KNOWLEDGE BASE Business Culture

BUSINESS CULTURE IN THE Netherlands

 

With expert input from:

RelocateYourself Logo   Michele Bar-Pereg of RelocateYourself

Accerio logo  Jordi Turró and Marije Kleijn of Accerio

 

Keeping culture in mind as you do business in the Netherlands

Every country has its own cultural guidelines and if you understand local culture and etiquette, you will have a better chance of successfully communicating and providing products that fit in a particular market.  But if you aren’t aware of the local protocol, it’s easy to inadvertently break some of the unspoken rules, leading to damaged or lost business relationships, offense, and loss of credibility.  People who haven’t had the experience of working in other countries may not appreciate the importance of working with a sensitivity for national cultural differences.  Here is some information that will help you understand how to do business most effectively in the Netherlands.  

 

One way to view the Netherlands' national culture

Each culture has a collective way of thinking, which in turn affects the workplace.  For instance, in cultures where getting along is much more important than arguing, negotiations can be very frustrating for someone who is used to saying what they think and demanding results.  In order to better understand how values in the workplace are influenced by culture, Geert Hofstede conducted a comprehensive study around six different dimensions and uses this information to help explain business culture in a number of countries.

 

The six dimensions are:

 

Power Distance

A measure for how much the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. Power distance is low in the Netherlands, meaning that managers rely on the experience of their employees and power is decentralized. Communication is direct and people participate in discussions with employees expecting to be consulted. People are on a first-name basis between levels of an organization. 

 

Individualism vs. Collectivism

In societies that show more individualism, its members are expected to take care of just themselves and their immediate families.  In societies that show more collectivism, individuals can expect that their family or members of their particular group will take care of them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. The Netherlands is a very individualistic society. In the workplace, the employer/employee relationship is based on a contract and mutual benefit. Managers manage individuals and promotions and hiring should be merit-based.

 

Masculinity vs. Femininity

Masculine societies show a preference for achievement, heroism, assertiveness, and material rewards, and are more competitive. Feminine societies show a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak, and quality of life, and are generally more consensus-oriented. The Netherlands is a feminine society. Managers support work/like balance for their employees and managers are supportive of their people and the quality of their work experience. Consensus is important and conflicts are resolved by compromise and negotiation. 

 

Uncertainty Avoidance

The level of discomfort members of a society feel with uncertainty and ambiguity. The Dutch fall near the middle on this spectrum, leaning slightly toward uncertainty avoidance. Societies with high uncertainty avoidance are more comfortable with rules with rigid codes of belief and behavior. Unorthodox ideas and behavior are not very tolerated. Security is a strong individual motivator. 

 

Long Term vs. Short Term Orientation

The degree to which cultures prefer to maintain long-held traditions while viewing change with suspicion versus cultures that encourage thrift and modern education as a way to prepare for the future. The Dutch have a long-term orientation, meaning that they are pragmatic and feel the situation and context help determine the "truth". They can easily adapt traditions to changing situations and will persevere to achieve results.

 

Indulgence vs. Restraint

Indulgent societies allow for relatively free gratification related to enjoying life and having fun. Restrained societies suppress gratification of needs and regulate them by means of strict social norms. The Netherlands culture is one of indulgence. They typically like to enjoy life and have fun, possess a positive attitude and are generally optimistic.

 

In the following video five of the dimensions are explained and then mapped on the world, showing how different parts of the world compare.

 

If you would like to learn more about this research and its findings, Geert Hofstede, Gert Jan Hofstede, Michael Minkov have written a book on the subject

If you’d like to hear Geert Hofstede himself describe these spectrums, the following short videos can be viewed:

10 Minutes on Power Distance

10 Minutes on Uncertainty Avoidance

10 Minutes on Masculinity vs. Femininity

10 Minutes on Individualism vs. Collectivism

10 Minutes on Long Term  vs. Short Term Orientation

10 Minutes on Indulgence vs. Restraint

 

What you can expect when doing business in the Netherlands

 

If you are going to do business in the Netherlands, get to know how the Dutch tend to operate. Here is some information to help you. 

 

Language 

The vast majority of the Dutch speak at least some English. In fact, the Dutch are masters at foreign languages. Dutch children start learning English at 8 or 9, and later German and French. Many schools are bilingual and even preschools may expose children to multiple languages. 

B2B can be conducted in English without difficulty. There are some industries, such as insurance, which will be conducted in Dutch, but most B2C can be in English and English may even be preferred. Smaller towns may have less English, but most municipalities are bending over backwards for international business and have international schools. 

 

Communication style

The Dutch are very direct and will tell you what they think. They are serious and expect you to treat them seriously.  

Here are some tips for foreigners:

  • The Dutch are reserved. It will take a while to get to know them

  • They are very polite - "nice, but not too nice"

  • Don't take their directness as an insult or attack; it's just their style

  • Be direct yourself with the Dutch or they may not think you are serious. Make your asks clear and direct

  • If you put things in a roundabout way, they might just ignore your request and think it's not important

  • People in some cultures worry that they will offend someone or hurt their feelings if they are too direct. The Dutch will just expect people to take it

  • While very direct, they are also very sensitive to other people’s opinion

  • Of course, you can have an opinion but don't impose it on others

 

Hierarchy

Everyone has a "voice" in Dutch organizations. Decisions are made by consensus, managers get the opinions of their employees, and all views are taken into consideration. In fact, a manager may be challenged if they are perceived to have not taken everyone's position into consideration. 

Here's what foreigners should keep in mind:

  • Dutch aren't into hierarchy and titles so keep that in mind in how you act

  • First names are often used within organizations and in business relationships

  • Everyone gets a say in meetings

  • Come into meetings projecting an open mind 

  • If you are a manager, be prepared to get feedback from people even several levels below you in the organization - be open to other opinions

  • If you have a Dutch manager, be direct with them. They will expect and appreciate it

  • People at different levels in an organization aren't treated differently

  • You will see all levels of an organization eating in the same work cafeteria and having the same food. High level managers generally won't conspicuously go off for a special meal. People would resent that

 

Greetings

The Dutch are not very physical. They will shake your hand when first meeting you and once they know you will 'air kiss' you back and forth on your cheeks. 3 kisses for the Dutch and sometimes 2 kisses for foreigners. 

Don't do things such as hugging the Dutch or slapping them on the back. 

 

Titles

Except for official documents, titles are used sparingly in the Netherlands. Once you have met someone, you will likely use their first name from that point on. 

 

Meetings

Meetings will be run with an agenda and timeframes. The Dutch are consensus builders, so meetings may take longer than you are used to in order to get everyone's input.

Here's what foreigners should keep in mind:

  • The Dutch are punctual. Be at least 5 minutes early for meetings

  • If you are used to driving quickly to a decision, be prepared to modify your expectations. Decisions won't be made without input from a number of people at potentially many layers

  • It's very possible that a meeting will end without a conclusion or decision being made

 

Negotiations and contracts

The Dutch are astute business people and can drive a hard bargain.

Here are some tips for foreigners:

  • The Dutch prefer to get down to business quickly with little small talk

  • They will tell you what they think and will want you to do the same

  • Use facts and figures and be rational vs. emotional

  • Anyone who could be affected by the decision will consulted, and because the Dutch are detail-oriented and want to understand every aspect of a decision, it will take some time to reach a conclusion

  • During negotiations, Dutch start higher with their first offer than they expect to end up, but they are not as aggressive as Americans

  • Starting really high won’t be taken well by the opposing party, they might be offended

  • If you shake hands on something, it is a done deal, but there will need to be a written, legal agreement/contract

  • People don’t go back on their agreements after they shake hands

  • Any contract will be strictly enforced

  • Deals are celebrated at the end, not along the way. The Dutch won't go out to lavish dinners before they have completed a business agreement. Contrast this with Americans, who will often go out to a lavish dinner when they first meet

 

Email protocol

  • Email correspondence is very formal compared to American email correspondence

  • Always include a greeting and salutation

  • Dutch might start the email with ‘Dear…’

  • They think it’s odd if Americans reply with just one line and don’t sign the message

 

The Dutch and work/home life balance

Work/home balance is very important in the Netherlands. Foreigners who come from countries where work dominates should keep the following in mind:

  • The Dutch work to earn money for "real life"

  • When people leave, they want to be done working. They don’t want to be bothered at home or on vacation

  • The Dutch are very efficient. When they are at work, they work. When they go home, they expect to be done

  • People are often unhappy with American managers or bosses when they push their work schedule on others. Foreign managers need to adjust to Dutch employees

  • American managers will send emails at all times of day or night, but most Dutch employees won't respond outside of work hours

  • When the Dutch go home or are on holiday, they expect people from work to leave them alone

  • Work is important but less than the US

  • Foreign managers shouldn't think the Dutch person is a bad employee if they keep work and home separate - it’s just the Dutch way

 

Women in the workplace

Traditionally, school schedules were set up to require that the child came home at lunch and to this day school is out across the country on Wednesday afternoons. This often meant that mothers needed a flexible enough schedule to take kids home for lunch and someone still needs to cover Wednesday afternoons.

Women do actively pursue careers like men, though women more often than men work part time and tend to family matters. In fact, it's is very normal to work part time. If a woman works 32 hours (4 days per week) she can still have a high level job. She won't be penalized to go from 5 days to 4 days if she would like to do so after having children. It is quite common for women in the Netherlands to work 2-3 days, but it will generally be in administrative jobs and their career path will be impacted. Some men also work 4 days per week, but not typically to take care of kids.

 

One way you can really offend a Dutch person

Don’t criticize Dutch cultures, traditions, and celebrations. They feel very strongly about them.

KNOWLEDGE BASE Business Culture