An expat survival guide to the German workplace
For my first eight years in Germany, I was a self-employed musician. I was my own boss, free to work at my own speed, with my own goals and aspirations. I basically only ever had to deal with Germans when I needed something from the government or tax office (i.e. almost never).
In other words, I was on the periphery of the real Germany. I hadn’t even scratched the surface. I was just a naive expat, oblivious to the complexity of Germany’s social pillars. It was not until I got a job on a German cruise ship that I finally uncovered the true nature of what makes the Germans tick. The workplace – the place where we as individuals actually spend most of our time – encapsulates the German mentality perfectly. Here’s what I learnt.
Rules rule the rules
I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve hit a brick wall in Germany, unable to get things done due to some stupid technicality in the rulebook. And I have to say – Germans are very clear about their rules. In Germany there is no such thing as “unwritten rules”. This is because all the rules – down to the most trivial, minute detail – are always written down somewhere, and it’s important that you know what they are.
No matter whether you are working in an office, a cruise ship or even a space ship, the written rules are the most important factor that governs a workplace. A novice mistake is to try to bypass – or worse, completely ignore – the rules, thinking that, as long as the end result is the same, it doesn’t really matter.
Error! If you make that mistake, you may as well write your own obituary right there and then, because very soon you’ll find yourself in a situation like Neo from The Matrix, fighting a torrent of trained agents who are beating you round the head with their precious code. To put it simply, just read the bloody rulebook. Hang a copy of it above your desk. Don’t cut corners. Don’t “read between the lines”. These concepts are alien to Germans.
It’s also worth noting that you can never win an argument by pitting common sense against The Rules – not in Germany. Sometimes the rules might even prevent you from doing your job efficiently. Never mind, rules are rules and, as you shall discover, efficiency is not necessarily rewarded in Germany.
The CC syndrome
Have you ever spent ages reading emails from colleagues that go over and over useless details that could be clarified in an instant by going directly to the source? But instead, they prefer to send a mass email with at least half of the company on the CC list. Generally, you have no direct connection with these matters but, just to show you’re “actively involved in the subject”, you force yourself to click “reply all” and write a one-liner, thereby making yourself complicit in the volume of email garbage making its way back and forth through the ether.
Sound familiar? What about this one: Have you ever replied to a client with a direct inquiry that you alone could solve, but CC’d your boss, just to show them that you’re dealing with the issue and maybe even putting in extra work outside normal office hours?
Here’s the best one of all: Have you ever come into the office extra early or stayed extra late and, the minute you get in, or just before you leave, send some useless email to your boss, with the sole purpose of showing the “clock time” that you’re at work. If any of these apply to you, then you have the CC syndrome. The CC syndrome is endemic in Germany.
At the large enterprise I used to work at, one of my colleagues always insisted that I send her everything in an email, even things we had just spoken about in a meeting – essentially making me do my work twice.
It was only after working there for two years that I truly understood what was going on. When something goes pear-shaped, and the proverbial finger of blame is looking for its victim, my colleague could always show a paper trail of everything she had ever done and thereby prove that she was not at fault, since she had done exactly what was requested of her, to the letter, and – and this bit’s important – not an iota more.
Results versus process
Working at a German company is very different to working for an English one, or a Scandinavian one, and especially an American one. All of the above are results-driven – with focus on simplifying processes, maximising efficiency, minimising bureaucracy and encouraging a results-driven reward system.
In contrast, the German system is process-based, loyalty-driven, overly bureaucratic and highly inefficient. This, of course, doesn’t apply to the new wave of start-ups which are popping up in Berlin at a staggering rate, all led by 20-something bosses keen on incorporating Silicon Valley models. Nor does it apply to small-scale companies that embrace the Anglo-American approach.
Instead, we’re talking about mid- to large-scale German companies with 150 plus employees that are saturated with hierarchical layers and formal addresses. The CEO and board of directors are all 50-somethings (probably white, probably male), proper old-school, conservative types, resistant to change, and with very little clue about the changing business climate.
The Dos and Don’ts of German business meetings
If you’re going to work for one of these German companies as an employee, contractor, supplier or anyone with a business relationship with them, it might be helpful to keep in mind this list of dos and don’ts for business meetings, to keep your non-German instincts in check:
1. Don’t start your presentation with a joke
In fact – forget jokes altogether. They are not socially acceptable in the workplace and guaranteed to cause an awkward silence, sweat on the back of your neck, confused looks and even more awkwardness if you then go on to attempt to explain your joke.
2. Don’t expect holiday cover
If you’re dealing with a particular person in a company and, for some reason they are away – whether it’s a holiday, sick leave or some other reason – don’t expect anyone to take over and deal with your query. Even if your personal business sense is telling you otherwise, this is not the German way.
3. Do expect explanations
The Germans have a habit of explaining everything twice, thrice, or even four times, without checking if it’s necessary. You might feel like you’re being treated as a child, or someone with a very low IQ, but you should resist the urge to interrupt and instead wait patiently until they’re finished.
Then, as clearly as you possibly can, do the following:
- Tell them you have understood
- Regurgitate the information back at them
- Tell them your plan of action, including the reasons behind your decisions, alternatives and contingency plans
- Finish off by saying you’ll send them an email, summarising everything that was discussed
4. Don’t forget the calendar invite
When scheduling a meeting, make sure that your German counterpart has put it in their calendar, and write an email confirming your attendance, even if you literally just got off the phone with them.
5. Don’t turn up unannounced
Never turn up at your boss’s office without an appointment, or call them without prior notice. Germans hate surprises, and they will despise you for ruining their carefully planned day.
“I’m going to the doctor”
And finally, it’s a blessing to note that, if all of these emails and inefficiency and bureaucracy ever become too much, there is a magic pill for getting out of work. Simply state that you’re not feeling well and you have to go to the doctor. There is absolutely nothing any superior can say or do to counter that.
It doesn’t matter if the workload is massive, if the phone is ringing, if a deadline is looming or they know that you’re faking it – it simply doesn’t matter. Everyone has to follow the same protocol (it’s in the rulebook, silly), as with everything else in the workplace.
This is not the UK or the US, where in order to miss work due to sickness, you’d have to have at least been hit by a truck full of explosives, or had your leg amputated by an oncoming train or at the very least been kidnapped by terrorists.
In fact, in the UK at least, you could put on the biggest show by coughing up blood, eyes watering, mucus spewing, crawling on the floor from fever and headache, and – if you’re lucky – your boss might say, “Oh, poor you. Why don’t you go to reception and take a couple of paracetamol tablets and we’ll see you back here in five minutes?”