This handy guide from Expertise in Labour Mobility includes information on Belgian business culture, hierarchy, negotiations, and etiquette in Belgium.
Hierarchy in Belgium
In Flanders, organisational structures tend to be flat and procedures are easily comprehensible. Things like job title and size of office are likely to be of less importance than a good salary. Although the superior remains the final decision-maker at all times, Flemish employees prefer a manager who allows his/her subordinates to co-decide.
Compared to Flanders, the relationship between superiors and subordinates in Wallonia still tends to be rather formal. Similar to the French, most Walloons value a well-structured organisation with a clear hierarchy and true leadership. Likewise, someone’s rank and title, a person’s competences and function within a company, size of an office etc., are quite important factors.
Strategy and planning
Belgians usually strive towards reaching a compromise. Hence, winning a discussion is generally regarded as less important than achieving mutual agreement. The decision-making process is pragmatic, yet slow. However, it can lead to surprisingly creative solutions. At the same time, the urge for compromise also gives rise to a somewhat conservative attitude.
The main priority at internal meetings in Belgium is to inform staff on decisions that have been made at the top of the organisation. Furthermore, they are used to discuss ideas rather than to reach a decision. Belgians like a meeting to be well-structured and focused. Therefore, agendas are strictly followed. Nevertheless, meetings usually start with a 15 minute small talk which is the perfect occasion to build relationships and make personal contacts.
Business negotiations in Belgium
Although Walloons tend to be more formal and indirect than their Flemish-speaking fellow citizens, both equally seek rational and efficient solutions. Yet, working in Belgium, you will soon realise that people sometimes show a tendency to hold back on new ideas. It might, in fact, take some persuasive argumentation backed by logical reasoning to have a revised approach accepted. Thus, do not overlook that personal appeal is also an important factor during negotiations.
Decisions are made at the top of an organisation. In Flanders, a lot of decisions are reached based on an overarching consensus whereas, for the Walloons, hierarchy and authority are potentially more important. Therefore, Belgians often engage in long, critical discussions before agreeing on a resolution, in order to make sure that they have considered all alternatives.
Time perception in Belgium
When attending a meeting, everyone is expected to be on time – punctual according to the schedule. Watch out: arriving late might brand you as unreliable! If lateness is inevitable, contact the other party (with a reason).
Regular office hours are: Monday to Friday, 9.30 – 17.00/18.00, with typically a 30–60 minute lunch break around noon.
Belgians do not particularly enjoy conducting business over the phone; personal contact is much more preferred. It is advisable to arrange appointments at least one week in advance. Preferred times for meetings are mid-morning and mid-afternoon.
Avoid scheduling appointments in July or August, as most people are on vacation during these months. The same goes for the week before Easter, and the time between Christmas and New Year.
Displaying good manners is of great importance in Belgium. When conducting business, Belgians use the personal pronoun vous/u to address one another. Switch to the informal tu/je or to first names only when suggested. The use of academic or professional titles is not strictly required.
A brief handshake is the regular greeting. Once a relationship has evolved, three kisses on the cheek may replace the handshake. Men are not supposed to kiss other men; they always shake hands.
Try addressing people in their own native language or stick to English, since this is a very sensitive aspect of the Belgian culture. The ongoing language conflict in Belgium is still giving rise to tensions in 2012.
Dress code in Belgium
In a Belgian working environment, clothing is rather formal, not extremely high fashion, but elegant in a more traditional sense. Men are expected to wear dark suits and ties, while women wear business suits, dresses, or skirts and blouses. When invited to a Belgian’s home, you do not necessarily have to dress this formal.
Wining and dining
Belgians are known to keep their business and private life strictly divided. Do not expect them to straightforwardly invite you to their home since that’s mainly reserved for relatives and close friends. Usually, business over dinner takes place at a restaurant.
After you have arrived, wait for your host to introduce you to the other guests. Furthermore, wait to see if your host or anyone else offers a toast before sipping your drink. Belgians take pride in their cuisine; so, praising a meal is a sincere compliment.
While business breakfasts are rare and generally not appreciated, lunch is the most popular time for business meals.
It is rather uncommon for Belgians to exchange business gifts, although a gift from your country would be highly appreciated.
Use of business cards
Business cards are widely used and commonly presented when meeting people for the first time and they are exchanged without a formal ritual. The card should state your name and job title as well as your academic title and, of course, the company you are employed with.
Having them translated into either French or Dutch (on the other side) would show respect and understanding of your colleagues’ linguistic heritage. Moreover, if you’ll be frequenting meetings in both language areas or in the bilingual capital, it is advisable to have them printed both in French and Dutch. Make sure you use the proper ones!