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Cathy Wellings

Communicaid

Head of Intercultural Training

Read more about Cathy Wellings

Doing business in Germany – cultural considerations for HR

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The Federal Republic of Germany is the European Union’s most populous country, the EU’s largest economy and the world’s fourth largest economy. According to the IMF, Germany has achieved a GDP of $US3.4 trillion in 2011, and enjoys a relatively low unemployment rate of 5.7% which is significantly lower than most EU countries. Germany’s economy remains strong, focusing on service sectors, science, technology, and specialised manufacturing and engineering. Germany is also a global leader in the development of environmental technologies, with a focus on energy efficiency and sustainability of resources.

Germany in Focus

The Federal Republic of Germany has a population of just over 80 million people as of its 2011 census. Its government is a federal parliamentary, democratic system, and works to its 1949 constitution. The head of government is the Chancellor, who serves a four year term and represents the political party with the largest number of representatives.

Although the German population is comprised of more than 80% ethnic Germans and over 92% of its residents are German nationals, Germany is also recognised as host to the third largest number of the world’s migrants. This figure includes ethnic Germans immigrating from other countries and other European economic migrants. Germany’s largest ethnic group from outside the EU are from Turkey, at over 3 million people.  Germany also has significant numbers of migrants from the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, Iran and the Former Yugoslavia. Many people from the latter geographies originally arrived as asylum seekers.

The majority of Germans are Christian, with approximately 30% of the population Catholic and 30% of the population Protestant.  Another third of the population identify as not religious. About 5% of Germans residents are Muslim, with the remainder of the population following other religious faiths. There is no state church and the constitution protects religious freedom.

German is the country’s official language, with several minority languages recognised.  Most Germans are at least bilingual and many German residents from ethnic minorities speak additional languages at home. Most people educated in Germany are likely to speak English, with most people in business reaching a high level of fluency.

Core Cultural Values

Being German

The concept of being German was one of having German lineage. As immigration patterns have changed the composition of the German population, assimilation into a German mindset and the way of doing things properly remains important. German identity also includes pride in one’s achievements and privacy.

Ordnung

Ordnung can be most accurately described as a set of rules on how things should be done correctly. It permeates daily life as well as how things should be done in a work environment. Structures are strongly valued and are expected to be adhered to once they are defined. Germans are known for their planning skills, which they use even in minor aspects of a business environment. Cultures who are intuitive or ‘go with the flow’ may need to rethink some of their strategies when working within a German environment.

Clarity

German culture places a high value on clarity. This means an appreciation for precision, accuracy, attention to detail and directness in communication to ensure there are few misunderstandings between people.

Important Business Values

Privacy

Respect boundaries, including personal space, formalities in greeting, and closed office doors. Do not come across as too informal or not serious in a business environment.

It would not be appropriate in most business environments to ask personal questions of a German, including family matters or a personal opinion about something outside of work. General conversations about current events that remain neutral or to learn more about a topic are usually acceptable.

Germans value the separation of their work life and their private life. They are almost certainly likely to focus on the job at hand, with little small talk or need to establish anything more than a functional working relationship, at least in the initial stages of working with others.

Tasks done well

Planning, structure, and order all mean that there is an expectation that tasks will be thoroughly researched, analysed, given specific definitions and instructions, and are ultimately done well.  German values include a high regard for accuracy, precision, quality, orderliness, and tidiness. German pride in engineering is probably not matched anywhere else in the world. Germans are likely to adhere to the adage that there is a time and a place for everything. 

Do be aware that once Germans determine the ‘right’ way of doing something, it would be very unlikely that they would consider new alternatives unless you are able to thoroughly convince them otherwise.  This would almost certainly involve restarting a task or project from the beginning, including the planning stages.

Directness

German communication styles are very direct, to the point that many other cultures may consider Germans to be rude and unemotional. However, Germans  see their directness as an asset, minimising the chance for misinterpretation or being too vague. Germans generally prefer others to say what they mean directly as well. Although Germans can be somewhat formal in their business structure, they would not appreciate it if a problem is discovered but no one raised the issue, even if the problem caused difficulty.

Do’s and Don’ts

Although most Germans will overlook small political and social faux pas, visitors doing business in Germany should be aware of the following pitfalls that could jeopardise their business relationship.

DO

  • Thoroughly prepare for meetings in advance
  • Structured agendas are generally appreciated
  • Pay attention to detail
  • Be exactly on time as most Germans will consider punctuality a must. It is much better to arrive early and wait nearby until the time of your appointment, even if you feel your time could be used in a more productive way.
  • Show respect for German colleagues’ achievements, including status, job titles and education
  • Include professional titles and qualifications on your business cards if you have them

DON’T

  • Be late. It is not unusual for some German companies to ask you to rebook an appointment even if you are only a few minutes late.
  • Discuss difficult political or social topics
  • Expect to finish a meeting without agreeing on specific tasks, deadlines, commitments or next steps from all parties involved.
  • Try not to be vague.
  • Generally speaking, although Germans do have a very good sense of humour, it is not appropriate to joke around in a business environment, especially during meetings or to deflect a difficult situation.
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Cathy Wellings

Head of Intercultural Training

Read more from Cathy Wellings
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