Home Working in the UK Employment Basics Business culture in the United Kingdom
Last update on March 14, 2019

This handy guide from Expatica 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.

Meetings 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.

Negotiations 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

UK business culture

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.

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.

Appointments

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.