This handy guide includes information on Swiss management culture, business hierarchy, negotiations, and etiquette in Switzerland.
Business hierarchy in Switzerland
The Swiss appreciate sobriety, thrift, tolerance, punctuality and a sense of responsibility. This is reflected in the way they do business. The business climate is very formal and conservative and companies are structured in the traditional vertical manner.
The culture of companies can vary somewhat, depending on whether they are in the German, French or Italian areas of Switzerland. Overall, one can say that decisions are taken at the top of the organisation. In most organisations employees have little responsibility, although this differs from one company to another.
The many international companies in Geneva have a more American management culture, they are less hierarchic and employees hold more responsibility.
Generally, the management of an organisation is at large responsible for the planning. Most companies use detailed planning with a tight schedule, although organisations in the French and Italian areas may have a more laid-back approach to strategy. Most of the planning is long term.
Swiss business meetings
Meetings are generally impersonal, brisk, orderly, planned and task-oriented. It is important to prepare yourself in advance of a business meeting.
The Swiss tend to get right down to business after a few minutes of general discussion. Be aware of the fact that non-verbal communication, such as body language, is very important and varies from region to region in Switzerland.
Note that organisation, procedure and planning lie at the heart of Swiss business success. Clear systems are all-important. Meetings always have a detailed agenda that is followed to the letter. Discussions are open but not aimless. Everyone is expected to contribute with the goal of arriving at a consensus at high speed.
Please note that punctuality for business and social meetings is taken seriously.
Negotiations in Switzerland
During negotiations, patience is required. Discussions are very precise, cautious and sometimes tend to be a little gloomy. Decision-making is slow and methodical. The Swiss are considered hard but fair bargainers.
In any case, business is regarded with the utmost seriousness and humour has no place in negotiations.
Swiss business culture has a rigid, deeply entrenched hierarchy. Only the highest individuals in authority make the final decision. Moreover, although everyone involved or affected must be in agreement, the final decision will pass unquestioned once it is reached. Organisations with strong international orientation allow their employees a lot more responsibilities and distribute the level of decision-making lower in the organisation.
Be aware that the 26 autonomous cantons in Switzerland make decision-taking for the entire country a cumbersome process due to rivalry between the cantons.
The Swiss take punctuality for business and social meetings very seriously and expect you to do likewise. Only if you have a very good reason you are excused when being late.
Office hours are Monday to Friday, from 08.00 to 17.30.
Appointments in Switzerland
Appointments should always be made some time in advance. Do not be late to appointments and avoid rescheduling.
Swiss business greetings
When meeting people, you shake hands with everyone present. Handshakes are firm and combined with eye contact.
Use last names and the formal Sie/Vous/Lei until specifically invited by your colleagues or business partners to use their first names; especially when there is a great difference in rank or age, first names are not used. First names and the informal title du/tu/tu are generally reserved for very close friends and family.
Please note that in the French-speaking region the use of the first name is often combined with the formal vous.
Generally, the Swiss take a long time to establish personal relationships. Yet if you are willing to put in the time and effort, the bond you establish with them may prove to be very worthwhile.
Dress code in Switzerland
Your appearance should always be clean and neat. In a business setting, dress should be conservative and formal and certainly not too fashionable. During official meetings, men should wear dark suits and ties; women should wear suits or dresses.
Wining and dining
Business and private life are strictly separated. It is therefore not acceptable to call a Swiss businessperson at home, unless there is an emergency. Business entertainment is almost always done in a restaurant and spouses are generally included in business dinners. Business breakfasts are not very common. It is rare to receive an invitation to someone’s private home. If this does happen, be aware that it is a great honour.
Hand your business card to the receptionist upon arrival and give one to every person you are meeting with.
Business cards should mention academic title and job title. However, your rank within the corporate hierarchy is even more important. When designing your card, you might consider having your professional title printed in a different font.
It is advisable to have your business cards printed in both German and French. English business cards are accepted widely.
For more information on cultural etiquette in Switzerland, you can visit eDiplomat.