Employment Basics

Business culture in the UK

Discover everything you need to know about UK business culture including standard working hours, holiday entitlement, networking, and more.

UK business culture
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By Shanthy Milne

Updated 14-5-2024

Despite the commotion surrounding Brexit, the UK remains one of the world’s most popular business destinations for expats. However, if you want to successfully navigate the British workplace as a foreigner, it is important to have a good understanding of the country’s nuanced business culture and etiquette. And this may take some getting used to, given that the British approach to business is distinct from its Western counterparts. For instance, British politeness, combined with a general dislike of directness, can be confusing for expats who are used to more direct communication.

So, to help you avoid potential business faux pas, this article decodes the ins and outs of UK business culture and covers the following:

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The business landscape in the UK

Steeped in history and tradition, the UK has strong international business ties, particularly with Commonwealth countries. Its central time zone and close proximity to Europe make it a popular destination for international business enterprises.

Despite the impact of Brexit, the COVID-19 pandemic, and inflation putting pressure on the UK economy, Britain has sustained its position as the sixth-strongest economy in the world. London is home to many thriving industries and holds the reputation of being the world’s top financial center; followed by New York and Singapore.

a motion shot of commuters walking past a backdrop of London's financial center
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The UK economy is driven by finance. However, it is also home to several other successful service industries, including retail, hospitality, professional services, and business administration. And while they have experienced comparatively less growth than these industries, agriculture, construction, and production also contribute significantly to the UK’s GDP.

Foreign-owned businesses make up a significant portion of the UK’s turnover, accounting for 1.4% of non-financial businesses in 2020. The largest number of foreign-owned businesses (11.7%) in 2020 were within the mining and quarrying sector, the wholesale and retail trade, and the automobile repair sector.

Entrepreneurs in the UK

Similar to many other countries, entrepreneurship has been on the rise in the UK since the start of the global pandemic. In 2022, the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor reported that one in three UK adults was either engaged in or planning to start a new business endeavor within the next three years.

The cost of living in the UK

The UK’s unemployment rate is relatively low compared to the Eurozone (3.9% in Q1 2023 versus 6.6%). However, the country is facing a cost of living crisis with consumer prices rising at the fastest rate in four decades up until October 2022. That said, the price of gas and other consumer goods is slowly declining moving into the second quarter of 2023.

Naturally, the cost of living varies dramatically depending on where you live in the UK with London remaining one of the most expensive cities. However, for expats with relatively good salaries, enjoying a comfortable lifestyle in the UK is possible.

UK business culture

Courtesy, politeness, and punctuality are key values in British business culture. Generally speaking, the goal of business interactions is to solve problems in a respectful manner and find compromises that satisfy all parties involved.

Despite the tendency towards informal workplaces that often lean towards general niceties or even tongue-in-cheek humor, companies are still built on a definitive hierarchical structure. For instance, those in managerial roles still have the final decision on how to move forward, despite welcoming valid suggestions from employees.

a group of five cheerful looking colleagues laughing during a team meeting in a casual office setting
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Generally speaking, Brits prefer to work with individuals with whom they are familiar. For this reason, third-party introductions can be helpful in establishing successful business relationships. Conversely, accessing certain elite sectors such as politics or the media can be challenging without personal introductions or connections. Many business connections are established during schooling and education in the UK.

Networking is also a fundamental part of the British business landscape and essential for those looking to establish professional connections in the absence of pre-existing relationships.

Politeness is a fundamental British virtue, particularly within the world of work, and even during tough negotiations or challenging business situations, people generally maintain courtesy; however difficult that may be. Furthermore, unlike their European counterparts, the British are unlikely to express criticism directly, even when they are displeased. As a result, it is often necessary to read between the lines to interpret honest opinions.

Geographical differences in UK business culture

It is important to acknowledge the distinct national identities and cultural differences within the UK’s four countries: Scotland, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

While some larger businesses may operate across the whole of the UK, others may have a more local focus. In this case, showing an understanding of how things work on a regional scale will likely be well received. Notably, expats should also make an effort to avoid confusing the four identities or mistakenly referring to individuals in Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland as English.

While London is the business capital of the UK, many businesses, especially in the cultural sector, aim to be more representative of the entire country. Therefore, expats should be mindful of the diversity and multiculturalism present in the UK’s larger cities. In these locations, knowledge of global business etiquette may also be beneficial.

Work-life balance in the UK

Finding a good work-life balance in the UK can be a challenge, given that the average employee works about 22 days of overtime per year, with much of this unpaid. Sectors like agriculture, forestry, transportation, and construction have the highest overtime, while education, finance, insurance services, and hospitality have the lowest.

According to the OECD Better Life Index, the UK ranks 30 out of 41 countries for its work-life balance. The findings indicate that 11% of UK employees work an average of 50+ hours per week, slightly exceeding the average by 1%. However, since the pandemic, there has been a shift in the British approach and the majority of job-seekers (65%) now prioritize work-life balance over pay and benefits.

an anxious looking woman sitting at her desk and looking at her laptop as she leans her head on her hand
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Similar to many European countries, mental health problems are on the rise, particularly in the aftermath of the global pandemic. And according to the health charity Mind, a quarter of adults in the UK experience a mental health problem of some kind each year. Employee burnout is also increasingly common. As a result of this, many employers have taken measures to enhance employee wellbeing.

Flexible working

A recent study revealed that 80% of UK employers now acknowledge the importance of offering flexible work arrangements to attract and retain talent.

New government legislation, which is expected to take effect in 2023, will allow employees to request flexibility in their work arrangements from their first day of employment. Currently, this option is only available after 26 days.

The pandemic prompted office closures and forced employees to work from home. As a result, businesses have adapted by offering more flexible working options. Hybrid working between home and offices has become widely accepted, enabling employees to have greater control of their work-life balance.

Standard working hours

Most businesses in the UK operate from 09:00 to 17:00, Monday to Friday. The standard working week is 40 hours long. As of 2023, the average UK worker clocked up 36.6 hours of work per week. UK law caps the maximum hours of work per week at 48 hours. However, there are a number of professions that are exempt, such as emergency services.

Holiday and leave entitlement

Employees who work a five-day week have the entitlement to statutory annual leave. This corresponds to 28 days (5.6 weeks) of paid leave per year. You can find further information about public holidays in the UK here.

Punctuality is incredibly important in UK business culture. It is advisable to arrive a little early for meetings and job interviews. Arriving late, especially without notifying the person you are meeting, is considered unprofessional and rude.

Business structure and hierarchy

Businesses in the UK typically have a hierarchical structure. Ultimate responsibility for decision-making usually takes place at executive and managerial levels. Effective leadership is an important aspect of senior roles, and although managers may be firm and resolute in their decision-making, they will often encourage employees to contribute and discuss varying approaches to implementing their plans. This is particularly the case within creative fields where ideas are a form of currency.

a group of three young women and two men of different ethnicities brainstorming ideas during a team meeting in a modern day office
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Managers have a crucial role in fostering team cohesion, and employees who prioritize team success over personal ambition will gain respect from colleagues and superiors.

Despite the clear hierarchy of roles within UK business culture, day-to-day activity often takes place in an informal and cheerful manner. While management decisions are final, they may be presented as suggestions and recommendations rather than strict mandates. Smaller start-ups, on the other hand, tend to foster more democratic decision-making processes which encourage debate and discussion.

Diversity in the workplace

Diversity in the workplace is a vital aspect of business culture in the UK, and companies and institutions are gradually acknowledging the need for greater equity.

This recognition reflects recent public demands for social justice. It is also backed by research highlighting the benefits of workplace diversity on innovation, productivity, and business success.

Many larger organizations have created dedicated roles to address diversity issues. More and more companies have also introduced stricter policies, schemes, and quotas to combat discrimination. In addition, sector-specific schemes now exist to encourage and monitor diversity and often require businesses to provide evidence of their commitment to diversity.

Women in the workplace

The UK ranks third out of 22 countries for gender equality in the OECD Better Life Index. This high score reflects the significant strides that British women have made in recent decades. Many of them have broken through the glass ceiling to take on leadership roles.

However, despite this, there are still issues surrounding the lack of female representation in certain industries. For instance, while women held 77% of jobs in the health and social work sector in 2022, and 70% of jobs in education, they held only 26% in transportation and storage, 16% in construction, and 16% in mining and quarrying.

a female business executive leading a meeting with several colleagues; looking down at a report she is presenting on the table
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The percentage of women in employment (72.3%) is also less than men (79%). Of these women, 38% work part-time compared to 14% of men. Despite this discrepancy, the rate of employment for women in the UK is higher than the EU average of 71.4% and the US average of 71.4%.

The gender pay gap

The gender pay gap between women and men in the UK also remains significant. Indeed, male employees are paid at least 10% more than their female counterparts in almost half of the companies and public bodies surveyed. The 9.4% gender pay gap has also remained the same as it was in 2017/18.

According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), full-time female employees also had a median weekly income of £584 in 2022, compared to £683 for male full-time employees.

Notably, the gender pay gap in the UK varies with age. For example, it is small or even negative among employees in their 20s or 30s. However, it widens considerably for older age groups. This is partly because younger women have higher educational qualifications and are more likely to work in higher-paying occupations.

Other factors such as caring for children and/or elderly relatives can also affect future earnings once women return to work. In fact, research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies claims that motherhood is one of the largest contributing factors to the gender pay gap. While parenthood has minimal impact on men’s average earnings, it leads to a significant decline in earnings for women. This decline stabilizes at a lower income level for many mothers and plateaus, showing limited subsequent growth.

Gender-based legislation

Numerous legislative policies have been implemented to counter these disparities. For instance, large organizations with more than 250 employees must report their gender pay gap data to enable transparency and accountability.

Moreover, the Equalities Act 2010 mandates that employers must establish a safe and inclusive workplace. It prohibits any discrimination, harassment, or victimization of women based on gender. Women are also encouraged to report and seek support if they experience discrimination or harassment. They can either do this directly through their employer or through worker’s unions, women’s organizations, or initiatives that provide dedicated support and advice.

Attitudes towards women in the workplace

Thanks to a focus on gender inclusivity and equality, attitudes towards women in the workplace have improved in the UK. That said, there is still work to be done to address unconscious bias and barriers to women’s career progression.

As a country, the majority of people in the UK are in favor of gender equality. This sentiment is reflected in government legislation and various initiatives that advocate for equal opportunities, fair pay, and equitable treatment of women in the workplace.

The #MeToo movement has also raised public awareness of sexism, bullying, and sexual harassment in the workplace. This has prompted companies to improve reporting mechanisms and establish safe and respectful environments for women.

Despite these advances, unconscious bias continues to have a detrimental impact on women, especially when it comes to career advancement and leadership positions. Stereotypes related to women, combined with caregiving responsibilities and career breaks, often lead to them being excluded from promotion opportunities in favor of men.

a mother dressed in a trouser suit and heels walking along holding the hand of her cute toddler
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Moreover, while companies are becoming more accommodating of women seeking work-life balance through flexible working arrangements, the high cost of childcare continues to create challenges for working mothers.

Conducting business in the UK

Business strategy, planning, and decision-making

As you might expect, business strategy, planning, and decision-making vary between sectors, company cultures, and the particular individuals involved. Businesses in the UK prioritize strategic planning to align goals and objectives and often conduct annual reviews. Larger companies encourage collaboration across teams and departments in order to strategize and ensure they efficiently allocate resources.

Hierarchical business models are prevalent in the UK, however, decision-making is typically collaborative and takes into account multiple viewpoints. As mentioned, executives often incorporate input from employees and stakeholders before having the final say. However, as a result of this, making decisions can be time-consuming and often delayed.

Business meetings and negotiations

Business meetings in the UK can be formal or informal. A formal meeting might involve multiple stakeholders and take place in a designated conference room or even online. Informal meetings, on the other hand, could be a gathering held over a pub lunch.

Before meeting in person, individuals typically communicate via email to discuss the agenda and set a suitable location and date.

It is important to understand that punctuality is greatly valued in the UK. Therefore, it is advisable to arrive five to ten minutes early as a gesture of respect for other people’s time. When meeting someone for the first time, a handshake with eye contact is also the customary greeting, regardless of their gender.

Small talk and British humor

Most business meetings in the UK begin with small talk to break the ice. These conversations tend to be jovial and concern topical or non-serious matters. However, it is best to avoid personal conversations or political discussions. To respect other people’s privacy, you should also avoid asking about the private lives of business contacts, especially if you don’t have a pre-existing relationship.

two smartly dressed women laughing with a male colleague during a meeting in a traditional office
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One thing to be aware of is that humor is often used to create a friendly atmosphere and alleviate seriousness, even in formal business meetings. These meetings generally follow pre-agreed agendas, with specific time slots allocated for additional points or concerns.

Professional conduct in the UK

During meetings, it is best to refrain from making exaggerated claims and to have evidence at hand to support any statements or facts presented. When it comes to negotiations, the British tend to be cautious and may not finalize offers in the first meeting. Instead, they are likely to discuss and finalize them in subsequent meetings or through email communication.

The British hold politeness in high regard. Therefore, active listening (without interruption) is considered a sign of respect. Notably, although the British can be direct in their business approach, they tend to be indirect when expressing disagreement or criticism. For instance, rather than providing direct criticism, they often use humor or euphemisms to convey their disagreement, as this is considered to be a politer approach.

It is often customary to email a summary to all parties following a meeting. This is usually done in the form of minutes which detail the points discussed and any actionable items or next steps.

Business networking in the UK

Networking is key to successfully navigating the business world, both for individuals and companies. It is essential for fostering new business relationships and opportunities as well as nurturing personal growth.

Many UK sectors host industry-specific networking events such as:

Before attending a networking event, it is important to do your research and follow these simple tips to get the most out of the experience.

The UK is home to various Business Networks and groups that individuals can join. Some of these require an annual membership. One prominent network is the British Chambers of Commerce, which consists of 53 local chambers across the UK. Each chamber hosts local events and provides business support at both local and national levels.

Networking online through platforms such as LinkedIn and attending events in person can be effective ways of looking for job opportunities in the UK. You might also want to sign up with an online job board such as CV-Library, which allows you to search for roles across all industries and locations in the UK.

Before you apply for roles, however, it is important to have a stand-out CV in order to land a job interview. This is where using a free online resume builder like Resume.io can really help. Of course, researching companies and events relevant to your field will also give you a good understanding of the business landscape and ensure you are prepared for face-to-face meetings.

It is also beneficial to have some business cards made ahead of any face-to-face meetings and networking events. And to avoid making faux pas, you might want to read our article on common networking mistakes to avoid.

Business socializing in the UK

Business entertaining is a common occurrence in the UK. Indeed, people often talk shop over meals, drinks, or during sporting activities such as golf or tennis. However, this rarely takes place within personal or home settings.

Informal business meetings in British pubs are also commonplace. This allows for informal discussions and negotiations within a more relaxed atmosphere. That said, it is generally advised not to immediately bring up business matters. Usually, the party that extended the invitation will pick up the bill. However, rank and seniority also come into play.

Business etiquette in the UK

Communication

When meeting a business contact (of any gender) for the first time, a handshake and eye contact is the standard greeting. It is good to be aware that the British are mindful of personal space, therefore, it is best not to encroach on this.

In less formal settings with business contacts that you are particularly friendly with, greetings may involve hugs or even kisses on the cheek. However, this is not the norm and you should reserve it only for those relationships that border personal friendships. This is because kissing on the cheek can be a little more ambiguous in the UK than in many other countries. There are also no set rules for how many kisses you should give.

two business men shaking hands and smiling during a lunch meeting in a restaurant
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When addressing new business contacts, it is best to address them by the name they introduce themselves with. If they use their title and surname – such as Dr. Smith or Mrs. Cooper – you should reciprocate by using that title. However, if someone introduces a senior figure using their first name, it may be okay to continue using it too. That said, it is polite to ask first.

The British tend to be fairly reserved and prefer to use subtle body language when talking. Therefore, loud voices and big gestures are best avoided. Small talk is also an essential part of most face-to-face encounters, with common topics including the weather, holidays, sporting events, or celebrations.

Dress code

Formal business attire is the norm in the UK, particularly during meetings and negotiations. For men, dark suits with a shirt and tie are common, while women tend to opt for business suits, dresses, or blouses.

In the more creative industries and less formal settings, however, casual business attire is widely accepted. That said, it is still best to dress smart-casual as a general rule, to ensure that you are presentable.

Gift-giving

Gift-giving is not a customary part of UK business culture. However, it is common to reciprocate a gift if one is given by a business contact. Some businesses actually discourage the exchange of gifts while certain sectors, such as public office, may even prohibit it.

When giving a gift, it is important to choose something that is neither too expensive nor too cheap. This way, the gift will not be mistaken for a bribe, nor will it be perceived as an insult.

In the UK, people customarily open gifts immediately whilst in the presence of the gift-giver. Examples of appropriate business gifts include giving souvenirs from your home country to a visiting business, offering stationary or products bearing your company’s name, or providing a hamper with food or produce to share among company staff.

Business cards

Business cards are widely used in the UK for sharing contact information. However, the etiquette surrounding the exchange of these is more relaxed compared to some other countries.

You can exchange business cards whenever you feel it is appropriate to share your contact details. This is often at the beginning or end of a meeting.

While it is polite to treat business cards with respect and show interest in them at the time of exchange, it is also acceptable to store them in a pocket or notebook.

UK business cards are typically sized at 85mm x 55mm, similar to a credit card. They should include essential information such as your company’s name, logo, your name, job title, email address, telephone number(s), company address, website, and any professional social media handles.

Notably, storing your own business cards in a holder can appear more professional. In more creative industries, however, it is common to keep them in your wallet.

Social provisions for employees

Social provisions for employees vary between businesses in the UK. These often depend on the size, culture, and industry or business sector.

Anyone who permanently resides in the country can access free, public-funded healthcare through the National Health Service (NHS). The UK also has a State Pension system for anyone working in the country who pays National Insurance (NI) contributions.

It is also a legal requirement for employers in the UK to provide a workplace pension scheme. You will automatically pay a percentage of your income into this scheme, along with a contribution from your employer.

In addition to this, many businesses offer supplementary provisions, ranging from private healthcare, private pensions, and private schooling to gym memberships, transport provisions, or loan cars.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in the UK

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is self-regulated in the UK, which puts the onus on individual businesses to initiate their own CSR strategies. Businesses are increasingly prioritizing engagement and accountability, even though there are no legal requirements to do so.

Rising public awareness of social, ethical, and environmental issues has led consumers to demand more accountability from businesses and producers. Therefore, the degree to which a company can account for its CSR can affect its popularity and success.

How a company engages in the community varies greatly but can include:

  • A dedicated CSR scheme
  • Employee volunteering
  • Environmental sustainability initiatives
  • Philanthropic donations
  • Skills based volunteering
  • Sponsorship of local events/community partnerships

Overall, the UK ranks 11th out of 193 UN member states in the 2022 Sustainable Development Report. This reflects its country-wide commitment to progress on social, ethical, and environmental issues.

Business corruption and fraud in the UK

The UK has a strong legal and regulatory framework to tackle and prevent corruption and fraud. It ranks favorably in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). However, recent scandals involving the procurement of PPE during the pandemic and ministerial breaches have led to a fall in the UK’s ranking on the Index. This points towards a decline in public standards within UK business culture.

Fraud is the most common form of crime in the UK, costing the country around £8.4 billion a year. Both businesses and individuals are vulnerable to becoming victims of fraud.

The UK adopts a number of measures to tackle corruption and fraud including:

  • A robust legal and regulatory framework
  • Dedicated enforcement agencies (Serious Fraud Office and the National Crime Agency)
  • International cooperation
  • Transparency and disclosure
  • Whistleblower protection
  • Anti-money laundering measures

Useful resources

  • British Chambers of Commerce – the official website of the chamber which is a network of businesses of all sizes and sectors across the UK
  • GOV.UK – provides information on how new Brexit rules apply to traveling, working, studying, and doing business with countries in the EU
  • Marketscans – some helpful dos and don’ts for doing business with the Brits