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‘It’s crazy’: What to expect when you work for an Italian company

Disorganised, nepotistic and badly paid - is this really what it’s like to work for an Italian company? Here, we lift the curtain on what you should really expect if you sign up for a career in Italy.

‘It’s crazy’: What to expect when you work for an Italian company
The realities of living and working in Italy can come as a shock. But are things really that difficult? Photo by Tolga Kilinc on Unsplash

I heard plenty of unfortunate reports about working in Italy before I made the jump to move here. The decision to begin an Italian life was a joint one with my fiancé, so we could put an end to the long distance commuting between him in Italy and me in England.

But I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I was warned about Italy’s low employment rate – especially for women – and high taxes. I also spoke to people who’d tried life in Italy and they cautioned, that as I hadn’t learned Italian before, the language barrier would also be tricky.

READ ALSO: ‘If you move to Italy, brace yourself for things not going the way you want’

Still, I put on a positive face and was determined to do my best to make it work here.

Italy has indeed got many perks – its food and scenery is just the start – but the romantic tourist impression is different from the side you see when building a future here.

That seems obvious, but the disparity between a sun-soaked fortnight and the reality of everyday life often comes as a shock.

Some of the negative rumours around Italian corporate culture are accurate, but working for an Italian company isn’t to be totally written off either.

Above all, it’s a really good way to integrate into a new life. You meet people and make your own connections and friends, which I found to be so important for my mental health and own sense of independence.

You may encounter some major cultural differences when working for an Italian company. Photo: Christina @ wocintechchat.com/Unsplash

Whether you move to Italy alone or with a partner, working for a business gives you a routine, some roots to grow from and opens up doors for new opportunities.

But, as I found, it can be jaw-clenchingly frustrating.

Who you know is helpful but not essential

I spent around three months job searching when I first arrived. I moved to a town near Bologna almost six months before the pandemic hit, so Covid-19 hadn’t yet impacted the job market even further.

Still, I found it tough to get going. I walked around businesses and schools with my CV, as my background is in both journalism and education.

I eventually found a private school to work for, which was Italian-run but conducted all its lessons in English. It seemed a good place for me to find my feet.

I knew the work culture was different on the first day.

“You might not want to stay here, as it’s crazy,” the office personnel told me as she showed me around.

Not quite the usual HR schtick. I sniffed politely and laughed it off. I can do crazy, I thought. I spent years dealing with celebrities and divas when I worked in London.

I’d done well to get a job, so people told me. I’d landed a position despite knowing nobody and this went against the notion that finding employment in Italy is all about having contacts.

READ ALSO:

On closer inspection, though, it turned out it was a very family-run business and if you were a relative of the founder, you got a job there.

So nepotism existed, but it didn’t stop me from getting in either.

The staff were polite, friendly and wanted to know all about where I came from and what I’d be doing there. The teachers were mainly Italian but could speak English, for the most part, so I could relax and be myself without struggling through my beginner Italian at that time.

But when it came to meetings, everyone largely reverted to Italian. They talked vigorously over each other and I just moved my head back and forth, watching the linguistic tennis.

Afterwards, I asked one of them who spoke English to give me a précis of what just happened. Despite thinking I’d found a place where I could work in English, I quickly realised you have to learn Italian to some degree – and fast.

Disorganisation is rife but you get lunch

Here’s where the famous Italian lack of organisation really shone through. Departments struggled to communicate to each other and problems cropped up as a result. Overlapping and doubling up on work, different agendas and changing everything on a whim last-minute were commonplace.

The last point is something that really pushed my buttons. I couldn’t help it. There’s being flexible and there’s what you’d call a ‘casino’, as the Italians say.

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Especially if you deliver on a lengthy project, only to be informed that it’s not needed anymore or that someone else already did it. That really got my goat.

Whether this drives you to the edge depends on your personality. There were times I got annoyed. Other times, I laughed to myself at the utter comedy of the place.

Often, I would sit waiting for a meeting to start, pad and pen at the ready, poised for making stuff happen. Then the person you were expecting arrives 20 minutes late and asks, “Have you eaten?”.

Well, you can’t think on an empty stomach, can you?

You have to surrender and go with it if you decide to get on the Italian payroll. You can’t change the culture single-handedly and you have to make peace with a different pace and customs.

It’s a culture adjustment, but there are upsides too. I mean, a girl’s gotta eat.

Forget eating sandwiches at your desk – lunch is a serious business in Italy. Photo by Keriliwi/Unsplash

Promotion and pay can be poor

There’s also the snag of pay and career mobility.

How much money you make and your career progression are key factors in deciding which company you want to work for in other countries and big cities.

In Italy, though, you quickly learn that your pay packet is often dismal and it’s really hard to move through the ranks and make more cash.

You’re heavily taxed and INPS, or social security contributions, are substantial too – even if the employer pays most of those for you.

READ ALSO: 

What you take home each month is highly likely to be a massive blow compared to what you’ve earned in the UK or US, for example.

I think that was a big stumbling block for me, because even though there is way more to life than money, you can feel undervalued and disheartened that you’ve worked so hard for your qualifications and experience, to only bring home barely what you’d make part-time back home.

Northern Italian cities are best for finding employment, but also have the highest living costs. Photo: Andrey Andreev/Unsplash

Or you think back to when you last earned a wage so low and I couldn’t. Even my first job after leaving university paid more.

The north of Italy isn’t that cheap a place to live. So as much as you can wholeheartedly believe the ‘money doesn’t buy you happiness’ adage, you still have to pay the bills and likely want enough left over to enjoy your surroundings. 

But the Italian quality of life has a value beyond your bank balance

Still, there is a trade-off and a benefit to be found in all this. The work-life balance is definitely better than what I’ve experienced elsewhere.

I’m beyond climbing the greasy pole and want to enjoy more life lived outdoors, spending time with loved ones and taking more downtime for my own health. I once experienced burnout and I couldn’t imagine working for a company that demanded 60-70 hours per week from me anymore.

That’s unlikely in Italy. The love of family time – and eating – ensures a better chance of overall health. They also have a lot of national holidays, which means you get a day off fairly frequently.

If a festival day falls on a Tuesday or Thursday, they may even do something called ‘fare il ponte’, which means they’ll give you another day off to bridge the gap and make it an extra long weekend.

For me, the better quality of life is worth pushing through the tougher aspects of working for a company in Italy.

But the holy grail is to get hold of a ‘tempo indeterminato’ contract. This is a permanent position and means you have job security. They are rare to come by – for both Italians and foreigners. In fact, I’ve met people who have had ‘indeterminato’ parties when they finally get one of these elusive work contracts.

I never did and my ‘determinato’ (fixed term) contract got rolled on a few times until, in the end, my hours got cut so much that it didn’t justify the travel costs and I couldn’t renew again.

If you manage to bag a permanent job and can focus on the benefits you get from living in Italy, such as the privilege of world-class attractions and cuisine, then it’s absolutely worth going for.

It’s not impossible to achieve and could be an exciting adventure for a few years. You might not save much cash for your next step, but you will live well and just might discover a new, more ‘tranquillo’, side of yourself.

If you’d like to share your own experience of working in Italy for a future article, please email the editor here.

Member comments

  1. This was enlightening.

    It further reinforces my opinion that doing remote work from Italy (and being paid the same as you would in the US or another relatively high-income nation) is the best (if not ideal) solution for those wanting to live in Italy.

    On the down side, you don’t get free lunch.

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For members

WORKING IN ITALY

Remote workers: What are your visa options when moving to Italy?

Italy does not (yet) have a special 'digital nomad' visa - so what other options are available to freelancers and remote workers? Here's what you need to know if you're planning a move.

Remote workers: What are your visa options when moving to Italy?

Italy has announced that a new visa option for ‘digital nomads’ or remote workers is on the way for non-EU nationals wanting to move to the country.

Though the government is yet to give details of how the application process will work, it’s hoped that the new visa will mean a far easier route to a new life in Italy for the growing number of people who can work from anywhere with just a laptop and an internet connection.

READ ALSO: What do we know so far about Italy’s digital nomad visa?

The idea of swapping a spare bedroom office in colder climes for a new life in Italy is proving especially tempting in combination with the country’s growing number of discount home purchase or rental schemes aimed at repopulating remote, rural villages.

While it is possible for many non-EU nationals to spend up to 90 days in Italy without any visa at all, those wishing to work legally while here must apply for a visa and work permit

And the current visa options available are not always viable for self-employed freelancers and remote workers, immigration law experts say, due to the strict quotas and requirements involved.

Here’s a breakdown of the other visa options available at the moment for those hoping to make the move to Italy.

Self-employment visa

The self-employment visa, or visto per lavoro autonomo, is the permit that most non-EU freelancers would probably expect to apply for when seeking to move to Italy for work.

Successful applications, however, are rare.

So rare, in fact, that Costanza Petreni, a senior immigration consultant at the immigration firm Mazzeschi, says she actively discourages clients from taking this route.

READ ALSO: Working remotely from Italy: What are the rules for foreigners?

“We have so many clients asking for this type of application, because in the absence of a digital nomad visa there’s almost no other option. But what we tell them is it’s extremely hard and uncertain,” Petreni says.

The visas are released in annual quotas, via Italy’s decreto flussi, on a first come, first served basis. For the last few years, including in 2022, only 500 have been made available each year.

Petreni says one of the main issues they face, however, is less a lack of available permits than the absence of clear guidance from consulates as to exactly what documentation they need.

A common obstacle, for example, is that the consulate will require the applicant to be registered with the relevant professional body or guild for their profession – but won’t specify which one they have in mind.

READ ALSO: How many people does Italy grant work permits to every year?

If you work remotely, can you just move your life and laptop to Italy?
Just 500 self-employment visas were released by Italy in 2022. Photo by Persnickety Prints on Unsplash

In Italy, membership of such bodies is standard, but in most other countries, it tends to be only very established professions that even have their own guilds or royal societies – making this a significant stumbling block for many applicants.

“Even for photographers, they’d say, well, you need to register with the relevant body; but there isn’t one, that’s the problem,” says Petreni.

She says the process can sometimes be a little easier for those who are already in Italy on, say, a study visa.

That’s partly because those who are already present in Italy and applying to convert their existing residency permit into a work permit come under a different quota, with more spaces available (7,000 in 2022).

It’s also because once you’re in Italy, it’s your local prefecture, rather than an Italian consulate, that handles the application process – and in Petreni’s experience, dealing with the prefecture can be simpler.

“In theory, the requirements are the same whether you convert your permit or whether you do a one-time visa application for self-employment. But the authorities checking are different.”

One key difference, she notes, is that prefectures will generally be able to tell you whether they have any spaces left in their quota and whether it’s worth filing an application as a result, whereas consulates typically won’t share this information (“I don’t know if they know”).

READ ALSO:

She warns, however, against assuming that entering the country on a study visa and then converting to a self-employment visa is a silver bullet, as success is by no means guaranteed.

“If I were proposing this to a client, I would have to be very careful in managing expectations, so that after one year of a study permit they don’t become very cross that they didn’t convert it,” Petreni says.

How to work remotely in Italy.
Moving to Italy on a study visa may smooth the path for those hoping to apply to work there as a freelancer. Photo by Hannah Wei on Unsplash.

Intra-company visa

If the barriers to obtaining a self-employment visa are so prohibitively high, what other options are out there?

One alternative that Petreni will sometimes suggest to clients is the Intra-Company Transfer (ICT) work permit.

This entails setting up an Italian branch of a foreign-headquartered company, which she says can work for clients who have “even a small company in the US or UK”.

In this case, the worker would be applying for a visa not as a freelancer but as the employee of a foreign company that has posted them to Italy. The visa has a five-year duration (as opposed to the self-employment visa, which is valid for an initial period of two years).

One of the advantages of this visa, says Petreni, is that it’s outside of the decreto flussi, and therefore not subject to quota limits.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to get an Italian work visa

“This is an option we have proposed, and it has worked in many cases,” she says.

“The problem is that it’s quite hard financially, and tax-wise, so it’s not for everyone… you need to put quite a bit of money in the Italian branch and have it running, so you have your yearly taxes, and you need to show that the parent company is reliable.”

“We will suggest having €20,000, €25,000 for an intra-company at least, just to show that it’s in good standing order.”

'Not just extra paperwork': What it's like moving to Italy after Brexit

An ICT work permit might be a viable option for some remote workers looking to move to Italy. Photo by ALBERTO PIZZOLI / AFP

The EU Blue Card

The EU Blue card, introduced via an EU directive, is another option Mazzeschi sometimes proposes to potential clients.

Those coming to Italy on the card must earn a minimum salary of €24,789.93 and have a three-year university degree at minimum.

This scheme allows an Italian company to locally hire highly qualified non-EU nationals, and again operates outside of the decreto flussi quota system.

READ ALSO: ‘Not just extra paperwork’: What it’s like moving to Italy after Brexit

In this case, instead of setting up an Italian branch of a foreign company, the applicant registers a company under Italian law. Checks on the company will be stricter than they are for an intra-company office. 

“They want to see that the Italian company has the funds to hire a non-EU employee,” says Petreni. “For that option, we suggest at least €50,000 share capital for the Italian company.”

“It’s usually someone who already has a company running abroad, and then they decide whether to do the intra-company or the EU Blue Card. But for self-employees, the most-used option would be the intra-company, when they can do it.”

What type of visa will you need to move to Italy?

The EU Blue Card could be the best option for some would-be Italian residents. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

Petreni says that people considering applying for the EU Blue Card often want to know whether it allows the holder to move around freely and work anywhere within the EU once they arrive.

It’s not quite that simple, she says – in the beginning you can only work from the country where the company you’re working for is based –  but holding the card can facilitate the worker’s move to a different EU country.

In the case of Italy, someone who has worked in another country in the European Union for eighteen months can move to Italy and apply for an EU Blue Card permit to work for an Italian company within one month of arriving.

Final tips

To the average freelancer just wanting some mobility, these two latter options might sound somewhat daunting.

For those who want to attempt a self-employment visa application in spite of the challenges involved, Petreni has some advice: contact your consulate to get as much information as possible before starting the application process.

“See if they have very specific requirements, because the information is not clear and it can be discordant for self-employment options, so it’s very important get in touch and see how the consulate is and what kind of answer they can give.”

“Self-employment is a bit of a jungle, it’s crazy,” says Petreni.

Find more information on the Italian Foreign Ministry’s visa website here.

Please note that The Local is unable to advise on individual cases. For more information on visa applications, consult the Italian embassy or consulate in your country or an immigration law professional.

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