McDonald’s head: Language and taxes may discourage foreign talent

The fast food chain’s director has adjusted well to an international post, but stressed that numerous factors make things difficult for international workers

The country’s largest firms are increasingly filling their top positions from afar, but according to one of those foreign executives, Denmark still has some improvements to make in order to retain that international talent.

“Language at the business and political level is something that is quite restrictive for expats and people who are trying to give back to the business community,” Stephen Shillington, the vice president of McDonald’s Nordic and the managing director of McDonald’s Denmark, told The Copenhagen Post. “That unfortunately makes foreigners feel more isolated.”

A native Australian, Shillington relocated to Denmark with his family in 2010 after working for McDonald’s in his home country. He said he viewed the move as an opportunity to develop professionally and come to understand another culture, but that certain aspects of the transition have occasionally made things challenging in the professional world.

READ MORE: Top brass positions increasingly filled from afar

Language barrier creates isolation
“I’ve been invited to many forums with politicians and it’s very difficult because if I attend, they speak Danish until I speak, and then everyone speaks English. When I’m finished, they go back to Danish,” he explained. “It’s very difficult to get ingrained in the conversation; it’s difficult to keep up. You do feel a bit isolated.”

Shillington noted that he has been prevented from interacting with journalists on occasion because they insist on speaking Danish. In addition to the language barrier, he pointed to the nation’s high tax levels and immigration policies as potential deterrents for international employees.

“There are a couple of things that are restrictive toward attracting foreign talent, like making sure we have an attractive expat tax gain,” he said. “I know we have one and it finishes after a number of years, but that means that the talent built up in the country then leaves.”

“The government bureaucracy – the whole process of getting a residence permit and then having it renewed every three years – is quite tedious,” he continued. “I’ve got a family with three children so for my wife and me, it’s basically a full day out of the calendar spent at the Immigration Service. And a lot of work goes into preparing the paperwork before you even go into the office.”

Local involvement key
Shillington stressed, however, that his family’s efforts to get involved locally have made their personal adjustment more successful than it might have been otherwise.

“My wife and I made a commitment to get engaged in the society and the community,” he explained. “We’ve taken the approach of trying to get to know our neighbours and the people at work; we set out to have dinner with my leadership team and their partners on a regular basis. We try to understand the country and the people within it.”

Shillington also pointed out that he has already begun to see a shift in attitudes toward foreign workers since his arrival in the country, which he attributed largely to media coverage. What’s more, he said, both his personal and professional experiences in the country have been largely positive – from the work-life balance and family-orientated society to the Danes’ workplace style.

“The Danes all get behind a decision and it executes exceptionally well,” he noted. “What I’ve found in McDonald’s is that we have a kind of flat hierarchy, so there’s a really fantastic team environment when we’re making decisions.”

Similarities and differences aside, however, Shillington ultimately suggested that the mere fact of working abroad has strengthened his overall leadership skills.

“I think it’s allowed me to think a lot more globally,” Shillington said. “Coming from one country to another, you understand that there are cultural differences, and I think that’s helped me grow into a better CEO.”