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German Business Culture and Workplace Etiquette

If you're working in Germany, it's a good idea to have a handle on German working culture and business etiquette. Even if your job is performed in English, if you’re working with Germans, then the workplace environment will likely be culturally German. In this guide we'll take a look at some common trends in German workplaces, and share some tips on how Germans like to do business.

Formality

Germany has a reputation for formality, but the truth is a little more complex. Compared to my experiences of UK work culture, Germany is more formal in some regards, but more relaxed in others.

German colleagues still address each other formally as Herr and Frau, even if they know each other well. They also love titles: If someone has a doctor title, he/she will most likely expect to be addressed by it. Although this formality is dying out in trendier sectors like media and tech.

Office dress codes are more relaxed, though. Women generally wear less make-up to the office. Trouser suits are much more common and high heels are a relative rarity. Men wearing jeans and more casual shoes to the office is pretty normal in Germany, even for sales people attending formal meetings. This definitely wouldn’t happen in the UK or the US outside of the hipster tech start-up scene.

 

Meetings

Meetings, on the other hand, are taken seriously and tend to be very formal affairs. They’re usually scheduled long in advance and are expected to follow a set, planned agenda which is typically shared with both parties well ahead of the meeting.

A disorganised meeting, or spontaneously-introduced topic, could make your German business partners either irritated or uncomfortable.

The German communication style is generally quite direct, and they are usually not afraid to speak their mind. This may come across as curt, but offence is very rarely the intention. What Germans may lack in tact is usually made up for in genuineness and honesty.

 

Punctuality

Be warned, lateness is a big no-no in Germany. Other cultures may forgive lateness as a minor irritation, but in Germany it’s seen as rude: Why couldn’t you have just planned better and been on time?

If you intend on working for a more traditional German company, you’re going to have to get used to early mornings, especially in manufacturing industries. Being in the office at 6:30 here is not considered odd. My theory is that Germans can handle this because their schools start at 07.30 am. As such they’re trained from a young age to not mind getting out of bed at an ungodly hour.

Thankfully, there are positives to this.

After a 06.30 start, no-one’s going to raise an eyebrow at you leaving by 15:00, and it’s far from taboo to do so. This is especially great on warm Summer days, when you can go to the outdoor pool or the lake or just enjoy a relaxing afternoon, all before your evening has even begun.


Privacy and compartmentalising

German offices reflect the wider German work culture, in that they value privacy and compartmentalisation. You don’t come across as many open plan office spaces as I see back home. Offices are generally more private.

This is great for getting more work done, and it seems to pay off: Statistically Germans are much productive during their working day than the average British person, working 1.5 hours a week less, while maintaining a higherproductivity per capita.

The downside of this compartmentalisation is that German workplaces can often seem quite stiff and impersonal. There’s a distinct split between professional and social relationships, which may feel cold to outsiders, especially compared to Latin cultures. Workplace banter is also less common, as is socialising with colleagues outside of work, so don’t expect to be invited for after work drinks.

 

Time Off

The upside here is that work stays at work. In Germany, free time and vacation is respected by employers, colleagues and bosses alike.

You’re perfectly within your rights to put on your out-of-office that you’re not reading work email or taking calls unless they’re urgent.

I love this attitude and am a firm believer that nothing is so urgent that it can’t wait until Monday. Of course, this works both ways, so don’t expect a German to answer their phone or respond to email when they are on holiday.

German work culture is quite forgiving of time off for illness, too. I was surprised just how often German colleagues took time off work, often for pretty minor ailments.

 

Negotiation

Germans are typically formal, pragmatic negotiators, who look for win-win situations. They rarely get over-emotional or argumentative in a negotiation.

However, negotiations may stumble if you find yourself asking for something outside of the box, or contrary to standard practice. German companies tend to favour going by the book.

Management and decision-making tends to be very hierarchical. As such, decisions often get deferred to a more senior person. Be prepared for this and ask up front whether decision makers will be present if you need something actioned quickly.

Businesses in Germany also place high value on formal contracts, seeing a contract as a very black and white document with no shades of grey or room for flexibility. If there’s something you wish to be negotiable or subject to change, ensure that this is stipulated as such in any contract, or tactically leave it out!

 

Flexible career paths are less common

In Anglo-American firms,  employees often develop their careers by moving around various departments and roles, gaining a wide range of experience. Career development in Germany is generally less agile, and more specialised.

Employees expand their expertise only within their particular field. It’s not unusual to have somebody who has been in the same role for over 15 years. In technical roles it’s common to have a technical expert at a senior level who isn’t an executive but is a real specialist in their field, often with a doctorate in their chosen area of expertise.

This has both its advantages and disadvantages: On one hand, strong understanding of a subject matter is highly valued by customers and partners, but this does come at the risk of missing out on innovative new ideas through a lack of “outsider” penetration and the disruptive mindset that brings.

 

German Efficiency –  A Myth?

German companies rarely play at the cheap end of the market. Considering the high quality of manufacturing, and the high skill level of the workforce, German products and expertise usually come at a premium.

Often the unique selling point of a German product or service will be that it reduces your total costs long-term, even though it might cost more than another similar product or service on the market.

Germany’s reputation for quality is no doubt. But I can’t say the same when it comes to efficiency. While German companies are extremely efficient at manufacturing, planning and logistics, they’re also masters of creating extra work when it comes to bureaucratic obfuscation.

HR and IT departments are notoriously inefficient and many internal procedures are paper-based and admin heavy. Everything from receiving payslips to booking holidays seems to require a laborious, paper-based process.

I guess there’s truth to the saying, “If you want to experience German efficiency, go to Switzerland”!

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