A rounded view: how much do you know about overseas working cultures?

Friday 13th May 2016

When in Rome

20 need-to-know facts about international office etiquette

HR is increasingly unfettered by petty geographical boundaries. Why, it’s probably only the other week you were sent overseas on an important assignment, such as rolling out an engagement programme in KL, supervising a post-merger integration in Rio or getting your CEO out of that prison in Bangkok.

But with overseas travel comes the danger of disaster. Even in the most consistent of multinationals there’s always something culturally different about regional offices, even if it’s only that the coffee tastes different or that it’s OK for directors to sit around in their pants. HR people need to recognise these differences: if they don’t they can end up being about as welcome as a mariachi band at a Trump rally.

Stationery specialists Viking (who themselves operate in 11 different countries) recently sent us some tips on international office etiquette. We reckon they’re an absolute must-read for any HR person with horizons that extend beyond the PPMA annual seminar in sunny Birmingham.

The Top Twenty Travel Tips

1. In the Netherlands, you just have to be punctual. ‘Sorry I’m late, I simply had to stop to smell the tulips’ will definitely speed you straight into an Amsterdammer’s bad books.

Perfect for a long lunch?

2. In France, it’s generally OK to take more than an hour for lunch. So if you’re still at a pavement café in Saint-Germain at 1.57, don’t worry. Feel free to light up your umpteenth Gauloises and ask the waiter for un autre verre de vin rouge.

3. In Germany, always greet the most important person first when you walk into a meeting. Then, work your way down the hierarchy. Und schließlich, Guten Abend Frau Merkel would not be Alexis Tsipras’ best move.

4. In China, leave the office at least thirty minutes after your boss or you might get a reputation for not being committed.

5. Like to wear shorts in the office? Not in Germany, you don’t. Germans insist on proper corporate dress all year round. You might look sexy in those lederhosen but you’d best keep them wardrobed until the weekend.

6. Don’t hold back, opinion-wise, in France. Complaining is considered healthy. Need to tell your boss she has B.O.? (Madame, vous puez.) Do! She’ll love you for it.

7. In the Netherlands, don’t ever ignore a colleague in a lift. Nod at the very least. They’ll be most offended if you don’t. They’ll also be offended if you’re wearing Donald Trump The Fragrance but that’s another story.

Not in a Dutch lift, please.

8. In Italy, you should always ask your contacts to introduce you to potential business partners before you arrange to meet them direct.

9. Don’t arrange a meeting in Spain on August the 1st. Or the 2nd. Or, indeed, any day in August. Best to just take the whole month off for a long holiday. Pretty well everyone else does.

10. In Italy, it’s important to be sociable (but note point 14). Don’t eat lunch at your desk or slip out by yourself to the local pizza stall – make a point of eating with colleagues or they might consider you rude.

Not in Riyadh, thank you

11. Saudi Arabians and other residents of MENA are often very relaxed when it comes to timekeeping. Don’t be too offended if your Saudi visitors rock up a bit late.

12. Don’t be offended either if Germans are very direct in their feedback. There’s no tradition of sugar coating criticism over there. Herr Hasselhoff, Ihre CD ist Scheiße would not be an unconscionable statement in Berlin.

13. Many Saudi Arabians don’t drink alcohol so best not to turn up for an interview with a bottle of Baileys. (Because you would otherwise, right?)

14. Don’t reveal too much about your personal life in Italian workplaces. Talk about your boyfriend to your Italian boss and he’ll blank you, being much more interested in taking his socks off and putting his crocodile skin loafers on.

15. Friday afternoon? When in Spain, put your feet up and have a nap. It’s the beginning of the weekend. Organising a big meeting at 4pm on a Friday would be like going to bed before 5am at weekends – sheer madness.

16. In China, never challenge or correct your boss in a meeting. Even if he or she is clearly wrong (‘Comrades, the Great Wall is visible from the moon’) challenge is never an acceptable course of action.

17. It’s not the done thing in the Netherlands to get drunk with your colleagues at work parties. Especially not with your boss. Play it safe – go down to the red light district and have a couple of puffs instead.

The ‘dam. Photo: Meunierd/Shutterstock

18. Don’t beat around the bush in America. Get straight to the point. Americans, like Germans, appreciate direct speech. Gee Ted, Donald sure did plumb whup your ass is perfectly acceptable parlance.

19. Going out with colleagues for drinks in Spain? Don’t expect to be in bed by midnight. Spaniards socialise very late indeed, with no one even dreaming of going dancing before 2am. (Yes, that’s start time, not Horlicks time.)

20. In Russia, how you dress is extremely important. It’s crucial to make a good first impression but also to maintain your reputation. As the BBC says of Putin, ‘he favours bespoke power suits in classic cuts, dark colours and fine fabrics from Brioni – the upscale Italian tailor famous for dressing Bond.’ That and the occasional skin torn off the back of a nearby brown bear, obviously.

Got any more tips? We’d love to hear them.

About the author

Andrew Baird

Andrew is the CEO of HRville. He is also Employer Brand Director of Blackbridge Communications, Editorial Director of Professionals in Law and an associate of The Smarty Train. Previously, he was the MD of TCS Advertising.