UK business culture

Business culture in the United Kingdom

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This handy guide from Expertise in Labour Mobility includes information on UK business hierarchy, negotiations and etiquette in the UK.

Hierarchy in the UK
The vast majority of British companies and organisations are still characterised by a distinct hierarchy. Although their instructions might be formulated as a polite request or even a mere suggestion, British managers are known to be firm, effective and resolute. Their authority as decision maker is not to be questioned. Being in control and leading a team efficiently are among the most important management skills. This particularly includes having a good relationship with the staff.

Team players will enjoy working in the UK, where individual ambition should never jeopardise the mission of a team.

Foreigners need to realise the importance of class distinctions, which is still present, although well disguised and not directly obvious. The British observe differences in social status by manner of speech, dress and behaviour. A person's educational background as well as his/her family name continues to play a role in the workplace, and networks from school and university are still important to some companies.

UK strategy
Logical reasoning is one if not the most typical British characteristic in business life. Red tape and bureaucratic hurdles can of course be encountered, but at the same time they are generally disliked, while a pragmatic approach is clearly favoured.

At the heart of an organisation's planning lies the annual budget. Companies develop budgeting processes based on estimates over three to five years. Reaching or surpassing target figures in a particular market is commonly rewarded with bonus payments.

in the UK
The British generally prefer working with a group of people they know, they can relate to and with whom they can identify. Meetings are time-consuming and set well in advance. A set agenda is favoured by most parties who typically start discussing business after some introductory small talk.

The discussion at a meeting can be rather informal. But because of the British task-oriented nature, each participant of a meeting will usually leave the table commissioned with a specific task.

in the UK
The British are tough and skilful negotiators. Throughout negotiations it is important to remain calm and polite, whereas an informal, humorous tone may sometimes disguise the actual seriousness of an issue discussed.

Most British businesspeople are following a rational and pragmatic approach. Only on rare occasions a commitment is announced right away, while agreements need to be formalised in writing.

UK decisions
Formality and a great deal of subtlety prohibit direct criticism in British business life. Likewise, a decision might, when announced, sound more like a proposal open to discussion, whereas this is certainly not the case. The polite and indirect communication of managers in the UK, may sometimes disguise the fact that they are the sole decision maker. It is, however, not often an invitation to discuss or decline an assignment.

UK business culture
Time perception in the UK
Despite the fact that more recently the British have formalised being late in a social sense (for dinner, lunch etc.), it is advisable to show up on time for a scheduled meeting.

British managers are also known to work longer hours than their European colleagues. They may miss out lunch breaks and take work home.

Due to the high frequency of meetings, people working in an office environment are often away from their desk. This accounts for the comparatively high number of (digital) memos sent and received in a UK company. An appointment needs to be arranged in advance.

UK meetings and greetings
All across the UK humour is an integral part of the typical subtle communication. Although the British as a nation are famously known for their humour and irony, most non-native speakers run the risk of frequently misunderstanding their opponents (opponents?) at first. Understatements and euphemisms are commonly used and need to be recognised as a means to indirectly emphasise a point, for reasons of modesty, to prevent embarrassment, to express criticism, etc.

Dress code in the UK

Dress codes in the UK are still comparatively strict. A sense for fashion and quality are generally appreciated. While men wear suits, ties and white, striped or coloured shirts and black shoes, women wear suits (with trousers or skirts) or dresses, often with high heels. In many organisations, clothing styles have a tendency to be more casual on a Friday.

Wining and dining
In most companies, colleagues enjoy an after-work drink together on a Friday night. Apart from this custom, the tendency is to keep work and private live strictly separated. Being invited to someone's private home is considered a gesture of affection and sympathy, which is uncommon between mere business partners.

Business cards
Most commonly business cards are exchanged before or at the beginning of a meeting. A card usually displays someone's job title, first and surname.  Academic titles are not necessarily mentioned - unless they are directly related to one's work.

Editor's note: For more information on cultural etiquette in the UK, you can visit eDiplomat.


Expertise in Labour Mobility / Expatica

This information is based on the Looking for work in the UK guide (ISBN 978-90-5896-059-7), written by Expertise in Labour Mobility. This article is one step to making your international career aspirations become reality, while the full guide tells you everything you need to know. If you want to order or find out more information about our services, have a look at

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3 Comments To This Article

  • K posted:

    on 20th October 2016, 11:29:25 - Reply

    I found what is written above was very well observed. British business culture is very delicate and very informal, as the article often mentioned "humour." However, the seriousness and criticism are still there, which non-British people cannot easily detect. Hierarchy is very strong, however, it is all invisible. I have observed many different business cultures, and British business culture is the most difficult one to understand due to its invisible hierarchy, informal dress code and humour.

    [Moderator's note: You can also post questions on our Ask the Expert free service.]

  • Jake posted:

    on 17th July 2014, 15:45:40 - Reply

    I find British management infuriating; changing something that works perfectly well, no thought for their employees, still expecting underlings to tip their hat, expecting something for nothing, unappreciative, inflexible and bloody rude.
  • Katie Stocks posted:

    on 11th July 2013, 08:55:22 - Reply

    I dont recognise many of the above descriptions and would suggest it was not written by someone who works in the UK. This article is very misleading and dated.