Conducting business in Spain is not just about having long lunches and patience. Find out about Spanish management culture, hierarchy, negotiations, and business etiquette in Spain.
Business culture in Spain can be a shock to the uninitiated. We take a look at some of the distinct features of how business is done in Spain and offers some advice on how to fit in and succeed in the Spanish business environment.
Hierarchy in Spain
In Spain, most companies are still hierarchically structured, although the old mindset is changing at high speed. For instance, family-owned businesses, as well as most government undertakings, are run in a traditional Spanish way, i.e. with strictly separated divisions and a strong hierarchical system.
However, the strong hierarchical and bureaucratic organisational culture is changing due to a growing number of young managers educated abroad and changes in Spanish society itself. Throughout the Spanish economy, individualism is predominant in management, whereas teamwork is not so much appreciated.
Business communication in Spain usually takes place on equal levels. To fit in with the business culture in Spain, it’s advisable to stick to dealing with your counterpart during any negotiations. If any issues arise, see if your superior can speak to their superior rather than try to approach those above your rank yourself.
Women in business
Similar to many European countries, there are fewer women than men in top positions in Spanish companies. 37% of managerial positions in Spain are held by women, which is slightly above the EU average but below the country’s pledged quota of 40% by 2015. Female executives also earn around 16% less than their male counterparts.
Foreign women are accepted as businesswomen but northern European businesswomen are often unpleasantly surprised by the attention some Spanish men pay them in the office. Spanish work culture is slightly different than the culture in places such as the US or Germany and it’s more common to hear men complimenting or commenting on the appearance of female coworkers.
In Spanish organisations, strategic planning is generally less important than in many other countries where it is paramount. Again, things are slowly changing but it’s not unusual for business strategy in Spanish organisations to be the sole responsibility of the managing director or the owner of the company who will often base decisions on intuition more than systematic research.
Business meetings in Spain
Another way the business culture in Spain differs from that in many western nations is regarding business meetings. Meetings are far less formal affairs in Spanish business, held to give instructions and communicate decisions already made rather than reaching a consensus on something. It is not uncommon to discuss matters that are rather personal and things can get loud and noisy. It is not considered impolite to interrupt someone or even yell at someone in a meeting, especially if they have yelled at you first. However, be careful not to say anything that might offend a coworker’s personal dignity or honour. This will be a big faux pas.
Spanish business negotiations
The negotiation process for Spanish business is lengthy. There is a relational business culture in Spain. You will be expected to build up a personal relationship and trust with counterparts before negotiations can begin. Relations are usually built personally through lunch and social meetings rather than over the phone or via email.
There are regional variations. Catalans prefer a professional negotiation style, in which bargains are not the main aim. In the South a more traditional, formal style of negotiation is appreciated, in which bargaining is cherished.
Final decisions are usually only made by the most senior managers. Once a verbal agreement has been reached, a formal contract will be drawn up for approval.
Despite the changes in Spanish society and to business culture in Spain, all important business decisions are still taken at senior management level, often by the senior executive alone. Employees showing initiative can be seen as valuable in some companies but might be viewed with suspicion and seen as overstepping the mark in others. If a subordinate has a problem, the convention if for the boss to deal with it so it’s better to think twice before trying to tackle a sticky issue yourself.
Time perception in Spain
In Spain, people’s concept of time and punctuality is not the same as in other western nations. Meetings will often start and finish late, deadlines are frequently stretched, the working day might not get properly going until after 10am and working late until around 8pm is not uncommon. Siestas do not really exist in business culture in Spain anymore but lunch breaks often last a good two hours or more and work can often end around 2.30-3pm on a Friday afternoon. If you’re a foreign worker in Spain, however, it’s better to show up on time when starting with a company rather than assuming you can roll in whenever without anyone noticing.
Appointments in Spain
When making business appointments in Spain, aim to make them as much in advance as possible due to busy schedules. It’s best to avoid scheduling anything between 2 and 5pm as these are the hours when workers normally take lunch breaks.
Spanish business greetings
Greeting is an extensive ritual. Hands are shaken with everybody present. Kissing each other on both cheeks is only done between people who know each other. Spaniards are initially quite formal in business settings. People are usually addressed by their surname prefixed with senor, senora or senorita. You should wait for your Spanish host to initiate the use of first names.
If your Spanish counterparts have two first names, you should use both when addressing them whether they are male or female (e.g. Jose Luis or Maria Teresa). If you speak Spanish, use the formal form ‘usted‘ until you are invited to use the familiar form of address ‘tu‘.
Spaniards stand very close to each other, touch each other frequently on the arm, back or shoulder and maintain good eye contact. Note that it is not uncommon to be interrupted while speaking. Most of the time this simply means that the person is honestly interested in what you are saying and is getting into a dialogue.
Spanish dress code
The way you present yourself is of critical importance when dealing with Spanish business people. Spaniards usually spend a fair amount of time and money on their outfit and appearance. Business dress is classic, professional and conventional. Suits usually come in dark colours, although lighter colours are not necessarily avoided. Women wear suits too, either with a skirt or trousers. Accessories and make up are fine.
Socialising with business colleagues
Lunch and dinner are an important part of the business culture in Spain. They are used to getting to know people better. Spaniards rarely invite (business) friends to their home; instead they prefer to meet in a restaurant or café.
Long lunch breaks and dinners are common. Even in a business context, people generally will not start discussing business before coffee has been served. First you enjoy the food and the company and talk about anything but serious matters!
Keep the conversation light. When people get carried away in a conversation they will speak loud and gesticulate heavily. This merely means that they are interested and not that they are angry.
Use of business cards
Business cards are typically exchanged at the beginning of a meeting. They contain first name and surname, job title, but no academic titles. When presenting your card, having one side of your card translated into Spanish generally leaves a good impression.
Lunch, breaks and holidays
Lunch is an integral part of Spanish work culture and the working day, although the days of the three-hour lunch break are changing and moves are being made to shorten the mid-daytime lunches so that people can finish work earlier. However, Spanish lunch breaks still typically last around 2 hours and will frequently involve a trip to a nearby restaurant.
Lunch breaks in Spain are seen as a chance for workers to socialise. This is a bit different to the culture in places such as the UK or the US where breaks are usually much shorter (or sometimes skipped entirely) and workers often use the time for solo pursuits e.g. going to the gym or shopping. In Spain, you won’t see employees remaining in the workplace at lunchtime and eating lunch at their desk.
The typical Spanish working day is punctuated by two or three short coffee breaks as well as a longer lunch. Usually there will be at least one morning coffee break and one taken after lunch, either on-site or in a nearby coffee house. This is another thing that could change amid moves to change Spanish work culture and the length of the working day to bring it more into line with other European countries.
Workers in Spain get at least 30 days of annual paid leave as well as 12 paid public holidays. Unlike in some other countries, holidays in Spain cannot be exchanged for extra pay and it’s unusual for Spanish employees to not use up their full holiday entitlement or to ask for leave days to be carried over into the following year.