When you move abroad, it’s not just a question of learning a new language. Every country has a host of unspoken rules that can take years to master — and being aware of them will make your first few months in a job much easier.
To get some insider tips on Swiss business etiquette, we spoke to Swiss business image consultant Monika Seeger, who specializes in the IT, telecommunications, healthcare, construction and electrical engineering sectors.
Since 2009, Seeger’s company Image Now has been offering advice to companies on anything from the right facial expressions to how to wield a knife and fork at a business lunch.
So here they are, the top ten hints for business success in Switzerland.
1. Dress for success
“In Switzerland, you’re more likely to be successful in business if you’re a good dresser,” says Seeger. “I always tell people that if they want a promotion, they should look at how the most successful people dress in a company.”
Today, the dress code has become more relaxed in most industries. People now wear business casual more often in everyday business life. Ties are hardly worn at all, unless there is a special occasion.
For banks and the financial insurance industry, formal business dress code is still commonplace. Men wear suits and women wear either suits (jacket and skirt) or trouser suits.
The best place is to look is the company website. There you can see what management wears.
2. The three-second rule
The first three seconds are more important than the next three minutes. According to Seeger, no matter what industry you work in, it’s crucial to make a good impression in the first few moments. “Remember that the Swiss customer always looks at the face first, so always have a friendly expression.”
3. The customer is king.
There are strict hierarchical rules in the Swiss business world, so it’s important to get them right. “Even if the boss is around, you must always greet the customer and guests first, then your boss, then your colleagues,” says Seeger.
“When making introductions, you must introduce the subordinate person (the boss) to the superior person (the customer) first — despite the gender or age.”
4. To kiss or not to kiss?
La bise — or air-kissing — is a custom reserved to the French-speaking part of Switzerland and should be avoided in German-speaking parts, according to Seeger.
“Even so, in the French part of the country, it’s often recommended to better to stay away from air kisses in the business field. Otherwise people can get the wrong impression.”
“In Switzerland, we say that men and women are equal in business. Only hierarchy counts. Outside the workplace, women are expected to introduce themselves to men, but in business, males can approach female colleagues.”
6. Addressing colleagues
“How you do this depends on the sector you work in,” says Seeger.
“In Switzerland, the IT industry tends to be less formal. But in a more formal setting, you must abide by a strict hierarchy. While a boss is entitled to call his or her juniors by their first names, junior employees must wait for the boss’s permission to use his or her own first name.”
7. Behave yourself
In Switzerland, professionalism is paramount, even outside the workplace.
“Even when you’re out at a bar, you’re still a representative of the company,” warns Seeger.
“You should also be ready to give a 60-second elevator pitch explaining your job in any informal situation,” she adds. “It’s surprising how few people are able to do this.”
8. Keep it in hand
Don’t go overboard with hand gestures. Zealous hand gesturing may be appreciated in Italian workplaces, but in Switzerland people tend to be more reserved.
While Seeger encourages the use of hand gestures to underline a point, she also warns: “If people keep looking at your hands, then it means you’re using them too much.”
9. Put your hands where I can see them
“At a Swiss business lunch, it’s important to know how to sit correctly,” says Seeger.
“You must sit at the back of your chair with both feet flat on the floor and your forearms on the table. It’s only once you’ve finished a course that you may then put your hands on your lap. When you’ve finished eating, put your cutlery back on the plate in the 4:20 position.”
10. Be punctual
“Although it can matter less in the French-speaking areas, punctuality is still very important in Switzerland as a whole,” says Seeger.
“If a customer comes to your workplace for a business meeting, don’t let him wait — otherwise they will get nervous. If you go to meet a customer, you should arrive ten minutes early at reception.”
This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared in The Local in 2015.
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