German Work Ethic and Business Etiquette

By OptiLingo • 13 minute read

Why Are Germans Known to for Being Hard Working?

Before you begin working your way to foreign language fluency, it helps to understand the culture behind the language you’re learning. After all, language exists to help a group of people express their ideas and beliefs. Germany is an old country with a rich history and culture. As you begin your German language program, gaining a strong grasp on this history, the values, and the etiquette will help you rapidly achieve success. In particular, German workers are known to be efficient, hard workers, but they’re far from workaholics as they appreciate a positive work-life balance.

Take It Easy

During the week, most local and corporate shops open at around 8:00 or 9:00 a.m. and close at 8:00 p.m., but the weekends are a different matter. Many new German citizens can be caught off guard by Germany’s policy of weekend shop closing.

On Saturday, shops usually stay open until around 6:00 p.m., although they may close earlier depending on the shop owner’s preference. It is Sunday that most new Germans may find surprising – on Sundays, most stores are closed all day.

Bakeries may be open for a few hours, offering those fresh breakfast rolls that Germans and non-Germans the world over hold so dear, and twenty-four-hour gas stations or pharmacies also stand a good chance of being open on Sundays. However, these are the exceptions, not the rules.

On Christmas Eve, most shops in Germany close early, in preparation for the coming holiday. That means last-minute shopping (holiday or otherwise) is a habit that new German citizens will have to quickly shake.

With these facts in mind, it is recommended that those who have recently moved to Germany budget a little more time into their regular shopping trips. The combination of the shops’ unexpected business hours and the unfamiliar atmosphere may prove somewhat time-consuming.

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Steady Work and Plenty of Rest

Germans have a lot of time off in most cases in addition to having steady work weeks of 40 hours or less on average. Most office locations close at 4:30 p.m. or 5 p.m., and Germans do not tend to work overtime.

The average German worker has up to 16 paid holidays. When the holiday comes on a Thursday, most will not return to work until Monday.

The Federal Holiday with Pay Act gives workers 24 days of vacation every year and vacation days that workers don’t take that year are forfeited. Most companies, however, are even more generous and let their employees take 25 to 30 days yearly. The months of May through August are the most popular times for Germans to take their vacations.

The country also has generous maternity and sick leave benefits. Women expecting a child have paid leave six weeks before and eight weeks after the child’s birth. Sick workers get six weeks of paid leave, with health spa visits eligible for coverage. With policies that give workers more available time, Germans have more opportunity to make the most of this time off and enjoy this unique chance when it arises.

Don’t Believe the Myth of the German Workaholic

The time you spend doing your work is easy to confuse with how it is organized and the amount you do. Many Americans and a growing number of British workers are spending the majority of their time working. It is easy to assume this is the case with the Germans too, although it isn’t true.

Germans have a different view of productivity that surprises many Americans. Taking work home, staying on the job late, and working overtime are seen as inefficiency on the part of the company or the worker. Being on time and doing the job as efficiently as possible within regular hours is part of the German work ethic. Many see this type of approach as preferable to the American and British attitudes that offer little respite from work.

Reliability also ties in with following this type of work ethic. When working for a German company, you are expected to arrive on time, stop work for the day on time, and do what is required of you in the job description. Even though this may seem like a minimalist approach to work, it has served German businesses and their employees well.

A Strong Will to Work

Germans enjoy a reputation for a strong work ethic. One thing that Germans hold in very high esteem is doing everything the right way. This idea applies both to actual work and the workspaces, which are kept organized and tidy.

The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century has influenced the German work ethic, as well as the work ethic of English-speaking countries. Some of the important Reformation ideals included work being good in and of itself, especially in light of its character-building effects. Lutheranism, the dominant religious group in Germany, emphasizes hard work as a part of one’s good personal development. The northern part of Germany that was once called Prussia maintains a strongly positive view of hard work that goes back to the area’s military traditions as well.

Good social order is an important part of many cultures, and not just in Western Europe. Japan and Korea, for example, have Confucian influence that values both modesty and hard work. Understanding the roots of Germany’s well-known work ethic makes it easier to appreciate their attitudes towards hard work.

A Fine Balance Between Work and Play

In German culture, work and play have a stronger distinction than in many other societies such as most of American society. Most Germans maintain there must be a clear distinction between the two that is never to be blurred with business professionals being particularly careful about these distinctions.

Making this distinction is known as setting boundaries, which people make without realizing on a daily basis when they compartmentalize different parts of their lives. Besides drawing clear distinctions between work and play, Germans also set fairly clear boundaries in their personal lives a distinction that is not commonly made in other groups.

There is a legitimate sociological reason that Germans use such careful boundaries in their lives. Their nation has a long history that has seen a lot of conflicts, and they are also surrounded by nine other countries with varying degrees of military power over the ages. Germany’s presence in the European Union has helped eliminate many of their economic and political barriers and time will tell whether this will have an impact on Germans socially.

German Business Etiquette

A Strong Business Sense

Just like in Japan, protocol and diplomacy are very crucial ingredients of the business in Germany. Your general conduct and the way you do business in Germany determine the success of your business. Despite the fact that a significant fraction of the German population beliefs in the maxim that “life is too short,” those who believe in protocol and diplomacy in running their businesses are better than their American and British counterparts. The American and British business operators are not well versed with certain aspect of the German business practice; hence, they are not able to compete with the Germans favorably in terms of business.

The Germany’s mode of business mainly involves data, deals, and a schedule-based style of business, which is also fairly formal in nature. This mode of business is similar to that found in Britain. However, it differs from the business style of the United Sates, which is more expensive and less formal.

The culturally specific business drivers in Germany include:

  • Meetings and negotiation styles, which involve disagreement management and teamwork spirit
  • Etiquette and protocol observation in the office (This covers decision making, leadership, management styles, listening styles, and presentation styles.)
  • Hospitality and entertainment styles, which include communication styles

Complying with Professional Protocol

It is clear that office workers in Germany are more formal than their counterparts in English-speaking nations. As a matter of fact, people prefer using their surnames as opposed to other names, which are considered informal. Additionally, people in offices show little or no interest in the personal affairs of their colleagues. By comparison, their counterparts in the United States and Britain like informal dress code. In fact, in the British and American Offices, workers have a “dress-down Friday” habit where they wear less formal clothes. To them, formal dress code is only necessary when they are dealing with visitors or attending a formal meeting.

In Germany, business clothes are highly practical and the Germans prefer well-cut clothing of high-quality in nature. They place value on business clothes that coordinate styles, patterns, and colors for a more complete look. According to the Germans, “business casual” may be interpreted to mean a casual attitude towards business, which means lack of seriousness in matters of business. The safest way of dressing is to wear a sober jacket and tie, or a dark suit if you are not sure of the most appropriate dress code. Conservative clothes are most ideal for females when attending a first meeting. Wearing pantsuits are considered perfectly acceptable.

German Economics and Stability

Germany boasts the strongest economy in Europe. In terms of GDP, Germany occupies the fourth position behind US, Japan, and China. In terms of industry, Germany is viewed as a model of economic management. One of the key features of the German economy that has enabled it to remain successful despite the economic problems experienced in Europe in 2008 is its low-wage nature.

However, like other European nations, Germany’s economy experiences pressure. The strength of the German economy lies in its manufacturing industry and its status as the European chief exporter to China. The German economy needs to develop the services industry, which does not require intensive investment, and it is also more profitable.

Although Germany has had a proper transportation infrastructure, the infrastructure has become old and needs upgrading. In terms of labor, the workforce in Germany is ageing fast; hence, there is a growing need for replacement. As a result, the immigration policy in Germany has been relaxed a bit as part of the measures to address the issue of the ageing labor force.

Germany’s apprenticeship trains those leaving school to provide them with engineering and technical skills. The younger generation seems to dislike this form of training. In other European nations, however, this kind of training is seen as critical in addressing post-school unemployment problem.

Don’t Remove Your Jacket

It looks like a minor thing but is important for men. While in a workshop or meeting, especially where German management team is present, etiquette demands that you should not be the first one to remove your jacket because of the nature of the German meetings. They are usually very formal; hence, removal of a jacket is taken to mean the meeting has come to an end and people can now relax since there is no other serious business.

Typically, a traditional German office has its door closed most of the time and the environment is often characterized by maximum silence. Door closure is meant to enhance privacy, especially, during meetings. Also, you do not just bump into the venue when the meeting is on-going. Interrupting such meetings involves knocking on the door and waiting patiently to be invited to enter. If you are not invited, it is only right that you should not attempt to enter.

As opposed to some offices where you can take family photos and share moments with your loved ones, German offices do not allow such moments with your family. There is also the “clear desk” policy that must be observed where you have to clear your office desk of any papers before leaving the office. Leaving your office desk neat and clear of papers is regarded as a norm.

German Teamwork

Better Together

Despite the fact that the approach to teamwork differes between German and American-British contexts, such differences are clearly irritating, especially, in terms of things like problem solving, team selection, and decision making. In Germany, team members are selected based on seniority and specialization. However, the Americans and British, while they consider seniority and specialization as important, give special importance to people who can accomplish duties. If not handled with caution, this may cause conflicts.

The discussion styles can also cause conflicts. While the Germans focus on understanding the nature of the problem and deriving a solution from it, the American-British identify the problem and discuss the course of action that can be taken to solve the problem.

Another problem could arise during project planning and task delineation. In this, the Germans would prefer going into detailed discussion to craft a clear system and plan while involving deep discussion. The American-British, on the other hand, view this as part of the process of accomplishing a task.

Furthermore, a problem may arise when each member of the team begins working. At this stage, the American-British will want to undertake various informal meetings, both at team and group levels. The Germans, on the other hand, do not expect team and group meetings. Instead, they would want to set their own aims and go on to complete the assigned tasks without help from other teams or groups.

Skill-Based Tasks for Teams

Whereas the Americans and British believe in learning by doing, Germans believe in an agreed plan where work is divided among the team members according to their skills. As a result, the English-speakers fail to interact with their German counterparts on a daily basis. Worse still is the fact that the Germans are sticklers to company rules, norms, standards, and procedures. The American-British outsiders may fail to apply these rules, norms, and standards, or even fail to realize that they exist.

With teamwork, the English-speakers get the opportunity to be more formal and stick to issues within the formal work context. The Americans and the British teamwork members always want to discuss matters outside the formal work setting. This makes the Germans misunderstand them and accuse them of asking irrelevant questions that do not help in accomplishing the task at hand.

The German teamwork members are strict observers of company hierarchies and structures. The American and British counterparts see hierarchies and structures as obstacles that should be removed when a task is in progress. However, a number of rigid company structures are gradually waning among the Germans. The Germans are slowly shifting their focus to things like informal interaction in the workplace and establishment of personal relationships with workmates.