Swedish company sued in handshaking row

Sweden's discrimination ombudsman DO has sued a company after a woman's job interview was cut short when it became known that she would not shake hands for religious reasons.

Swedish company sued in handshaking row
The woman did not want to shake hands. Photo: Depositphotos

The woman had been called to a job interview in Uppsala with a company providing interpretation services via telephone or video. But when the handshaking disagreement emerged, the company called off the ongoing interview, according to a statement by DO.

“In the first place, DO questions that the company at the time had a neutrality policy aimed at religious expressions, but believes in any case that such a policy had not been applied in a consistent and proportionate way,” reads the statement, issued on Monday.

Last month the European Court of Justice ruled that employers are entitled in certain circumstances to require employees to for example dress neutrally in line with the company's image, meaning that a ban on the “visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign in the workplace” could be legal.

“However, a prerequisite is that those limitations are demonstrated in existing policy and applied consistently and in a non-discriminatory manner,” said DO, adding that because the woman would not be required to meet her customers in person, such a ban could not be enforced in this particular case.

“The ruling also shows that the interest in neutrality cannot be used to restrict religious expression for employees who do not have visual contact with customers,” it added.

“Because this concerned a non-visible act which would not be expressed in telephone or video interpretation, it seems difficult to assert that it is something that would affect the brand,” said Martin Mörk, head of DO's unit for processing cases.

DO is now taking the case to the Swedish Labour Court, demanding that the Uppsala company pay out 80,000 kronor (approximately $9,000) in damages to the woman.

There have been a number of similar rows over handshaking in Sweden in the past year. In July, a man sued a local council after he lost his job for refusing to shake hands with female colleagues. Lund District Court began looking at the case late last mont and is expected to announce its verdict in early April.

The most high-profile case meanwhile was that of a former Green Party politician who resigned a year ago due to controversy caused by his refusal to shake a TV reporter's hand in an interview.

Similar debates have also been raging in other countries. In Switzerland, two teenage boys raised the hackles of some politicians when it emerged that they had refused to shake the hands of female teachers.

READ ALSO: Why a Muslim teacher quit her job over handshaking row

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Reader question: When am I eligible for a Swedish pension?

A reader got in touch to ask how long he had to work in Sweden before he was eligible for a pension. Here are Sweden's pension rules, and how you can get your pension when the time comes.

Reader question: When am I eligible for a Swedish pension?

The Swedish pension is part of the country’s social insurance system, and it can seem like a confusing beast at times. The good news is that if you’re living and working here, you’ll almost certainly be earning towards a pension, and you’ll be able to get that money even if you move elsewhere before retirement.

You will start earning your Swedish general pension, or allmän pension, once you’ve earned over 20,431 kronor in a single year, and – for almost all kinds of pension in Sweden – there is no time limit on how long you must have lived in Sweden before you are eligible.

The exception is the minimum guarantee pension, or garantipension, which you can receive whether you’ve worked or not. To be eligible at all for this, you need to have lived in Sweden for a period of at least three years before you are 65 years old. 

“There’s a limit, but it’s a money limit,” Johan Andersson, press secretary at the Swedish Pension Agency told The Local about the general pension. “When you reach the point that you start paying tax, you start paying into your pension.”

“But you have to apply for your pension, make sure you get in touch with us when you want to start receiving it,” he said.

Here’s our in-depth guide on how you can maximise your Swedish pension, even if you’re only planning on staying in Sweden short-term.

Those who spend only a few years working in Sweden will earn a much smaller pension than people who work here for their whole lives, but they are still entitled to something – people who have worked in Sweden will keep their income pension, premium pension, supplementary pension and occupational pension that they have earned in Sweden, even if they move to another country. The pension is paid no matter where in the world you live, but must be applied for – it is not automatically paid out at retirement age.

If you retire in the EU/EEA, or another country with which Sweden has a pension agreement, you just need to apply to the pension authority in your country of residence in order to start drawing your Swedish pension. If you live in a different country, you should contact the Swedish Pensions Agency for advice on accessing your pension, which is done by filling out a form (look for the form called Ansök om allmän pension – om du är bosatt utanför Sverige).

The agency recommends beginning the application process at least three months before you plan to take the pension, and ideally six months beforehand if you live abroad. It’s possible to have the pension paid into either a Swedish bank account or an account outside Sweden.

A guarantee pension – for those who live on a low income or no income while in Sweden – can be paid to those living in Sweden, an EU/EEA country, Switzerland or, in some cases, Canada. This is the only Swedish pension which is affected by how long you’ve lived in Sweden – you can only receive it if you’ve lived in the country for at least three years before the age of 65.

“The guarantee pension is residence based,” Andersson said. “But it’s lower if you haven’t lived in Sweden for at least 40 years. You are eligible for it after living in Sweden for only three years, but it won’t be that much.”