Switzerland Country Profile - Business etiquette
Swiss business structure is strictly hierarchical, comprising top-down decision making and delegation of tasks. Lines between managers and workers are rarely crossed, however there is a general consensus that everyone is entitled to their opinion. Planning, order and risk aversion feature heavily, indeed the Swiss are the most heavily insured people in the world. Honesty and professionalism are paramount in business negotiations and decision-making is considered and detailed.
A long history of political stability and monetary security means Switzerland has one of the world’s most successful economies. The country is at the forefront of international trade and industry, with the food giant Nestlé and leading watchmakers Omega, Swatch, Longines, Breguet and Tissot among its global brands.
Managers have a low-key and pragmatic style in Switzerland, where respect is acquired by demonstrating an expert knowledge of your field rather than through personal relationships. Decisions tend to be made by first taking into account the views of the team and generally involve a great deal of planning and discussion. Swiss managers have a non-confrontational approach and it is rare to see employers lose their temper with subordinates.
Hierarchy is highly regarded in Switzerland so it is best to stick to titles and surnames (Herr/Frau, Monsieur/Madame, Signore/Signora) in large meetings until invited to use people’s first names. First impressions count for a lot in Switzerland and a respectful and formal demeanor is used among colleagues who have only recently met. The Swiss are reserved people so it is best to avoid asking personal questions or being over-friendly.
Swiss business relationships vary between cantons. For example, German-speaking Swiss like to get straight down to business and dispense with niceties, whereas French and Italian-speaking Swiss allow for more small talk and preamble to business negotiations. In all cases, business is regarded with the utmost seriousness and humour is rarely used, even to break the ice. This aspect of business culture can sometimes make the Swiss seem a little ‘stand-offish,’ however, once you establish a good rapport, the Swiss are honest, knowledgeable and fiercely loyal. Generally, the communication style is direct and honest. Using too much business jargon is often considered unnecessary, while a frank approach is preferred.
Business attire in Switzerland has become more relaxed in recent years, with some companies introducing ‘dress down Fridays.’ However, in formal business meetings it is better to err on the side of caution and dress smartly. The Swiss prefer a sober look, so men should choose dark, good quality suits and ties. Women generally wear trouser suits or smart knee-length skirts with a shirt or blouse.
The handshake is the standard greeting in Swiss business settings. French-speaking and Italian-speaking Swiss often kiss or embrace but this generally occurs between co-workers who know each other. Kissing in a business setting is rarely seen among German-speaking Swiss, who prefer to welcome each other with a firm handshake.
It is probably unsurprising that for a country which enjoys a peerless reputation for watch and clock making, time is a national obsession in Switzerland. It is often said that the Swiss are the most punctual people on the planet, so you should arrive at a meeting at the exact minute of the appointed time. Being too early could leave your counterpart unprepared and being late would be considered very rude. The Swiss feel at ease when everything is in order and being punctual is ingrained in the national consciousness.
Formal business meetings in Switzerland are highly structured and follow a pre-determined agenda. Diversion from the agenda or not completing the discussion of all items would be unusual in a Swiss meeting. Participants are expected to arrive on time and be armed with the correct information and documents. All attendees are given a chance to speak, particularly if the discussion point relates directly to their own specialist field. Business meetings are strictly professional, with little small talk or socialising. While the Swiss are generally non-confrontational, robust and detailed debate is commonplace in business meetings.
The Swiss are a private, reserved people so it is best to avoid asking questions about someone’s marital status, religion or other personal issues. Generally, the Swiss are conservative in their opinions and despite their diverse regions, are fiercely loyal to their own country, so it is wise to avoid even light banter in initial exchanges. One particular topic to avoid in Swiss company is the country’s policy of mandatory military service. A referendum held in 2013 failed to abolish conscription with 73% of the electorate voting to keep the policy. However, this remains a sensitive subject and alluding to it in Swiss circles can lead to bitter arguments.
With four different languages in one country, communication in business can be an issue. However, larger Swiss companies are now starting to operate using English as a ‘bridging’ business language. Most Swiss speak a good level of English, but it is polite to use one of the main regional languages (French, German, Italian, Romansh) if you are able to.