The family-run business is a fixture in Italy, and even some of the country’s largest multinational corporations are owned by a single family. Italian businesses are typically hierarchical in nature and decisions are made from the top down. In larger organisations, senior middle management may make more direct decisions but will seek authorisation from above before rolling out their plans. As a result, decision making can be quite slow.
The roles of employees in Italy tend to be quite strictly defined, with individuals taking responsibility for their own actions and results rather than those of the whole group. Managers will usually maintain the status quo, assigning tasks to the appropriate people within the bounds of their job description. Employees are usually willing to trust their manager’s judgement and carry out tasks without questioning them, so it is not always common for senior staff to consult members of the wider team in a decision.
Status is important in Italy, so Italians will show deference to people according to their age and social standing. Titles are frequently used as a form of address, even between people who are already acquainted, so use formal terms until invited to do otherwise. If you are not sure of the correct title, use ‘Signore’ to address male contacts, ‘Signora’ for married female contacts or ‘Signorina’ for younger or unmarried women.
With the prevalence of family firms, many Italians prefer to do business with people that they know. This means it can take a long time to develop successful working relationships in Italy. However, face-to-face communication can go a long way towards building bridges and if you can get a recommendation from an Italian partner then business may become easier. Hospitality is expected in business so an invitation to lunch or dinner may also present a good opportunity.
Fashion is a major part of Italian culture and business contacts are inevitably judged by appearances. Presenting yourself appropriately will always help your cause, so try to be smart and stylish. Men should wear good-quality business suits and shirts, while women might choose an elegant suit or sophisticated business dress.
Italians respect politeness, so it is important to find the balance between being friendly and open and being respectful. When you first meet people, shake hands with them. As a relationship develops, you may find that you are embraced.
Despite their slightly undeserved reputation for being rather time fluid and leisurely, Italians don’t like to have their time wasted. While meetings may not run completely to plan, you should make an effort to be punctual and prompt, even if your contacts are not. Project timelines are perhaps more of a concern, so make sure you account for the lengthy decision making processes in Italy.
Italian business people are often outgoing and expressive, so meetings can be very lively. Small talk is commonplace, so perhaps ask about the local history or sports teams – football is an obvious choice but always goes down well. Don’t be surprised if conversation turns to family as Italians are usually proud of their relations and happy to talk about them. Meetings are often lengthy as topics will often be passionately debated. Try to be logical about your argument, but an emotional connection can help to persuade. Bear in mind that final decisions may not be made until after the meeting, so you need to make a lasting impact.
There can be something of a north/south divide in terms of business culture in Italy. The north is considered more of a modern business hub, and people can be very direct and impatient in their approach. The south has less of a bustling nature, people have a more leisurely attitude in life and this is reflected in their business dealings.
Italian remains the major business language in Italy, although some multinationals do require employees to speak English as well. For people moving to the country to work, bear in mind that the majority of jobs will require at least a working knowledge of Italian. Contrary to popular belief, large sections of the population don't speak English, and it is not uncommon for people to require document translation for business dealings.