The structure of American businesses depends on their size. Large corporations with multiple offices tend to maintain a hierarchical structure with lots of levels and sub-departments for operational practicality. Smaller companies and smaller departments within big firms may have a flatter organisational structure. Decision making is usually fast and will traditionally be top down in most businesses. Be aware that in such a large country, business practices may also vary by geographical location.
Management styles in the USA very much depend on the type of organisation and the nature of its work. Ambition is a key driver so individualism and independent work is highly valued from employees, who are expected to progress in the workplace and develop their skills. Managers will be straight and direct with their staff and expect the same in return. Communications are explicit and mostly verbal, and it is acceptable to criticise people’s ideas candidly and in public without causing personal offence.
Americans are known for their forward nature and will often begin conversations with complete strangers. In business, people in the USA like to use first names from the start, and titles are rarely used. Interactions may also be quite physical, with the backslapping and exaggerated handshakes of popular culture not far from the truth, however politeness and courtesy are also rewarded, so remember to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘you’re welcome’ upon being thanked by your American colleagues.
Although Americans value and encourage equality, status is still significant so make sure you show respect to senior figures. Networking is important to success as using connections and even dropping names can be a good way to secure meetings and introductions, but remember that in such a large country not all networking is face to face, so take advantage of telephone contacts, Skype meetings and social media to develop relationships too.
There are various styles of business letter in the USA. Although written in a relatively formal manner, there can be slight differences to British correspondence, for example the signoff is normally ‘Sincerely’ or ‘Sincerely yours’ rather than ‘Yours sincerely’. Emails can be much less formal, often beginning with ‘Hi’ and ending with a more personal line such as ‘Have a nice day’ or ‘Enjoy your weekend’, but if in doubt, keep it formal to begin with.
Typical business dress consists of a dark-coloured business suit for men, usually with a shirt and tie or open collar. Women tend to wear suits or business dresses with conservative makeup and modest jewellery. However, there is something of a geographical divide, with western states generally allowing more casual clothing than their eastern counterparts. Casual Fridays are observed by some businesses, and summer dress codes may be different to account for warmer weather conditions.
Business greetings in the USA can be more casual than elsewhere, so don’t be surprised to hear ‘Hi there’ or ‘How are you?’, even in a formal environment. Always greet your American contacts with an enthusiastic handshake and a warm smile. Business cards should be exchanged but there is no formal ritual for this, and cards may be accepted with no more than a cursory glance.
Make sure you arrive on time to appointments as lateness is considered disrespectful and unprofessional. Many Americans work a lot of overtime and will conduct business dealings outside normal working hours, so they don’t appreciate having their time wasted.
Despite the informal greetings and customary small talk, business meetings are usually quite structured. Agendas will be followed throughout and action plans agreed before the meeting is adjourned. Everyone attending is expected to understand the issues being discussed and actively contribute to a lively debate. People in the USA are not shy in asking questions, so always prepare to be challenged on your presentation or figures. Meetings rarely finish open ended as Americans like to have a clear conclusion or plan in place by the end of a meeting.
The USA has a very diverse society, so always be aware that you may meet people from very different social backgrounds and cultures. Although they can appear quite forward at times, Americans often prefer not to discuss topics like religion and politics in public, so keep your small talk to less controversial topics.
Most business dealings in the USA are conducted in English, although American English can differ in spelling and vocabulary to British English. However, there is a large Spanish-speaking minority, with well over 10% of the population regarding Spanish as their first language. There are also large numbers of Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, French and German speakers, so on occasion you may need to interact with someone whose native language is not English.