Business structure in the Netherlands is considered to be one of the flattest and egalitarian in the world. There is a deep-rooted system of industrial democracy in place, where everyone has a right to contribute to overall decision-making. Business is seen as a team effort and respect is acquired through diligence, transparent communication channels and a commitment to consensus within the team.
The Netherlands has the 18th largest economy in the world and is also one of the richest nations, in terms of GDP per capita. The country has a long history of successful international trade and is home to some of the world’s most famous brands, such as Shell Oil, Unilever and Philips.
Dutch managers are rarely authoritarian and instead prefer to be seen as the person who holds influence with other managers, rather than the decision-maker-in-chief. In adherence with the national culture of consensus and equality, managers consider the opinions of each member of their team. This open style promotes transparency when it comes to making business decisions and underhand tactics are widely discouraged.
Business tends to be informal, yet highly professional in the Netherlands. In some professions, such as law, medicine or academia, formal titles are often used but in general colleagues arrive at first-name terms quickly. No matter how formal a meeting or business setting, Dutch people express their opinions openly and directly.
Dutch people are incredibly tolerant, friendly and used to doing business with foreigners. In building business relationships, it is important to demonstrate how you can be mutually successful in an honest and direct way. Although co-workers are seen as equal and business relationships can be informal, and injected with humour, Dutch people prefer to leave their private lives outside the business environment and would not welcome ‘over-friendliness.’ It is also important to remember that family and personal time is very important in the Netherlands so try to keep appointments within designated business hours.
Business attire in the Netherlands depends on the industry or profession. In more formal professions Dutch men usually wear a smart suit, shirt and tie and women a smart business dress, or trouser-suit. Casual dress, such as jeans and a smart shirt or top is acceptable in some more laid-back professions such as marketing or IT. Remember that many people cycle to work so business attire is often practical and easily tied down with bicycle clips! Due to the heavy rainfall in the Netherlands it is probably best to carry and umbrella and raincoat.
A firm handshake is the accepted greeting in a Dutch business setting, for men and women. This is particularly true if meeting for the first time, kissing and hugging would not be acceptable between strangers. A handshake on saying goodbye at the end of a meeting is also good practice. However, for those who know each other in a social situation, kissing three times (between women and women and women and men, not men and men) the ‘Dutch Three Kisses,’ is the cultural norm. If involved in some Dutch kissing, ensure you follow the correct rules – air kisses (not wet smackers!) first on the right cheek, then left, then right again.
The Dutch are good timekeepers and being on time to meetings is expected. Although lateness is sometimes inevitable, it’s best to call ahead if you are going to be more than five to ten minutes late. Being punctual with delivery of goods or services is also expected in a Dutch commercial relationship so you should always try to keep to deadlines.
Inevitably, consensus-building and a broad teamwork approach means long meetings, where everyone is given sufficient opportunity to have their say and contribute to proceedings. Meetings are forums for open and frank debate and participants stay until the issues have been discussed and, hopefully, resolved. Dutch business meetings generally follow a pre-agreed agenda and there is usually an independent minute-taker tasked with keeping the meeting moving along. It is important to understand that Dutch people communicate in a frank, and often blunt, manner and expect participants to be as direct as them. This should not be misunderstood as rudeness, and indeed it is unusual to hear raised voices in even the most forthright meetings.
Dutch people have a direct approach in business, as in other areas of life, so it is important to avoid being pretentious or arrogant. Obvious self-promotion would be met with distaste in a business setting. It is important that any success in business is attributed to the team rather than assumed by any individual. Although Dutch people favour an open and frank communication style, commenting on someone’s private issues or their appearance in a business or social setting would be seen as highly offensive.
Most business in the Netherlands is done in Dutch. However, Dutch people are masters of foreign languages, particularly English, German and French and can negotiate successfully in these languages easily. It is not uncommon for an entire meeting with multiple participants, to be carried out in English should a non-Dutch speaker be present.