KNOWLEDGE BASE Business Culture In The UK

 

On March 29, 2017, UK Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50, which formally started the process whereby the UK will leave the European Union. Article 50 was just the beginning of the withdrawal process, as it allows the UK two years to negotiate its leave with the other EU member states. UK laws and regulations did not and will not change overnight. We will update our site with any relevant changes and information as it becomes available. You can learn more on the UK government site.

 

Business Culture In The UK

 

Keeping culture in mind as you do business in the United Kingdom

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.  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.  Many 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.  We’d like to give you some tips that will help you understand how to do business most effectively in the UK.  

 

Understanding the United Kingdom's 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 confusing and 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. The UK scores toward the lower end of this dimension, suggesting that inequalities between people should be kept to a minimum.  This is driven in part by the sense of fair play in British society. 

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 UK's score on this dimension is among the highest, reflecting the fact that its people are very individualistic.  People are taught to think for themselves and discover their true purpose in life. The path to happiness is through personal fulfillment. 

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 UK is a masculine country, with people who are driven and success-oriented.  This can be confusing, since the British tend to be modest and understated. When working with them, you will need to be able to get to the underlying meaning since it may not be apparent. 

Uncertainty Avoidance

The level of discomfort members of a society feel with uncertainty and ambiguity. The British score on this dimension is relatively low, showing that they are quite comfortable with uncertainty. They are happy to work out the details as they go along, though the end goal will be clear.  At work this appears as a light plan for how the work will get done, allowing for changes as new information arises.  They are very happy to 'muddle through' as they go. 

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 UK falls right in the middle on this dimension with no clear leaning in one direction or the other. 

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. With a score toward the high end, the UK can be classified as indulgent. This translates to a society that likes to enjoy life and have fun, and will indulge on things that help them to do so. They tend to be optimistic with a positive outlook and like their leisure time.  They are comfortable doing what they want and spending money as they wish. 

 

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

Map the Dimensions on a World Map - In this video each dimension is explained and then mapped on the world, showing how different parts of the world compare.

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

 

Business and social etiquette in the United Kingdom

Business and social etiquette varies from country to country - even between our own and those countries that we perceive as very similar to our own. Here are some etiquette guidelines to help you successfully do business in the UK. 

 

Punctuality

Punctuality is important to the British, and you’ll want to keep this in mind or risk damaging your business relationships.

  • Be a little early or on time for meetings

  • If you’ll be just a little late, call ahead and apologize when you arrive; if you’ll be very late, call ahead and offer to reschedule

 

Greetings

  • When meeting for the first time, use last names after the title (Mr./Ms./Mrs.) until you are invited to use first names

  • Handshakes with eye contact are the typical way to greet people in a business setting, especially when you are meeting for the first time

  • A limp handshake may be considered rude, while a very strong handshake may be deemed as overly familiar

  • Use a firm handshake, but also take into consideration the strength used by the other person

  • There are no gender issues with shaking hands

  • If you are going to be working on a project together, it’s unlikely you’ll shake hands every time you meet

  • If you are greeted with a “How are you?”, don’t take it literally and give a full account of your current state of affairs

  • Kissing is not an acceptable greeting in a business setting in the UK

  • It’s recommended that foreigners avoid explicit gestures and physical contact such as backslapping and hugging

  • Maintain a sufficient distance so you don’t inadvertently invade the personal space of anyone around you, except where it can’t be avoided - such as when using public transport at crowded times

  • Unnecessarily long eye contact is also considered an invasion of privacy and can be interpreted as anything from being rude to being a sign of aggression

 

 

You may be greeted with terms such as “Love”, “Pet”, “Duck”, or “Mate”.  These have no special meaning and are simply cultural conventions.

 

Meetings

  • Meetings tend to be formal and often have an agenda

  • Generally request meetings several days in advance; don’t cold call

  • Breakfast meetings are rare outside of London and other major cities

  • First meetings are unlikely to be over lunch or dinner

  • Meetings often start with small talk about neutral topics, which may last 10 minutes or more.  If looking for an opening topic, you are always safe to talk about the weather!

  • If you are making a presentation, your claims should be backed up with facts and figures, as the British rely on data rather than emotion to make decisions

  • Best to avoid the following times:

    • July and August for people with kids; many family vacations (holidays) take place at that time

    • Around Easter

    • Two bank holidays in May

    • Most of industry closes between Christmas and New Year

 

Business dress code

The British tend to classical conservative in their business dress. When in doubt, it’s better to be over- than under-dressed.

  • Dark colors such as black, dark blue, and charcoal gray are good choices

  • Women commonly wear suits, pants, or skirts

    • Head scarves are accepted as part of religious freedom

  • Don’t wear a striped tie, as they signify membership in a specific regiment or university.  Other options, such as solids and polka dots, are acceptable. Status is expressed through quality clothing, which means that custom-tailored (bespoke) suits, silk ties, and hand-made shoes send that impression

  • Wear shoes with laces rather than ones you can just slip on

  • Denim is not a good choice for the business environment

  • Some industries (for instance, the more creative) are more relaxed in dress

  • You may come across “casual days” as more companies follow this trend

  • It never hurts to ask about dress code before you meet with a company for the first time

 

Business communications 

Politeness, coupled with humor and indirectness in order to avoid uncomfortable situations, are trademarks of British business communications. And you’ve probably heard the term “stiff upper lip”, referring to the observation that the British as a group do not generally display a lot of emotion in a public or strained situations.

  • Politeness is a very important value in British society

  • Data, numbers, and policy are directly discussed, but politeness dictates

  • Brits are more indirect when it comes to general interactions

  • With their aversion to open conflict or offending their business partners, the British are masters at being indirect, which can lead to vague and misunderstood statements.  Do not be too direct or blunt yourself or you’ll be considered arrogant or rude

  • Humor, especially dry, witty, and self-deprecating,  is used to diffuse tense situations and lighten the mood. Don’t assume that this means they are not serious, though

  • The British are very reserved and seldom show strong emotions while doing business. Keep your emotions under control in business situations or risk being regarded as unprofessional and unbecoming.

  • Indirect speech, humor, and understatement are often used to keep business situations calm and low-key

  • Keep your voice down when speaking and try to avoid making large, exuberant hand gestures

  • Avoid physical contact such as hugging or backslapping, as well as large gestures

  • Take their cues for comfortable distance to avoid invading their private space

  • Do not maintain long eye contact since it can be considered rude, an invasion of privacy,  and possibly even a sign of aggression

  • The British do not like to offend their business partners, so confirm you are both saying the same thing

  • Let conversations evolve on their own without too much of an effort to control their course

  • Follow established business protocols

  • There is a lot of written communication. Keep things professional in emails when they come from your business. It’s just like a business letter

  • Rank and status are usually based on expertise and achievement rather than academic titles and backgrounds

  • Unlike some cultures who believe you shouldn’t do anything unless you are absolutely sure of it, or others where they strive to save face, the British are comfortable with trying things out, believing they can try something else if it doesn’t work

 

The British are famous for understatement, so you may find it difficult for a while to understand exactly what they mean.  “Might you be able to finish that by Monday?” could really mean, “I need that on Monday, regardless of what it takes to get it done”.  Or “We appear to have a little problem” could mean, “This is a disaster!”, easily misunderstood when coupled with controlled emotions.


 

Contractual business agreements and negotiations 

  • The British are tough and skillful negotiators

  • Logical reasoning is one of the most typical British characteristics in business

  • Humor may play a role, but don’t misinterpret an informal tone for a lack of seriousness

  • Stay calm and polite throughout the negotiation

  • Agreements are not complete until you have a signed written contract

  • Include all terms and conditions

  • Have the contract reviewed under British contract law

  • You’ll see conversations you’ve had later documented in writing, to confirm what was said and to keep a record

  • The traditional careful decision-making and implementation can be hard to take for societies where things happen more quickly, and may be perceived as an unwillingness to take risk

 

Women in the UK Workplace

Women make up nearly half of the workforce, though there is still a gender pay gap. There are very strict laws in the UK governing gender equality and sexual harassment. You’ll want to avoid making any jokes or derogatory comments about women, even when you are in the company of only men.  Progress is being made with some recent improvements to accommodate access to childcare facilities and paternity leave has been introduced.

 

Hierarchy at Work in the UK

The British respect role and status at work, which is balanced with the concept of fairness. Generally speaking, there is still a strict hierarchy in British organizations

  • There is a deference to seniority and British managers are known to be effective, firm, and resolute

  • Supervisors look for consensus rather than ordering subordinates around

  • Instructions may take the form of requests, which can be confusing if it’s not clear if the request is a suggestion or a requirement

  • Team spirit is important, so don’t try to stand out too much on your own

  • Though not directly obvious, class distinction is still present in the UK. Differences in social status are identified by behavior, dress, and manner of speech

  • A person’s educational background and family name play a role in the workplace, and school and university networks are important in some British companies


 

 

Politeness is an important value in British society, often accomplished by some rather pointless exchanges of pleasantries. When entering a business meeting in the UK, expect to spend the first 10 minutes exchanging niceties before moving into business. In her book Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour, anthropologist Kate Fox calls this "polite procrastination", which she explains through the uneasiness the British feel with "hard core" business. Humour plays a key role here as well; when feeling uncomfortable, the British use humour to make sense of the situation. To the non-British colleague, however, the subtle joke may be lost.

 

The Brits' willingness to try new things and risk of failure

Unlike other cultures such as that of the Germans, the British generally welcome change and are not afraid of making mistakes. They are very comfortable with giving something a try and if it doesn’t work out, to move on to another approach. This is very different from the cultures who believe it is better to do nothing than to make a mistake, or that by making any mistake they lose face.

The British are also comfortable with not having a defined proverbial roadmap for where they are going on a business endeavor and are happy to “muddle through”, knowing where they ultimately want to get, and that the way they get there is less important than getting there in the end.

 

Language in the UK

English is the official language of the UK, though dialects may vary from region to region.  

  • English is the primary language for over 90% of UK's residents - if it’s not your primary language make sure you can speak it well enough to communicate or bring along an interpreter

  • According to an early 2016 report from Eurostat, of all EU members the UK has the highest percentage of upper secondary education students who are not learning any foreign language. The percentage currently sits at 52% 

  • The British expect foreign business associates to speak English

  • Even for native English speakers, it can sometimes be difficult to understand regional dialects

  • You can ask people to slow down, repeat themselves, and ask for clarification or repeat back what you think you heard

  • Many British managers do not speak other languages, though that is shifting as people realize that it’s important to be able to communicate in foreign languages

  • Take time to clarify your meaning to ensure there are no misunderstandings

  • Though British managers may say they don’t know other languages because they aren’t experts, be aware that they may actually be able to understand you

 

Public holidays in the United Kingdom

Public holidays in the UK are referred to as bank holidays. Most essential services and businesses are closed, though more and more retails businesses are open on the public holidays.

Of all the UK public holidays, only New Year’s Day, May Day Bank Holiday, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day are observed in all of the UK countries. Outside of those days, each of the four countries decides which others it will observe.  Here’s a calendar of holidays through 2017.

 

UK 2017 Bank Holiday Calendar

 

You can also download the Globig Media Calendar to keep track of your important dates along with the UK public holidays.

 

Office hours in the UK

Generally speaking, normal working hours in the UK are 9 am to 5 pm, Monday through Friday.

  • Government offices close for lunch between 1 pm and 2 pm and stay open until 5:30 pm

  • Banks generally open between 9 and 9:30 am and close between 4 and 5 pm, Monday through Friday, depending on the branch. Some branches are open part days on Saturday

 

Maximum Weekly Work Hours in the UK

  • Maximum of 48 work hours per week, averaged over 17 weeks. There are some exceptions for certain industries or positions (e.g. managing executives in control of their hours)

  • Some workers can opt out of the 48 hour limitation, but a worker can’t be fired if they refuse to opt out

  • People under the age of 18 can’t work more than 8 hours per day or 40 hours per week

  • Many people work much longer than standard business office hours

 

Weekly Work Hours Resources

UK Government regulations around maximum weekly work hours

Opting out of 48 hour work week

UK Bank holidays

 

Socializing in the United Kingdom

There is a tendency to keep work and private life separate, but co-workers often enjoy an after-work drink at the local pub on Friday nights after work. These social gatherings often bring together people from different ranks within the company. You won’t offend people, however, if you don’t join in.  

 

Business dinners  

Though the host generally pays for the dinner, it’s not always clear.  If you intend to pay for dinner, state so up front

  • Except for very formal dinners, there will probably not be a seating arrangement

  • Business lunches at pubs may end up with the tab being split up between everyone

  • Talking about money is very uncomfortable, so any way to avoid it will be taken

 

Tipping protocol

Tipping is not as pervasive in the UK as it is in the US. By law, all staff in the UK must be paid at least the minimum wage, so the need and culture for tipping is not as high as it is in the US. That being said, wages have not necessarily kept up with the cost of living and at least a 10% tip is generally expected in most situations. For exceptional service, it can go up to 15% or 20%.  

Based on a 2013 YouGov poll, the average US tip is 16.4% and the average UK tip is 8%.

 

Taxis

Taxis (black cabs) and mini-cabs are different. Taxi drivers have extensive training, know their way around, and generally provide better service. Mini-cabs can be driven by anyone with a license

  • Tipping in taxis is not a requirement, but rounding up to the next pound is convenient for both driver and passenger for metered trips. if you do tip, 10% is the usual amount

  • If you get a mini-cab from the airport, you can tip 2 or 3 pounds if they help with your luggage

  • Black cabs cost a lot more than mini-cabs, so some people don’t tip for that reason

 

Restaurants

  • Tipping at restaurants where you order at your table and food is brought is typically around 10%. For great service, you can always tip more

  • If you order at the counter, a tip is not expected

  • Be aware that some establishments will add a service charge, especially for larger groups, which may or may not be passed to the server. You can ask the server if it is passed to them and give them a tip directly for good service

  • If there is a service charge and you pay with a credit card, you may also be given the chance to add a tip, so it’s good to be aware of service charges. You can also ask your server if they get any of the service charge

  • Don’t tip if the service was bad

 

Takeaway food

  • If you pick it up, don’t tip

  • If it is delivered to you, tipping is not required, but is certainly appreciated

 

Fast food, cafes, and coffee shops

  • If a server brings food to your table, tipping is not expected, but you could leave a pound or your change for good service

  • You may see a tip jar at coffee shops (think Starbucks), but most people do not tip

  • If you bring your food on a tray to your table, don’t tip

 

Pubs and bars

  • Bartenders do not expect to be tipped, but if you’ve established a friendship over a number of visits, you can offer to buy them a drink.  They may take an extra pound or so to buy one later

 

Hotels

  • If your bags are brought to your room, a tip of several pounds is appropriate and expected

  • You don’t need to tip your housekeepers, but a tip would certainly be appreciated if you’ve left a particularly messy room

  • In smaller hotels which a often family-run, they would prefer that you come back or give them positive reviews rather than tipping them


 

Gift giving

Gift giving is not a usual part of British business etiquette and could even lead to embarrassment for the recipient, though it’s good to reciprocate if you are given a gift.

  • Some companies actually discourage taking gifts, and some are legally forbidden to take them

  • If you do give a gift, find that place between something so inexpensive it could be insulting and so expensive it could be considered a bribe (good choices are pens, books, daily calendars, alcohol, souvenirs from your country)

  • If you are offered a gift in public, open it right away and, of course, say thanks

  • It’s appropriate to give gifts at the end of successful negotiations and those can be a bit nicer, such a gold, silver, or porcelain

  • Do reciprocate if you are given a gift. If you weren’t expecting anything and aren’t prepared, you can invite them to dinner or an event or quickly grab a bottle of wine

  • Regardless of what gift you are giving, make sure it is appropriate for the person receiving it

  • Business gifts are generally not given at Christmas time, though Christmas cards thanking them for their business are acceptable (but remember to mail early since the postal system could take some time to deliver your card)

 

If giving flowers, remember that roses signify romantic intentions and white lilies are used at funerals.  Steer clear of giving them in social situations such as dinner at someone's house. 

 


 

Cultural taboos

It’s good to go into any country knowing some of the cultural taboos.  Here are some that you’ll want to know for the UK.

  • Using the “middle finger” or a “v sign” with the back of your hand toward the other person are both considered offensive

  • Don’t greet strangers with a kiss, a hug, or a slap on the back

  • Just like in the US, asking questions around income or personal topics, such as divorce, are bad form

  • Avoid topics such as:

    • The historical conflict in Northern Ireland

    • Class and the class system

    • The Royal Family

    • Religion and partisan politics

    • The EU and the Euro

    • The Middle East

    • Race and immigration

    • Age and appearance

    • Crime

    • Criticisms or complaints

 

Globig Resources

National Culture books by  Geert Hofstede, Gert Jan Hofstede, and Michael Minkov 

Map the Dimensions on a World Map - In this video five of the dimensions are explained and then mapped on the world, showing how different parts of the world compare

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

OECD Education at a Glance 2014

Eurostat

Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour by Kate Fox

Globig Media Calendar

 

Weekly Work Hours Resources

UK Government regulations around maximum weekly work hours

Opting out of 48 hour work week

UK Bank holidays

YouGov.com

 

KNOWLEDGE BASE Business Culture In The UK