imperatives might not be a priority. For potential employers, the challenges of hiring a diverse work force might be myriad: their clientele might not want to be served by an employee from a minority background; employees might clash in the work place; employers might perceive certain minority groups as, on average, less qualified. Furthermore, small employers, which are the majority of Danish employers, might not want to expend the financial resources to overcome these challenges. Human resources management to maximize human capital is an easier burden for a large company to take. Yet a growing body of literature seeks to overcome these challenges by measuring the value of managing a diverse workforce. This body of literature is called diversity management.

According to John Wrench, diversity management is a strategy used by employers to combat minority's exclusion from the labor market. The rationale of the program is to utilize diversity to maximize competitiveness and efficiency within the organization to gain market share. Being aware of diversity and creating a business environment where tolerance is the norm allows employees to discuss business strategies in a more creative, open forum; thus a more productive decision-making process. Legal remedies to prevent discrimination and promote integration prevent individuals from acting a certain way; whereas diversity management is said to accomplish the same by encouraging individuals to express and value difference (Wrench, 2007). Unlike affirmative action, which singles out a specific group for extra assistance, diversity management is said to value the contributions of all groups, including, for instance, white males. For this reason, it is in theory a more equitable integration policy. (resume editing here)

In the United States, an important reason that diversity management gained prominence because of the substantial risk of law suits that corporation assume when they discriminate. American corporate managers consistently rank the risk of litigation as the first reason to create a diversity policy (Kamp & Hagedorn, 2003, p. 83-90).  Other reasons certainly buttress the first: namely, the growth of minority communities as markets at home and abroad, and the growth in the service sector, where intercultural skills are prized. In Denmark the risk of litigation and the amount a corporation can expect to pay out in damages is dramatically reduced. Yet the other concerns remain.

In 2004, Parking Copenhagen won the MIA Prize for Diversity Management, given out by the DIHR. The DIHRs work with diversity is based on a right-based definition of diversity management. "Genuine diversity will therefore require that companies take active measures against discrimination and that the culture of the company and its organisational framework are developed on a continuous basis, with a view to supporting equal opportunities for every body Diversity thus requires both awareness and management of differences” (Nour & Thisted, 2005, p.21). 

Parkering København received the MIA prize for their diversity policies and for trying to establish a more inclusive work place culture. The independent jury of the MIA prize among other things emphasized that Parkering København had handled conflicts related to them being a multicultural workplace up front.

The company is relatively large by Danish standards with 230 employees. The company is hired by the municipality of Copenhagen on a contractual basis to administer parking fines throughout the city. Because of its large size, and the scrutiny it receives as a government contractor, one might expect to find a diversity management policy at Parking Copenhagen.  Indeed, they designed their diversity management program in 2001. This proves that the ability to trade internationally, and the fear of lawsuits are not necessary conditions for the creation of a diversity management program. 

Hanne Lassen, a work environment consultant, designed the diversity management program at Parking Copenhagen. She attempted to create a more inspiring and interesting work environment by mirroring the diversity of Copenhagen in the company. After some questioning, she also admitted that labor shortages at Parking Copenhagen were a crucial motivator for creating the program. As part of this program, they began hiring applicants with minority backgrounds over ethnic Danes, given equivalent qualifications. All parking guards must attend the same introduction program regardless of their background. Special language training classes are offered for employees who are not proficient in Danish. The classes are subsidized by the municipality. In Ms. Lassen’s opinion, these diversity management practices created equal opportunities for all employees to excel once they were hired. At the same time, it created a company culture that values differences, instead of viewing differences as barriers to efficiency.  Torben Svendsen, a Danish employee, finds the new working environment much more challenging and inspiring, as he now learns about new cultures and dismantles prejudices through the diversity management program.

Mr. Lee also appreciates the tolerant culture at Parking Copenhagen. When Mr. Lee arrived at Parking Copenhagen for the interview, he found a welcoming corporation ready to hire him, unlike the many businesses that had rejected him without an interview in the past. Now he finds solace in a community that appreciates his contributions. His Danish is improving as he speaks with colleagues and takes language courses.  For the first time in eight years, he feels content. He finally feels Danish.

The culture that Parking Copenhagen has tried to develop and the tolerance among its employees it has tried to inculcate has paid off in a measurable way. Since the program began, the diversity of the workforce has dramatically increased, from two people out of 230 in 2001 to 40 people today.

For diversity managers, differences are valuable to the corporation’s efficiency, its ability to target new markets, to be innovative, and to connect with minorities. For instance, one of the benefits at Parking Copenhagen is an increase in efficiency, through decreased absenteeism. Absenteeism has decreased from 42 days missed per year, to 25. 

The values that diversity can confer on profit are undermined by a political discourse that favors assimilation. If managers expect immigrants to assimilate, they have no reason to plan to incorporate diversity management into their business practices. Discourse is more than just talk but also action. An assimilationist discourse may paradoxically decrease the efficiency and comparative advantage of corporations in a globalized world.

How to Value Differences?

Despite the idealistic motivation behind diversity management, the concept has many drawbacks. Diversity management is only indirectly motivated by a desire to achieve a more equitable society. When a company begins to see diversity as an asset to the corporation’s profit motive, then the individual’s moral right to equal treatment is deemphasized. The danger is that corporation might not see diversity as a good strategy to maximize profit, and then drop it as a goal. Legal approaches, like affirmative action legislation in the United States, that are not subject to the discretion of the manager are less likely to be overlooked.

Diversity management is also an approach that values the contributions of all ethnic groups, including powerful groups, such as ethnic Danes. The approach sidesteps controversial questions about structural inequalities, and therefore inclusion can also be seen as overlooking the real structural inequalities between and among groups. There are differences among people that have serious detrimental effects. Regional differences, hair color, taste in food are more benign differences than ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, and disability. Not all differences are equal, but the diversity management approach does not always account for this fact.

Finally the diversity management approach to integration is one that necessarily reifies ethnicity. A manager who sees diversity as an asset to his or her corporation must have an idea about what contributions different cultural groups can offer. A manager might think that the Chinese, like Mr. Lee, are more dedicated than other groups, and view this as an asset to the corporation. Emphasizing ethnic identity runs the risk of perpetuating the idea that ethnicities have permanent and immutable characteristics. In this view, differences among people arise from their country of origin, an empirical conjecture that often is not verified, and is dubious at best. To teach ethnic or cultural differences to people during management training sessions necessarily must reduce those differences to simplified constructions that may in the end perpetuate stereotypes. To value difference is to create difference as a category, which can be signified; in these ways, diversity management reifies and essentializes ethnicity.  Employees might not want to fit into these categories and feel negatively about these associations.

The first two critiques imply that diversity management by itself may not be the best strategy to integrate minorities into the workforce. In light of some of these difficulties, diversity management might want to be supplemented by a legal approach to improving integration. The implication of the last critique is that it is dangerous to value a simplified, essentialist idea of ethnicity and that teaching diversity might lead one to this end. Also, minorities might not want to be pigeonholed into an ethnic category. In principle, this critique applies to any attempt to teach ethnicity and to value differences. This danger must be weighed against the danger of not talking about differences at all. If differences do exist as a social construction that have real effects on peoples lives, many of which are detrimental, then the risk of not talking is a danger in itself; in fact, not talking about the values of difference was the status quo for most of Danish history, which created the condition for intolerance to flourish. Thus as a strategy for combating intolerance, we think that valuing differences, even if some reject those differences, is preferable to avoiding the classifications at all.

Diversity management is surely no panacea. Even though a few firms practice diversity management, minorities have not successfully integrated into Danish society. Mr. Lee’s job demands that he approach many ethnic Danes to deliver traffic fines for improper parking. No one likes a parking ticket. Humans react differently under the pressure of being fined—for some it releases their basest instincts. In one episode, Mr. Lee approached a man, who had parked illegally, and handed him a ticket. The man stepped out of his car and asked rhetorically, “Do you know what? I am Danish.” 

“I am also Danish,” Mr. Lee replied. 

“I cannot understand what you are saying,” the man mocked. 

Mr. Lee left and the man began to follow him. Mr. Lee managed to escape, but the remarks felt like “a knife in his heart.” Even as Mr. Lee is a part of one accepting Danish community, it is not an island on which he can find solace and a respite from the many hostile Danes. The political discourse implies that immigrants can never become Danes. In the time between acceptance and rejection, Mr. Lee is happy at his job. “I can learn something new everyday,” and he finally can identify himself as both Danish and Chinese.  Through diversity management, Mr. Lee and many others have been incorporated into the Danish labor market. This created the real possibility of identifying with and making a real home in Denmark. When one is making a home on foreign soil, it seems that the soil is always sifting, giving way to new cracks in the structure. Mr. Lee’s story tells us that a house is a home if it feels like your home. No structural flaws can take that feeling away.





•Hanne Lassen, Work environment consultant at Parking Copenhagen (Parkering København) (June 25, 2007)

•Torben, Parking guard at Parking Copenhagen (June 25, 2007)

•Shang Lee, Parking guard at Parking Copenhagen  (June 25, 2007)

•Susanne Nour, Team leader at the department for diversity at the workforce, Danish Institute of Human Rights.( June 27, 2007)  


•Kristensen, Kenneth, head of the Danish People´s Party Youth. ( June 22, 2007)


•Nour, Susanne and Thisted, Lars Nellemann: Diversity in the workplace. When we are equal but not the same. Copenhagen, Børsens Forlag, (2005)

•Wrench, John: Diversity Management and Discrimination, Burlington, Ashgate Publishing Company, (2007) 


•Kamp, Anette and Hagedorn- Rasmussen, Peter: ’Mangfoldighed på danske arbejdspladser – byrde eller styrke?’( Diversity in the Danish workplaces – burden or strength?), in Tidsskrift for Arbejdsliv, nr. 2., 6. årgang, 2004, p. 8-23.

•Kamp, Anette and Hagedorn-Rasmussen, Peter: ’Mangfoldighedsledelse – Mellem vision og praksis’. (Diversity management – between vision and practise), SFI (The Danish Institute of Social Research) 2003.

•Lundgren, Buffy: ‘Diversity in Denmark: An American Diversity Practitioner and Colleagues Share Their Observations’, in Diversity Factor, nr. 2, volume 15, The War for Talent, 2007.  

Web Pages 

•http://www.nyidanmark.dk/NR/rdonlyres/B39AF55A-8455-47E7-B378-8D1548483A21/0/sopemi_report_2006.pdf - Report to OECD on international migration and Denmark made by the Ministry of Refugees, Immigration and integration affairs. (last date of visit: June 29, 2007) 

•http://www.statistikbanken.dk - Contains detailed statistical information on the Danish society. (last date of visit: June 29, 2007)

•http://www.nyidanmark.dk/da-DK/ - The official portal for Foreigners and Integration. The Ministry of Refugees, Immigration and integration affairs. 

(last date of visit: June 29, 2007)

•http://www.mangfoldighed.dk/?ID=682&WEBID=0 - Mangfoldighed.dk is the Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR) web portal for diversity in the workplace ('mangfoldighed' translates directly to diversity). On this site we promote and inform about diversity and equal treatment in working life, through a range of various activities. (last date of visit: June 29, 2007)

•http://miapris.dk/?AFD=0&ID=233&PID=233 - The Danish Institute of Human Rights’ web portal about the MIA-prize. (last date of visit: June 29, 2007)

•http://www.parkering.dk/ - The web page of Parking Copenhagen( Parkering København). (last date of visit: June 29, 2007)


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