10 things Sweden should do to make life better for international talent

When The Local asked our readers for practical measures Swedish institutions and companies could take to make the country a better place for international workers, you had plenty of suggestions. Here are ten key ways foreign workers in Sweden think things could be improved.

10 things Sweden should do to make life better for international talent
What can Swedish companies do better? Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

READ ALSO: Reader voices – what's it REALLY like working in Sweden?

1. Streamline the work visa process

This was the problem most often mentioned by The Local's readers. Work permit processing times are long, and many international workers have been forced to leave the country due to minor mistakes, often made by their employer.

A court ruling in 2018 required migration officials to take an “overall assessment” in cases involving bureaucratic errors, but so-called 'talent deportations' have continued despite this. And entrepreneurs must also follow stricter rules than native Swedes; for example, they cannot take a salary cut to grow their business, even if voluntarily.

One reader said Sweden needed to introduce “clearer rules regarding the work permits and faster processing of the applications to Migrationsverket”, a sentiment echoed by many others.

READ ALSO: How many people got a work permit in Sweden last year?

Many international workers suggested that a clear time limit should be set on processing times for work permits and extensions, in order to reduce stress and give workers more freedom, since they are subject to certain limitations during processing.

Others suggested a rethink of these restrictions, such as the impossibility of overseas travel during processing, which meant workers cannot attend international conferences, for example, or visit family.

Several readers spoke about “fear” and “insecurity” linked to their work permit applications, having seen many international workers ordered to leave the country. 

2. Improve hiring practices and tackle discrimination

“Notice us,” was the appeal of one reader.

“This problem of discrimination in the job market needs practical solutions, not just talking,” said a respondent in Uppsala.

Several people said they had the impression that hiring managers treated applications from foreigners differently than those of native Swedes, with one saying a friend had found it much easier to get interviews after getting married and changing her name to a typically Swedish one.

“International experience isn't respected, it is discounted. Where you comes from definitely makes a difference. It is very hard to find a job in Sweden if you haven't worked here before,” one Stockholm worker commented.

“It needs to be addressed at a very basic level. Companies need to be told they are to be more international. Zero tolerance for only respecting Swedish experience and only employing Swedes,” stressed another reader.

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3. Educate companies on how to hire foreign workers

Several respondents suggested that more widespread information for employers would be helpful, both relating to practical aspects such as assisting with work permits, and advice on assisting with cultural differences.

“Foreign workers need more insurances than locals. Most of the employers don't know about it and the employee gets punished,” said one respondent, referring to the talent deportations.

Another said that smaller companies and startups in particular often didn't know all the relevant labour and immigration laws for hiring internationals, and suggested seminars for HR managers. 

“Education seminars, mingles and more general information sessions for Swedish business owners, entrepreneurs, students as well as present and potential international workers are needed so cultural idiosyncrasies and understanding can be had. Not the run-of-the-mill job fair type interactions that are ubiquitous, but real discussions! Uncomfortable conversations need to be promoted so the written and unwritten do's and don'ts are well understood by both parties,” said one entrepreneur.

READ ALSO: How to impress at a Swedish job interview

4. Introduce fast-track options for skilled foreign workers

While there were calls for the Swedish Migration Agency to speed up processing time and improve clarity in general, several suggested that a new system be introduced for highly skilled workers. Some argued that the work permit restrictions should be eased for those with in-demand skills or qualifications.

“Make special easy rules for skilled workers to attract talent,” suggested Ali. “An easy route to get citizenship for skilled workers, or easy and fast track for work permit extension to make things secure for the international talent.”

He moved to Sweden from Norway where he had gained permanent residence, but in Sweden needed to “start from scratch” and apply for an initial work permit. Several others were in the same position, relocating to Sweden after gaining permanent residence in other Nordic or EU countries, and people in this category suggested that Sweden introduce separate rules for people without EU/EEA citizenship but with a work history there.

“I could lose the Norwegian permanent residence [due to leaving the country] and get my visa extension refused from Sweden as well, which would be the worst case scenario for me,” said Ali.

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5. Housing assistance

The Local's readers mentioned the housing crisis in Sweden's large city as a major problem for international workers; the big cities, where most English-language jobs are on offer, are all experiencing major housing shortages.

David Johnson, who works in Uppsala but currently lives in the UK, said the housing crisis was “the one thing that has put off me and my family moving”.

And Manuela in Gothenburg said that the best thing Sweden could do to help international talent would be to “provide sufficient, affordable and accessible housing possibilities in close proximity to jobs.”

6. Specialized Swedish classes

Many people said they were surprised at how often Swedish language skills were a requirement for jobs, particularly given the high English proficiency among Swedes. Others pointed out that this was particularly true in smaller cities and towns, and that in order to attract more international talent it would be helpful both to increase English language use outside the major cities and to offer more language training for internationals.

Sweden already offers state-subsidized language classes (known as Swedish for Immigrants or SFI), but some of The Local's readers said the waiting lists to join such a class were long.

“It is impossible to learn the language if people don't want to talk to you in Swedish,” said one respondent. “So it becomes a vicious circle. It is required to speak the language to get a job but there are no ways to learn Swedish.”

They suggested that more Business Swedish courses or other language courses for professionals should be offered, and that more companies should offer on-the-job language training.

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Photo: Melker Dahlstrand/

7. English-language websites for more authorities

There was a lot of praise among respondents for the English-language information and assistance available from many authorities, including the Swedish Companies Registration Office and the Swedish Tax Agency.

But readers said there was still more that Sweden could do, by improving the availability of foreign-language information on all aspects of living and working in Sweden. And while several people praised the rights of workers in Sweden, some said it was often hard for non-Swedish speakers to find out their rights.

“Have a government website in many languages dedicated to outlining your rights and have someone willing to answer questions,” suggested one reader.

“I think there should be more flexibility in language in official use. Mainly when it comes to documents that discuss rules and laws; most of the information available in English just scratches the surface,” one reader said.

“There's lots of details an average Swede has no idea can be difficult for a immigrant (bank accounts, understanding the insurance system, etc),” said Thomas in Stockholm, who said Sweden could improve integration. 

8. Assist with the social side of life

Integrating with the local community is especially important for job hunting in Sweden compared to other countries. 

“Job hunting is so closely related to local network,” commented Vicki in Borlänge, who said that Sweden could improve by becoming “more open”.

“Companies view their employees as tools or machines, but forget that we as people need a little bit of love too,” said another worker.

This may be especially true of internationals who might move here solely for work with no personal connections, and many readers said they had been surprised by how introverted they found many locals to be, and how long it took them to build up a social circle.

And Quentin in Stockholm said that settling in in the capital was taking longer than expected, due to “hard winters combined with introvert Swedes”.

“Integrating into local culture can be more challenging than in other places. Although not related to work directly, this may have an effect on wellbeing outside of work.” noted a Stockholm employee. She suggested that workplaces could be more proactively in helping foreign hires to socialize with coworkers and by suggesting activities outside work to meet locals and other internationals.

9. Reward high performers

One respondent in Stockholm said the biggest surprise since moving to Sweden was their impression that hard work “didn't pay off but only led to more work”. They suggested that companies implement more rewards for high performers in order to encourage ambitious foreign workers to stay, rather than moving to other European or other cities where salaries are higher.

Some suggested this could be linked to the Scandinavian Jantelagen and lagom mentality, which puts the focus on the community above individuals. “Rockstar performers are not recognized and their achievements are attributed to the entire team instead, so there is no motivation to move mountains,” one worker commented.

Others pointed out that Sweden's high income taxes make sense for those who plan to stay in Sweden long-term and raise a family and retire there, but not for many international workers. Multiple respondents mentioned the 30 percent reimbursement ruling in the Netherlands, a tax rebate for certain skilled workers who move there for work, and suggested that Sweden could introduce a similar policy.

“High income tax doesn't make sense for foreigners who probably will not get equal benefits such as pension, elderly care unless they live in Sweden forever,” said Kim, who works in Stockholm. “Sweden will never attract the top talents if they can't provide competitive salary. And it has a limit due to such a high income tax. There should be options in terms of tax return upon departure if that person would not want to receive Swedish pension at some point.”

How you can use the summer to break into the Swedish job marketPhoto: Pontus Lundahl/TT

10. Celebrate differences 

Many international workers mentioned that their differences were seen only as a negative point, with one saying foreign workers were “never accepted, only tolerated” in Sweden.

One said that working culture could be improved by changing “Swedish society's expectation that international people will have to adapt completely to fit into the market”.

“Companies must stop looking for the finished product and try to discover talent. That means lowering requirements for positions and taking risks on individuals who are not 'culturally similar',” said another.

And another urged Sweden to “accept non-assimilated talent with open arms and help them integrate instead of completely rejecting them.”

Ninety people responded to The Local's questionnaire about the highs and lows of working in Sweden. Click here to read more of our interviews based on the survey.

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Member comments

  1. Thank you for such a great article, I couldn’t agree more.
    Let’s hope it will be an eye-opener for many companies and authorities. Whereby some of the above mentioned problems can be tackled relatively quickly, the shift in embracing the cultural differences and a better attitude towards overseas experience will, unfortunately, take much longer.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Valeria, and I hope so too. If there’s anything else you think we should be writing about on The Local, please let us know.

  3. Thank you for this in-depth look at the issues facing internationals in Sweden. It backs up what our organisation for internationals in Helsingborg has been saying for the last 5 years, and will be helpful in explaining the challenges to other institutions!

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INTERVIEW: Does Sweden have a distinct management style?

The Local's Paul O'Mahony interviewed Pernilla Petrelius Karlberg, lecturer at Stockholm School of Economics and researcher at the Center for Responsible Leadership about the Swedish style of leadership.

INTERVIEW: Does Sweden have a distinct management style?

Does Sweden have a distinctive management style?

The Swedish style of leadership is often said to be characterised by so-called flat hierarchies, where everyone is able to – and expected to – contribute their ideas and input to tasks, regardless of whether they are in a leadership role or not.

Pernilla Petrelius Karlberg told The Local that there are a number of different aspects which can influence management style, although Sweden does have a distinct style.

“I think that there’s definitely an idea that there is a specific Swedish or Scandinavian management style,” she said. “But I think from a research perspective, it’s much more complex, because we tend to generalise or stereotype.”

“It’s got a lot to do with the company culture and the culture of the country,” Karlberg said, “There’s definitely an idea of Scandinavian leadership, I think we have a common idea of what that is, but then, is it actually practiced everywhere in Scandinavia or in Sweden? That’s another issue.”

“In many of our organisations we talk about Scandinavian leadership where the leadership is very international, it’s a mix of different people from different cultures.”

Sweden is a very individualist society, which is also reflected in Swedish business.

“I think the core of what we talk about when we talk about Swedish leadership is the fact that leaders and managers also call on co-workers to take ownership on the task and individualism comes into business,” Karlberg said.

“It’s even expected, and co-workers take that ownership, and they engage and they take responsibility for the outcome and the result. So it’s the total opposite of micro-management in that sense.”

This culture of ownership and engagement also applies to managers, Karlberg explained.

“To generalise, in a Swedish setting, if there’s a meeting with the boss, the co-workers will expect to be listened to, and to be involved in a conversation and give their opinion on things. And that’s also a way to motivate people, in a Swedish sense.”


Can lead to cultural clashes

This expectation in Swedish workplaces can lead to clashes if employees from other countries are used to a different system, Karlberg said.

“In another culture, say Finland, for example – I’m just generalising – you go to a meeting with your boss and you expect the boss to motivate you and to tell you what to do. So if you had a Finnish manager in a Swedish context, Swedish co-workers would probably feel neglected or frustrated for not being involved. ‘No-one asked my opinion, I want to share my opinion, my opinion matters'”.

This can also happen in situations where a Swedish manager is managing a group of employees from a different culture or country.

“A Finnish crowd with a Swedish manager might be very frustrated if the manager just asks questions and doesn’t seem to have a direction of their own. There’s just different expectations”.

However, there is also a collective aspect to Swedish workplaces, which foreigners working in the country often pick up on.

“When I work with international crowds, they tend to notice that Swedish co-workers and managers are very collective, they want to have consensus, they have to discuss everything, and it takes forever and it can be very frustrating.”

Swedish co-workers aren’t afraid to speak up though, if they feel that the decision their manager is making is wrong.

“But there are a lot of behaviours where Swedish co-workers will not accept a decision. For example, if they feel that the idea that their manager is bringing is wrong, it will actually be their duty to speak up, not in a confrontational way, but to say ‘Hmm, you know, this idea about doing it this way, it’s probably not a good idea.'”

“And non-Swedish managers might not always appreciate that kind of reaction. And if it continues, and the manager says that this is the way we’re gonna do it, the typical Swedish coworker will insist that this is the best way, and then there is a clash – again, they expect to be listened to and taken into consideration.”

How do you know when a decision has been taken in a Swedish workplace?

This need to feel informed and included in decision-making can in some cases make it difficult to understand at exactly what point a decision has been taken in a Swedish workplace.

“It’s a different process,” Karlberg said. “It often involves a calculated plan for taking the time to introduce the decision, discuss it, and make people feel that they have been informed.”

This aspect of the Swedish workplace culture caused issues during the pandemic, when many employees began to work from home.

“Decisions are taken in a much more informal way, and it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly when something was decided. And we also saw that during the pandemic, that the typical Swedish organisation – which is very non-hierarchical – suffered a lot, because a lot of leadership is practiced in an informal work environment.”

“So when people were taken away from that environment – because suddenly they were working from home – it was sort of, you know, ‘how do we practice leadership now?’, whereas in an organisation with a much clearer hierarchy, it was never an issue where decisions were made or how leadership was practiced, because it was done in a different way.”

“And in the more informal, flatter organisations, we had to find a different way to do that, to translate into the virtual room.”

Despite this, Karlberg does believe that Sweden’s leadership style is effective.

“I would say that it is, yes. We stand out pretty well as a nation when it comes to different types of national measurements of competitiveness. We score quite high on that. Of course, there’s also a drawback, if people don’t want to take that responsibility and ownership, because then it’s not typical that the manager would step up and change the leadership style. So it depends on whether you actually share the same expectation.”

Where does the Swedish leadership style come from?

Sweden’s collaborative leadership style is perhaps a product of Sweden’s history, Karlberg said.

“We have always been a small country, very dependent on export. And that means that we had to adapt to the rest of the world and to other markets, but also having to collaborate – we’re too small to quarrel or fight.”

“This has been a way to bring people together in the same direction – it’s a little bit like how we work with the unions with much more of a collaborative focus instead of being confrontative, because it’s simply not rational for a small country like us.”

There’s also a strong tradition of independence in Sweden, Karlberg explained.

“There’s a genuine tradition of independence in the sense of mutual respect. And of course, a lot happened during the 20th century with the development of equality and the whole idea of individualist thinking. Where we’re individualistic with regard to family, with regard to gender, with regard to our roles in society.”

“I think that plays a part as well, with equality and also that everyone matters in that sense.”

You can hear Paul O’Mahony’s interview with Karlberg in our Sweden in Focus podcast where we discuss all aspects of life in Sweden and shed light on the latest Swedish news. Listen and subscribe.