Although businesses in the UK generally maintain relatively flat organisational structures, decision making usually takes place at the top. In the past there was a very rigid segregation between the ranks in British business, with management and lower level staff often sitting on separate floors. While far fewer companies operate this way today, senior managers still maintain a certain degree of authority and respect.
Loyalty and integrity are among the key values of British workers, and they also appreciate directness and honesty from their managers. However, understatement is also commonplace, particularly in group situations when diplomacy is called for. Business operations in the UK tend to stick to established rules, frameworks and procedures which can sometimes slow down developments and decision making.
The ‘stiff upper lip’ reputation may not be entirely deserved, but it’s fair to say that the British can be rather formal in business situations. Over-familiar behaviour such as backslapping or hugging is unusual, as are overt emotional displays. There is also a wariness of sales tactics, so always try to build rapport and relationships before trying to do deals.
Many Brits prefer to work with organisations or people they already know, but this should be seen as an opportunity. Networking is vital to business success in the UK, but when you develop a good relationship it’s likely to last. Once you have good rapport with your contacts, your UK business dealings will often become more informal and open, although still professional.
Business letters in the UK are written in a formal style and follow certain conventions. Email etiquette is less well established, so it’s best to start off formal. Depending on how well you know a person, use their first name or their title and surname. Begin your first email with ‘Dear’, and end it with a friendly yet professional signoff like ‘Kind regards’. As the email exchange continues, you can drop some of the formality, particularly if the other person does too.
Often the dress code for a meeting will be specified, but if in doubt it is better to be formal. Men usually wear a dark-coloured business suit with shirt and tie, although more companies now allow open collars. Women normally select a business suit and blouse or a conservative dress. Some organisations allow people to dress more casually on Fridays, but this is by no means universal so it’s best to check before dressing down.
The customary business greeting for both men and women in the UK is a firm handshake, and people usually shake hands on departure as well. First name terms are used in most face-to-face settings, although there may be some exceptions, such as in medical and academic environments. Business cards are usually exchanged during the meeting, but there is no formal process for this.
Punctuality is very important. Ensure that you book meetings well in advance and confirm the date, time and location by email. If you are running late, always call to advise someone – even if it’s only a few minutes.
Although business meetings in the UK are usually structured with a clear agenda, small talk before and afterwards is customary. Negotiations are usually quite open, but it’s important to pay attention to what’s not said as well as what is said. In most cases the British favour an outcome that serves both parties well. Ensure that you have a sound argument backed up by facts and figures as the British like to be well informed when it comes to decision making.
It is important to remember that the UK has a strong anti-discrimination culture backed by law. It is illegal to discriminate against anyone on the grounds of age, gender, race, religious views, disability, sexual orientation or marital status. Bear this in mind when conducting business meetings or even during small talk.
Internationally, Brits are regarded as poor at learning languages. Although this is something of a generalisation, it’s true that business in the UK is almost always conducted in English. Most job applicants are expected to have a high standard of written and spoken English. Remember that British and American English can differ somewhat in spelling and vocabulary, and the UK is also well-known for its huge range of regional accents!