Business etiquette

A ‘gentleman’s handshake’ and verbal agreement continue to carry a lot of weight. Of course, contracts and written policies are de rigueur for most British companies, but unwritten rules and agreements still play an important part when conducting business. Formalities and protocol are also to be observed, especially in London.

Covid-19 latest information

This guide is an accurate reflection of the pre-Covid-19 business environment in the UK. Please note that due to the current situation, some circumstances may have changed in this country. Figures and data in the guide were last updated in August 2020.

When it comes to communication, many Brits often appear to be indirect, subtle and suggestive speakers. So much so, that coming across in a more direct manner can seem blunt or even rude.

Workplace traditions are also important. Change is sometimes accepted reluctantly, which can be perceived as an unwillingness to take risk – making for a slow decision-making business culture. Long-term thinking, rather than short-term impulse, is generally the order of the day.

Finally, punctuality is a given for business meetings. Be on time. If you are going to be late, telephone ahead and give a time for when you expect to arrive. And once you have turned up, Brits like a congenial business relationship – preferring some polite conversation before getting down to business.

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Greetings

When greeting people in the UK, use last names or appropriate titles until the other person uses your first name. However, some business settings are more informal with first names often used right away.

Personal space is important so try to keep a relatively wide distance if you are engaged in conversation. Maintain eye contact, but try not to stare. Shaking hands is a common form of greeting.

If you are uncertain of a woman’s marital status, it is best to address her as ‘Ms’. Married women often use this title, too.

The British tend not to display affection in public. Back-slapping, hugging and kissing are generally reserved for family and close friends.

Dress code

Depending on the sector you work in, British business dress code tends to be fairly traditional. In the finance sector, especially, it is the norm to dress conservatively for both men and women. Blending in is the unwritten rule. For men, ties are important but not always compulsory.

However, for those working in the creative sector or for start-ups, employees are often allowed to turn up in ‘smart casual’ attire, unless they are meeting a client. If you are not sure, it is best to err on the side of caution.

Negotiations

Negotiating is usually viewed as a joint process, with diplomacy conducted in a polite and formal fashion. Brits very much believe in the ‘win-win’ concept. As long as both sides are seen to benefit, then negotiations will tend to move forward.

Brits dislike haggling, but will happily enter into a bargaining situation. The pace of negotiations can sometimes appear slow, especially with more traditional British companies that – to outsiders at least – move in an unhurried, measured manner. If deadlock occurs, adopting this ‘give-and-take’ approach can generally speed up resolution, appealing to a British counterpart’s sense of fairness.

Exaggerated claims, confrontation and pressure tactics will generally not help your position, however. Use of slang and being too familiar with someone you’ve just met should also be avoided.

Business cards

Despite the advent of the digital age, business cards are still something of a necessary business tool in Britain. There is no formal ritual for when they should be exchanged. Cards can be swapped either at the beginning or end of a meeting.

However, not everyone carries them. So don’t take it personally if someone fails to produce one.

Sealing the deal

Handshakes and verbal agreements are often considered binding, but it is best to confirm any agreements in writing.

The actual signing of a contract is an important step, too. It shows a strong commitment to your British counterpart. Strict adherence to the agreed terms and conditions is expected. And while the British prefer to resolve disputes out of court, they will not be afraid to take legal action if necessary.

Entertaining

Most business entertaining is done at restaurants or pubs over lunch. The host will be the one who invariably pays the bill.

If you are invited to a British colleague’s home then it is normal to take flowers, chocolates or wine, if you are sure that would be appreciated, for the hosts. For social events, try not to arrive too early. Unlike for business meetings, it may even be advisable to turn up a few minutes late, so the host can take care of any last-minute details.

Once you arrive, wait for your host to begin eating before you do.

Golden rules

  1. 1

    Delicate art of gift-giving

    Giving gifts is not a normal part of British business culture. Any gifts should only be small, symbolic items such as pens, diaries or champagne. Corruption and bribery is believed to be very rare in the UK and giving gifts of significant value may carry negative connotations. It is also worth noting that red roses are a romantic gift in the UK.

  2. 2

    Why spelling is important

    English spelling can be tricky, even for native English speakers. However, noticeable mistakes in spelling, punctuation and grammar can look unprofessional. It’s prudent to always use a spellchecker. Just make sure you have it set to British English and not the US equivalent, which is the default of many word-processing applications.

  3. 3

    Lost in translation?

    Although English is the predominantly spoken language in the UK, many workers – especially the younger generation – will, despite often saying otherwise, have learnt foreign languages at school. So be aware that if you speak in a foreign language, they may be able to understand what you are saying.

  4. 4

    Communication styles

    “If you have time, you may want to look into that?” This indirect style of suggestive communication is very common in the UK workplace. However, what the UK worker really means is: “Will you please do the task as soon as you can.” Some cultures that practice more direct communication may fail to pick up on the underlying message. Conversely, a direct approach may be seen as rude or aggressive.

  5. 5

    Making time for a tea party

    The British love a cup of tea (and coffee). Very often in a workplace, one person will offer to make a round of teas/coffees. This is a great way to get to know colleagues. It is also a good idea to help with the tea-making as it shows commitment to your fellow workers. And if you don’t like either drink, it is okay to say no.

  6. 6

    Staying in line

    While the British may be renowned for queueing, it is considered extremely rude to push ahead in a line.