Working in Germany

Navigating the pitfalls of job etiquette

Navigating the pitfalls of job etiquette
Knowing German workplace etiquette can make or break your career. Jeff Kavanagh spends a day on the job.

Living and working in a new country has the potential to be both exciting and rewarding, but also daunting and confusing. As well as the everyday challenges of life in a foreign land, there are differences in etiquette and unfamiliar cultural expectations to navigate.

Nowhere, perhaps, is this more relevant than in the office. Misread a situation at the supermarket or a party, and it’s no big deal. Make the same mistake at work and the results could be far more significant.

With this in mind, this brief look into a day at work in a German office should help you comprehend some of the differences – both subtle and not – to avoid an unnecessary faux pas.

8:55 am You step into your company’s lift. A co-worker you’ve never met enters and says: “Guten Morgen” and then cheerily wishes you a good day as he gets out again. “What a friendly guy,” you think to yourself, unaware that being in an enclosed space will elicit greetings from normally more reserved Germans.

9:00 am Entering your office, you greet the receptionist, and ask her how she is. “Fine, thanks,” she replies. “And you?” You tell her you’re good, but tired from going to a late movie the previous evening. “Oh, okay,” she says, turning back to her computer. Small talk beyond a few social niceties tends to be reserved for colleagues regarded as “friends” in German offices, so despite knowing the receptionist quite well, you also know she’s not particularly interested in what you thought of Natalie Portman in Black Swan.

9:05 am You read your first email. It’s from a colleague who needs some information. Business correspondence is generally much more direct in Germany than somewhere such as Britain or the United States and it reads: “Please send me the information before 3:00 pm today.” As you frequently get asked for things well in advance of when they are needed, you email him back saying that you don’t have time to do it today, but will send it tomorrow before lunch. Germans, you remember, respect honesty and if you can’t do something, it’s important to say so.

9:50 am A client arrives for your 10 o’clock meeting. You slip your suit jacket on and go to meet him at the reception. Your company has a casual business dress code and employees only wear suits when they have an external or client visit. The language of business in Germany is often formal (depending on the sector, of course – media and advertising tends to be much less formal than traditional industries such as banking and insurance), so despite being approximately the same age and position, you address your visitor as Herr Weingartner, and use the formal “Sie”. He’s never offered you the possibility of using the familiar “Du”, but it makes little difference to your business relationship. Neither does his reluctance to make small talk beyond his trip to your office and the weather. You both understand he’s here to do business, not shoot the breeze.

10:00 am The meeting starts on time. German punctuality may be a stereotype, but if something is scheduled to start at certain time, it normally does. If there’s an agenda or schedule to go with it, then it’s also adhered to with few exceptions.

11:00 am The meeting seems to be going well when a colleague gets up suddenly and leaves the room without saying anything. You’ve been to enough meetings in Germany to know this isn’t a sign that he’s had enough, but that he’s probably felt the call of nature and doesn’t want to disturb the meeting. Nor do you take it personally when another colleague bluntly disagrees with your last point, and then speaks over the top of you when you try to interrupt her. Instead you wait until she’s finished and explain yourself then.

12:00 pm The meeting finishes on time.

12:30 pm In the canteen at lunchtime, you pass the man you said good morning to in the lift and he makes eye contact as you pass yet doesn’t acknowledge you in any way. Saying hello in the lift clearly does not make you best pals.

1:00 pm Being precise extends to most aspects of life in your office, and popping into the toilets after lunch you discover new, laminated signs hanging on the stall doors. They explain, with plenty of exclamation marks, that after each “big use,” the toilet needs to be flushed three or four times to avoid blockages due to the angle of the toilet pipe being insufficiently inclined. Inside the stall there’s another sign reminding you to employ multiple flushes and one more going into great detail about the purpose of a toilet brush and how to use it correctly. Don’t take it personally.

1:05 pm Getting back to your desk to find a jar of homemade jam that a colleague from another department promised to bring you in today. You call him up and thank him, saying he and his wife will have to come around to dinner some time. He says that sounds good. And then tells you they’re busy this weekend, but have time the next. You still haven’t quite got used to the fact that offers are very rarely empty gestures in Germany, and that much stock is put into the importance of doing what you say you will.

1:30 pm One of your colleagues comes back from lunch, remarks loudly that the air in the office is terrible, and then proceeds to yank open most of the windows.

1:35 pm Another colleague notes loudly that it is too noisy with the windows open and proceeds to bang them all shut, apart from one, which she leaves half open. This is a daily occurrence in your office.

3:00 pm Bumping into your boss in the kitchen, you ask him if he got the report you spent a large part of the previous weekend finishing. He says he did, and thanks you for it before wandering back to his office. You take this as a good sign. Praise isn’t something liberally handed out in most German offices, and the old adage: “No news is good news” has particular relevance at work.

5:00 pm You’ve finished your work for the day and it’s a lovely evening outside, perfect for a quick drink before you go home. You’re tempted to suggest it to a couple of colleagues, but decide better of it. There’s a clear distinction in Germany between work and personal life, and the two infrequently overlap. Instead you head for the elevator. As you leave the receptionist wishes you a “Schönen Feierabend” which loosely translates as “Have a nice evening” – but there’s more to it than that. It also conveys that the end of the working day is something to be celebrated in Germany.

Do you have any other German workplace tips? Add them to the comments section below.

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