Belgium is an affluent and modern country, home to multinationals, government organisations and businesses from all over the world. This means that business culture is also highly diverse, with many nationalities influencing how things are done. However, Belgian businesses in the Flanders region are considered to have a more Dutch attitude to business, with a flatter, egalitarian structure. Businesses in French-speaking Belgium tend to be more hierarchical, similar to business culture in France.
Management styles differ according to region and type of business. Managers can range from being authoritarian, where a senior team take decisions and delegate tasks, to more egalitarian with a spirit of consensus. However, across Belgium you will find that there is a commitment to teamwork and participatory management, where even though decisions are made at the top, each team member is involved in the process. Belgian managers are known for being thorough, facts, figures and solid research are integral to the decision-making process.
Belgians are considered to be quite formal and conservative in their approach to business. You should therefore use titles (Mr, Mrs, Miss in Flanders and Monsieur, Madame, Mademoiselle in French-speaking companies) until invited to do otherwise. French-speaking regions tend to be more formal than in Flanders and take a French approach to business, where you should show deference to superiors.
With a long history of international trade and multiculturalism, Belgians are known for being skilled negotiators and are used to working with foreigners. However, this does not mean that social conventions and politeness are overlooked, Belgians are flexible and will aim to strike a deal which suits everyone. It’s also worth bearing in mind that Belgians like to keep their work and private lives separate, so try not to encroach on their time outside of working hours.
Belgians take personal appearance very seriously and looking polished will help you to earn respect. Smart and conservative attire for work is expected. Men generally wear expensive and stylish suits with a tie and women a trouser or skirt suit or smart dress.
When greeting your Belgian colleagues in all regions, a handshake is appropriate for both men and women. The French custom of ‘air kissing’ is not common in the workplace, even in Wallonia. Kissing and hugging is usually reserved for friends and family.
Punctuality is very important in Belgium and good time-keeping is essential if you want to make a good impression. Meetings always start on time, so it is expected that if you are going to be late, you call ahead to apologise.
Depending on the business setting, meetings tend to be formal and well-structured in Belgium. You can expect meetings to start with some polite small talk but then to follow a strict agenda thereafter. Meetings are focussed on the dissemination of information to staff and are often led by a team leader or manager. That said, they often involve people from many different nationalities - particularly in Brussels - so you can often expect quite a mix of cultures and styles at the meeting table. Always ensure you are always on time to meetings and prepared with the correct facts, figures and documents.
Belgium is divided linguistically, but Belgians see themselves as Belgians, rather than Dutch or French. Try to avoid making negative comments or comparisons about the culture of each region and how they compare to each other (or France and the Netherlands). Belgians are also quite reserved and do not take kindly to overly personal questions.
The main business languages in Belgium are Dutch, French and German. However, Belgium is a country of expats and also home to a vast range of international companies. Therefore, English is often used as a ‘bridging’ language in both professional and personal settings. You will find that most Belgians speak English very well. When emailing or telephoning, always use the language of the region (Dutch in Flanders or French in Walloon) but if you are not confident in either – stick to English.