Are you searching for a job at a German company, or looking to start a business relationship with German partners? Either way, you might want to get familiar with business culture and etiquette in Germany.
There are plenty of reasons to learn their ways. Backed up by a diversified gross product that counts on manufacturing, banking, or tech alike, Germany is the European Union's powerhouse and the world's fourth-largest economy. A dynamic economy means that jobs spring up continually, but you’ll also be competing against the best candidates out there. And etiquette, a word more associated with presidential ceremonies than with watercooler chats, could give you the edge when cutting deals with German residents.
This simple guide will give you an excellent grasp of German values and corporate culture.
Cultural influence on business etiquette
Cultural influences significantly impact all business cultures, and Germany is no stranger to the trend. Germans are forward-thinking, structured, and highly detail-oriented.
In line with this mentality that favours helpful structures, maintaining clear lines of distinction between people, places, and things is highly valued. The work and personal lives are kept separate. Of course, this depends on whether you’re in Frankfurt or the very expat-friendly Berlin, but going out for a beer on a Friday after work with your coworkers is unusual unless you planned the recreation some days in advance.
In Germany, your coworkers are just colleagues and your friends are your friends, and the two rarely overlap. A usual piece of advice professionals with lasting careers give out is to never mistake your managers and coworkers for friends, and this could be stressed out if you’re in Germany, especially compared to countries like Spain. Don’t take this as a sign of disrespect or disdain, though. They actually see it the other way around: as a sign of respect. It’s just the way their very successful society works, and adapting to it will earn you consideration from them.
Punctuality and deadlines
In Germany, being on time means arriving 10 minutes early to a meeting. If it’s an interview, 15 minutes seems to be the norm. If it’s daily business, get there three to five minutes early, even if it’s a regular stand-up meeting.
So if you think that arriving sharp at a meeting means being late, you got it right. From business meetings to deadlines, handling business on time is the bare minimum expected in Germany. One adage is that “Berlin isn’t Germany,” which could leave expats to believe that Berlin, which is famously jazzy and wacky, could be culturally OK with being late. But no: be there before the meeting starts, even if you’re in Berlin.
This emphasis on punctuality also means your German colleagues are likely to have very explicit expectations when one commits to a deadline for a project. So if you committed to sending an email by Friday, they won’t really vibe with you sending it on Monday, which in many workplace cultures would be okay. In the end, you agreed to it. The very beneficial flip side to this aspect is that Germans are likely to set more realistic deadlines and timelines. A German project plan may appear to be longer and slower, but it will not be extended several times or go much over budget.
Just a few minutes of delay for an appointment could be rude. If you think you will be late, give them a call and explain your situation as soon as possible. Do not make excuses. When it happens to them, which might be once every fifty years, Germans will always call to tell you they’ll be late, so mimic them and call if you’re really stuck on the autobahn.
Trains are late in Germany
Now, keep in mind that extreme punctuality is more of a stereotype about the DACH region, not Germany alone. And that there’s a system that’s out of bounds from that stereotype: German trains. The German trains are so late that Deutsche Bahn is compelled to give explanations — not self-justifications — and set punctuality targets. A 15-minute late train is totally normal in Germany, but it’s not a valid excuse for arriving late, since everybody knows it might happen. And if you’re taking a transnational train to meet with colleagues from Austria, for example, they won’t accept your tardiness either.
Dark-coloured, conservative business clothes are the norm in German business etiquette. Dressing well plays a significant role in Germany, and it is expected even on informal occasions. Men should wear suits, ties, and white shirts. Women also dress conservatively, in dark suits or ensembles, including skirts and blouses. Yet again, attention to detail is a must. Shoes, hair, and accessories should not be overlooked; they help tie the look together. Heavy makeup and overall flashiness are usually frowned upon. However, it is usual to encounter people dressed casually to work at rising young enterprises such as tech start-ups, particularly those located in bigger cities such as Berlin.
Fair business practises
Fair business practises are highly valued in Germany. Transparency International has ranked them as the 9th country with the most honest public sector in 2022, with 79 points out of 100. In German business culture, corruption is uncommon; most state and local governments have whistleblowing hotlines and procedures for rotating personnel in sectors prone to corruption. This includes a reserved attitude when it comes to potential bribes and charms to work your way into a good deal. These pragmatic, rule-following behaviours are how Germans establish realistic, transparent expectations.
Gift-giving and receiving is a complicated topic in German business culture, so bear with me on this one. It's mainly based on context, so you will have to do a bit of research on your specific situation beforehand. Be careful! Profuse generosity could be misinterpreted as potential bribes. Germans consider that gifts from certain customers could lead to conflicts of interest for a buyer in a company.
Each company has its own rules regarding the extent to which employees are allowed to accept gifts. They could ban gifts completely or be very open and welcome to receive them. Ask yourself, does this gift change the business relationship? Consult management or internal documentation before offering or accepting anything. For example, people in civil service jobs are strictly prohibited from accepting any gifts.
However, gift-giving is more customary for social occasions. Appropriate gifts include souvenirs from your country, high-quality items of office equipment, like pens with the company's logo, or liquor.
Germans are very blunt and direct, which can prove to be a positive and a negative attribute. Honesty and formality are valued above all. This includes instructions, which are given without much room for debate or conversation. Expect people to be short with you and take it as a sign of respect and efficiency. This also means there are fewer meetings for the sake of meetings. You’ll want to get the job done as fast as possible, so any fluff in your communication implies delay. Humour or irony in business settings is not considered appropriate either. You won’t end up in the mailroom like you could’ve in East Germany, but you should always build up trust by working hard and being serious about your work rather than by cracking jokes.
German business culture is not overly friendly or spirited in their communication, so you should refrain from small talk. Personal space is guarded physically and conversationally. It is considered very intimate and reserved for close friends and family. Even a simple “How are you?” may cross a personal boundary. You should refer to people using their titles and last names (Herr for Mr., Frau for Mrs.) until given explicit permission to do otherwise. Additionally, business cards are explicit consent for personal contact, so they are not given away as freely. However, you shouldn’t call business associates at home or after hours unless they ask you to.
Shaking hands is a common business etiquette gesture in Germany. At the initial meeting, it is customary to shake hands with any client, colleague, employer, or employee. Shaking hands with customers may even be commonplace, depending on where you work. You should use your right hand, but both hands should be visible, so take your left hand out of your pocket. Maintaining constant eye contact with your German coworkers throughout handshakes, meetings, and discussions reassures them that you are fully engaged.
Despite being far away from the office, dinner with your German colleagues is not an informal occasion. Whoever made the reservation pays the entire bill, regardless of the business talked over dinner. Don’t try to split the bill; it will be considered rude. When dining with Germans, remember to use proper etiquette. They use continental-style dining. Likewise, longer, more leisurely meals are to be expected, so don’t get impatient and enjoy the change of scenery for your business negotiations.
Work-life balance plays a main role in German business culture. Personal life is cared for, and there is a clear distinction between personal and professional lives. They enjoy a baseline of twenty-four holiday days per year and generous medical and family leave policies. The workday starts much earlier, around 7:30, however, it ends at around 15:00. Just as they are punctual when work starts, they are punctual when work ends. If people need to work overtime, it is usually a known and planned-for event.
Business meetings and negotiations
In Germany, corporate culture is hierarchical, and meritocracy is valued; people who have risen to the top should be appreciated as individuals who have worked hard. Decisions are mostly made at the top, and employees are expected to obey orders. This means there's much less room for personal input. When a new problem emerges, a meeting will be held to devise a strategy to deal with it. It is necessary to define who is responsible for what. High-risk, unrestrained, impulsive, or unpredictable behaviour is frowned upon.
Entering a meeting with “big picture” ideas but not being prepared to tackle the practical aspects of putting those ideas into action would be regarded as a severe social blunder in many German companies. People are far more thorough. In Germany, attention to detail is much higher; quality is critical in negotiations. Details are rarely changed once they have been decided upon.
If you are attempting to sell a service or product to a German company, make sure you have the data to back up your claims. Be realistic and pitch near where you want to be. Germans are not accustomed to haggling over prices. They intend to know how much a product is worth and what you demand for it so that they can plan accordingly.
Finding work in Germany
At WeAreDevelopers, we help match tech professionals with German, Austrian, and Swiss companies. Open an online account in just minutes and browse through job opportunities from some of the best companies in Germany. If you’re still not sold on living in Germany, check out some other tech hubs in Europe, or you can read more about living in Austria and France. Good luck!
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