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EXPLAINED: How to boost your career chances in Germany

Often seen as one of the world’s most productive economies, Germany is a magnet for international workers. But once you’ve got a job in Germany, how do you keep moving upwards? Sarah Magill lays out some tips and useful German words.

Two women and a man walk side by side in Frankfurt am Main.
Two women and a man walk side by side in Frankfurt am Main. Photo: picture alliance / Arne Dedert/dpa | Arne Dedert

Upgrade your language skills

There’s no getting around it – if you want to advance your professional career in Germany, you need to speak the language.

As a general rule, the B1 or B2 level of the Common European Framework of Reference is required to get a job in most German speaking companies. In some professions, the German language is legally required: doctors and teachers, for example, are obliged to have a particularly high language level.

In many other professions, it is up to the employer to decide what level of German language skill is required.

Of course, many people come to work for international companies in the big German cities where English is the spoken language and manage to get by with little to no German.

But if you’re serious about moving upwards in Germany,  you’ll need to broaden your network and skills, for which speaking the language is a must.

READ ALSO:  Do you need to speak German to get a job in Germany?

Do your qualifications need to be recognised?

In Germany, Ausbildung (training) is everything. On many career paths, you won’t be able to progress beyond a certain point unless you have a specific qualification.

Copies of foreign certificates in an office of the “Law and Fair Play” department of the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Ulrich Perrey

Depending on the job you are doing, it may be necessary to have your qualifications officially recognised.

In Germany, there are so-called regulated professions whose admission or practice is bound by legal and administrative regulations to certain professional qualifications. These include, for example, doctors, psychotherapists, nurses, lawyers, teachers and engineers. For these regulated professions, official recognition of your qualification is a must.

This means that the competent professional body will check whether your foreign qualification is equivalent to the corresponding German qualification or whether there are significant differences that you can compensate for by obtaining a further qualification or taking an exam. 

Get on board with German business culture

Different countries have different customs and the German workplace is no exception. While in other cultures the personal relationship may play an important role in a business context, in the German working world the focus is absolutely on the matter at hand.

Generally, personal and professional life are kept very much separate, so don’t start off your new job by showing your boss photos of your kids.

READ ALSO: Working in Germany: The three tricks to impress managers

Another thing to get used to quickly is the direct style of communication. Germans tend to communicate very directly and explicitly – including criticism – so learn to take things on the chin and convert criticism into improvement.

Consistency and reliability are also seen as especially important traits in the German world of work. There are usually binding rules and structures in place to foster certainty in dealings with each other.

And of course, as with every other aspect of German life, a high standard of punctuality is expected in the German workplace. You won’t get far with your career in Germany if you turn up late to meetings – even by two minutes.

The home page of the online professional network LinkedIn is seen on a computer monitor. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Jens Büttner

Networking and self-promotion

As in most other countries, networking and self-promotion is very important in Germany. Don’t kid yourself that being good is enough – you need to put put yourself in the spotlight sometimes, and be seen too.

A lot of professional networking now goes on online, so make sure that you are present on sites such as LinkedIn and the German equivalent XING, with up-to-date career information and a professional photo. Keep your network updated on these sites by adding people you encounter in business circles. 

READ ALSO: How to reach out to German employers on LinkedIn or Xing

Be friendly 

Although you should strive to keep your personal and private life separate, being polite and friendly with your colleagues and external contacts goes a very long way in Germany. 

It can be simple as starting every email with a nice, personal introduction and exit, remembering your colleagues’ birthdays, having lunch with your team or getting an occasional round of sweet treats in from the local bakery. 

Also stick to the polite Sie form of German, at least until you get the green light to use du. Although with senior colleagues, you may always use the Sie form.

Useful vocabulary

Karriereleiter erklimmen = to climb the career ladder

Die Abschätzung = appraisal 

Der Aufstieg = promotion

For friendly emails

Ich möchte Sie fragen, ob…

I’d like to ask you if…

Würden Sie mir freundlicherweise … zusenden…

Would you be so kind as to send me…

Ich wäre Ihnen sehr dankbar, wenn Sie … könnten..

I would be very grateful, if you could…

Vielen Dank im Voraus

Many thanks in advance 

Ich würde mich freuen, bald von Ihnen zu hören.

I’d be happy to hear from you soon 

READ ALSO: 21 phrases to help you get on in a German office

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WORKING IN GERMANY

‘Lack of diversity is a problem’: What it’s like to work at a Berlin tech startup

Many foreigners dream of finding a job in Germany's growing startup scene. But aside from promises of free pizza, what's the culture like, is the pay good - and do you need to speak German? We spoke to two foreigners working at tech startups in Berlin to find out.

'Lack of diversity is a problem': What it's like to work at a Berlin tech startup

With over €5.1 billion in venture capital fund investments raised last year, the startup industry in Germany’s capital is booming. Startups are the fastest-growing job sector in Berlin, and more than 78,000 people are now employed in the sector.

The sector attracts highly qualified, ambitious people from all over the globe. But what is it really like to work for a Berlin startup?

We spoke to two insiders to find out. Gabriela, 36, is originally from Poland and has been a Business-to-Business Manager in a tech startup in Berlin since October last year. Giuseppe, also 36, is originally from Italy and has been working as a Human Resources Manager in various tech startups for the last seven years. 

Most important question first – do you actually get free pizza and office table tennis?

Giuseppe: These kinds of benefits have become a bit of a cliche that doesn’t really reflect the reality anymore. Yoga, soft drinks, and fruit baskets are nothing special. The real benefits are now to do with remote working and flexible working schedules. 

Gabriela: We haven’t really had many of these kinds of ‘incentives’ because we’ve been mainly working from home since I started. Only in the last month or so we’ve been going to the office at least once a week, and we do get free pizza and drinks once a month when the CEO’s give us their monthly update on how the business is going.

READ ALSO: The German regions attracting startups

Would you say that your work environment is diverse?

Gabriela: My team is a complete mix of people from different European countries. But the number of BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) people on board is not very high and there is definitely a problem with the lack of female leadership, which the company is trying to address. The CEOs are all white Germans.

Giuseppe: (Lack of) diversity is still a big problem. Most of the CEOs and the highest earners are white – usually German – guys. Women and BAME people tend to occupy lower-paid jobs. It’s a systemic issue – and there is competition among a lot of startups that are trying to show who is more diverse. 

How much German is spoken in your company?

Gabriela: Hardly any. We speak all the time in English with each other and all of our meetings are in English.

Giuseppe: It’s the same with us. I’m hearing German less and less. 

READ ALSO: How easy is it to get an English-speaking job in Germany?

Is there anything then that indicates that the company you’re working for is German?

Gabriela: I think the presence of a strong labour law reminds you that you’re in Germany. In our company, there’s an employees representation group and certain clear rules. You know that you won’t be suddenly dismissed once you’ve passed your probation time.

Giuseppe: Yes, the labour law is what I would point to. It’s not easy to get rid of employees in Germany – there is a more robust framework that affects the environment and culture. 

What is the salary like?

Gabriela: I think it’s competitive. My company does salary benchmarking every summer to see what the standard is across the industry and adjusts its pay accordingly.

Giuseppe: Salaries have gone up a lot in the last few years and you could even say they are booming now. A ‘normal’ engineer can expect to earn at least €85,000 per year, and if you are in a serious leadership position, you can expect to earn up to €180,000.

READ ALSO: Do internationals face discrimination in the workplace

A woman working from home throws money in the air. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

Would you say that it’s a high-pressure environment to work in?

Gabriela: For me, there isn’t the kind of pressure that if you don’t perform you won’t get the money you should be getting. Instead, my company is trying to get you to think that your own success is intertwined with the success of the company. There are good incentives to work hard and we have also a certain amount of shares in the company, so if it does well we benefit too.

Giuseppe: I personally feel pressure, but I love what I do, so for me it’s fine. But I have seen a lot of cases of people burning out – especially young people. I think because there are a lot of young managers, who get into leadership roles without having the tools or strength to resist the pressure.

How do you find the work-life balance? 

Giuseppe: I feel like I’m working all the time, but again, that’s because I love my job and I want to, it’s not necessarily the expectation, it’s not like in the US. In Berlin tech startups, there is a tendency to slow down around 6pm.

Gabriela: For me, the work-life balance compared to previous jobs is very good. Telecommuting is great, there are flexible starting times and last-minute holiday requests are usually approved. I think it’s very good for people with children and more complex schedules. 

How many days holiday do you get?

Gabriela: We get 28 days holiday per year.

Giuseppe: We get between 23 and 30 days holiday per year, depending on how long you’ve been working in the company.

What are the career progression opportunities like?

Gabriela: Very dynamic. For myself, I don’t see a clear career path at the moment, but I see a lot of movement happening and people moving to different roles. There is a feeling of being in a constant state of change. 

Giuseppe: If you join a startup at the right time, you can very easily become a manager very quickly.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to boost your career chances in Germany

What was different about working for a Berlin start-up than you expected?

Gabriela: I thought that working from home would be easier, because I hadn’t done that much before, but I find it much harder to be engaged than I expected. I think a lot of startups (in Berlin) are struggling now to find the right balance between the competing interests of their employees – some of whom want to be fully remote and others who want to come more regularly to the office.

Giuseppe: Before I started working for tech startups I had this romantic image that they were all led by geniuses with big ideas who started in their garages. But in reality, I’ve found this emotional, big-dreaming side to be lacking. There are a lot of people who work for startups who just see it like any other job.

A work team exchanging ideas with notes on a whiteboard.

A work team exchanging ideas with notes on a whiteboard. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

What are the best things about working for a Berlin tech start-up?

Giuseppe: You can make an impact with what you do, to build a product and say it’s mine. There is also creativity and freshness in the team dynamics. I was deeply unhappy in the years I spent working for big corporations because I didn’t know what the goal was. In startups, the objectives are clear.

Gabriela: You can grow with the company, and there are a lot of positions opening all the time, and it’s very common for startups to promote internal talent.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The German regions attracting startups

What are the worst things about working for a Berlin tech start-up?

Gabriela: Sometimes it can be hard to keep up with the pace of change. It sometimes feels like we are constantly onboarding new people or people are changing roles and there is a slightly chaotic feel to things. The buzzword “agility” is used and abused, and sometimes means staff is expected to go along with anything and everything.

Giuseppe: In the tech start-up world here there seem to be a lot of people who get into the top jobs because they speak a lot, not necessarily because they are the most competent. There is a lot of networking and self-promotion required to push yourself forward. It’s also not a good environment for people who don’t like change, because things change a lot. 

Do you think Berlin is a good place for foreigners to work?

Gabriela: Yes, definitely. You have a lot of choice when it comes to places to work – so it’s unlikely you’ll have to stick at a job which
you don’t like. It’s also a big help for foreigners that most startups in Berlin don’t require German language skills.

Giuseppe: Definitely. For me, the mix of cultures and ideas in the workplace is really inspiring and motivating. And, of course, the city of Berlin itself is full of cultural events and has a great night life – so it’s a great place to live for when you want to detach from work too.

Do you have any advice for anyone thinking about joining a tech start-up in Berlin?

Giuseppe: Try to develop an entrepreneurial mindset instead of an employee mindset as soon as possible. Always look for opportunities, don’t take things personally, don’t think about what happened yesterday, and focus on the now. 

Gabriela: Be open-minded and be prepared for change. 

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