Understanding British Business Customs and Work Etiquette
Years ago, I had a job that took me to London regularly. Initially, I thought things would be easy. After all, I worked regularly with folks from London and we all spoke the same language and generally enjoyed the same music and food. Sure, there were different accents and some humor that missed the mark for both parties. However, there were some subtle business culture differences between our two cultures.
Punctuality for Professional Meetings Is Critical
Honestly, this is good practice for American business as well, but punctuality for meetings in Britain is critical where as in the United States it is common for people to enter a meeting or conference call a few minutes late. Most of my trips to London were for tradeshows and many were held at Earls Court, near Kensington so there are lots of hotels there that are walking distance such as the Park Grand London Kensington. That makes it very easy to avoid hassles with taking the Tube or taxi since it’s only a few minutes’ walk from the convention center. Plus, it’s easy to return to freshen up before heading back out to dinner meetings and late nights at the pub.
Social Events However Are Different
When attending a social event, you’ll find that many guests will show up 10-15 minutes after the event is scheduled to begin. You will be ok if you show up on time … but it isn’t expected. However, you should still make sure to plan your travel accordingly because there is a thin line between casually late and simply late to the party.
British Businesses Are Typically Not a Gift Culture
There is no tradition of exchanging gifts at Christmas, though following the signing of a deal it is customary to exchange a gift tailored to the taste of the recipient as thanks and congratulations. For normal business engagements however, it is not expected – but reciprocation is appreciated if one party offers a gift. In that case, it is generally expected to be of low enough value that it not be considered a bribe.
If you do receive a gift, it is also expected to open, admire, and express thanks to the giver.
In social situations though, such as a dinner party for a colleague you should be expected to bring a small gift such as a bottle of wine, flowers, or chocolates as recognition and appreciation for their hospitality.
British Business Dress Code
Unlike most businesses in the United States, British business attire is generally classic and conservative for men. Dark colours such as black, dark blue, charcoal and grey are standard. Senior managers will express their status through an appreciation for fine garments and accessories such as watches. British businessmen will be seen wearing bespoke suits, and designer garments such as dress shirts, ties, and shoes matching their status.
There are of course exceptions to this rule such as creative arts and digital marketing offices where brighter colors and more relaxed outfits are acceptable. However, you will rarely find blue jeans and polo shirts as is common dress in parts of our country – especially California.
Casual Conversations and Potentially Embarrassing Remarks
While people in the UK tend to have a great sense of humor – they express things differently and you’ll find that there is a fear of saying anything that might be considered offensive or embarrassing to the other party. As a result, you’ll often find that business conversations that become personal are extremely short unless between close friends. This isn’t being rude, it is simply to avoid conflict. Small talk at the beginning of meetings is commonplace but tends to be superficial and transition to the business matter at hand quickly.
Politeness in Public Should Not Be Seen as Acceptance
British people, especially those who are highly educated have a very good reputation for being overly polite and gentle. However, that is often a careful veneer and true emotions may be hidden beneath the surface. This is part of their overall desire for privacy except among very close friends.
While most Americans will tell you what they are thinking, British may listen and provide little indication of their true thoughts on what you have shared.
- Written by James Hills
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