Work in Spain

Spanishized: The Spanish approach to work

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Don't be the outcast at your Spanish workplace by eating lunch alone or going home early – here's the office etiquette you need to work the Spanish way.

If I had more time, I could probably write a book about the peculiarities of working here in Spain and the differences versus the US. But to avoid boredom, I’ll keep it short and sweet and just share some of the interesting perceptions.

To start, I’ve never had the typical 'English teacher' job in Spain but have worked in a variety of types of companies in Madrid: a small Spanish consulting firm, a non-profit educational organisation, and a multinational American company. What do all of these have in common? At the end of the day, regardless of the international nature or origin of the business, if the company’s here in Spain, I've found it follows a Spanish work environment more than anything else.

Let me just preface the following list of 'working in Spain' commentary by saying that the degree to which the below happens definitely depends on the company. Also, I don’t mean this as criticism – in my opinion, a number of these points have positive aspects compared to working elsewhere. Everything is a balance.

A guide working in Spain

1. Lunch is not to be eaten at one’s desk – or skipped – and should be a full hour (at least)

Back in the US, I could probably count using my fingers the amount of times I went out for lunch with coworkers. Instead, it was normal to go to the gym or just eat at your desk. In Spain, it’s definitely weird to eat at your desk, and if you skip lunch there’s no correlation with leaving earlier. In other words, go out for lunch, take a break and socialise (see #3).

2. A coffee break is essential, at least a few times a day

Taking a coffee break, whether it’s in the company kitchen or in a bar outside, is key to getting up to speed with any news in the company or gossip. It’s also a good way to take a break from your work (kind of like if you’re a smoker). And coffee is definitely not just for the morning here. An after-lunch coffee is right behind the morning dosage.

3. Getting along with people and going out for cañas after work is important

Social relationships are definitely more important in the Spanish workplace than in the US. You might be a great worker and deliver results, but if you don’t get along well with your coworkers and the sales force, forget about any sort of upward move. Also, when there’s a company dinner, coworker farewell party or christmas dinner, festivities can easily last until five or six in the morning.

4. Complaining all the time is generally accepted and part of employee bonding

But it’s not that often that those complaints will actually be turned into constructive criticism and shared with management. The longer you’re here, the more you’ll find yourself complaining during your morning or lunch coffee break or during your lunch out of the office.

5. Political correctness does not exist

If something happens that you would consider sexual harassment back in the US, you have to think about it two or three times over here in Spain. Without going into more detail, let’s just say that male to female comments that would totally not be accepted in the straight-edge US are more often than not just normal comments over here.

Now, I have to admit that sometimes it can be a bit over the top in the US where a male coworker can’t even compliment a female coworker on a nice outfit, for example, but having to listen to male coworkers’ comments about other females can be uncomfortable, at least for an American.

6. Yelling in meetings is not only common, it’s sometimes encouraged

Take it from someone who got told by her boss in an evaluation that if someone yells at her in a meeting that she should yell back.

7. Expect meetings to start late

Also expect them not end on time, plus involve a number of confusing circular discussions without really getting anywhere or making any decisions. Don’t always expect the meeting organiser to be on time either.

8. Work doesn’t start at 8am or 9am (and sometimes not even at 9:30am) and definitely doesn’t end at 5pm

Does the song 'Working 9 to 5, what a way to make a living…' ring a bell? Well, that’s one of those songs that’s definitely not known here. Unfortunately, in many companies, it’s frowned upon if someone leaves at their official time and can incite comments from coworkers. However, no one is watching to see who comes in early in the morning nor commenting on that.

9. Vacation is for taking time off

I’ve heard a lot of cases in the US where people just don’t use their vacation days. Given that there are usually so few days back home, I can’t really understand this. In Spain, people generally have almost a month off a year in vacation. It’s quite common to take two to three weeks at a time during the summer.

In my nine years working in Spain, I’ve never known of someone to not use their vacation days. A slight postponement due to work perhaps, but never to not use them at all.

10. Fridays afternoons are like a 'get out of jail for free' card

In all three companies where I’ve worked, Friday afternoons at about 2.30–3pm is when the weekend starts. A lot of Spanish people have lunch with their families after work these days or just relax, but in general it’s not the same intense work day as the rest of the week. 

Again, the three companies I’ve worked at have all been very different experiences with the most recent job definitely being more demanding than the first two. However, to one degree or another, they all share some Spanish similarities.


Reprinted with permission from Spanishized.

Spanishized: Michelle AmatoMichelle Amato is a Bostonian living in Spain since 2006. She loves meeting new people and sharing her many expat experiences such as getting working papers, having a baby, marrying a Spaniard, getting robbed and more. Michelle is a bilingual marketing professional. Find her on Facebook. Thumbnail credit: Evan.

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