Inside German Business Culture

What is it like to work in Germany? Shoumi, Chris, Patrick and Ashley, four young professionals from the United States, spoke with Young Germany.
by Clara Görtz

What brings four young Americans to Germany in the first place? They are participants in a program called the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals. The program sends young professionals overseas for a year of language immersion, study and work experience to promote German and American cultural exchange.

Their year concludes with a five-month Praktikum (internship) in which each of the four was placed in a job in their field of study or area of interest. Chris Fogel from New York is doing biotechnology research; Ashley Quigless is working in a publishing house; Patrick von Suskil is teaching German; and Shoumi Jeyarajah from California works in testing for an aerospace agency. 

More flexibility in Germany

Unlike at companies in countries where fixed working hours are the norm, there tends to be more flexibility in Germany, said von Suskil, 25, who works for the Goethe Institute in Mannheim. “No one rushes to be at work at a specific time,” he said, adding the staff trickles in at different times.

Quigless, a native of North Carolina who works for a Düsseldorf-based publishing house, added that she found staff usually call it a day on a more flexible schedule, reporting that “Everyone leaves between 5:00 and 6:00 in the afternoon.” 

Jeyarajah, an intern working in testing and research for EADS Astrium in Friedrichshafen, appreciates similar flexibility in her workday. “You can come and go as you like — as long as you complete your set amount of hours. In the US, it’s usually a strict nine-to-five day and you can’t really adjust or change it.” 

She also said coffee breaks and longer lunch breaks are more frequent here than in jobs she’s held in the US, adding that German workers are very focused and hardworking when they return.

Breaking language barriers

Workers in Germany are not only flexible with their working hours, they’re also flexible about the language they use for business. With Germany located in the heart of Europe, multiple languages are spoken in the workplace and with clients. Like most scientists and researchers, Jeyarajah documents the majority of her work in English, but it’s common for her colleagues to discuss business in a customer’s native language, even if they’re not fluent. 

“A lot of times, clients from other European countries are more willing to discuss business if you speak their language. You don’t need to be fluent in a language, but knowing whatever you do is helpful,” she said. 

For example, Jeyarajah isn’t fluent in French, but she picked up the basics of the language in school and often takes messages for her co-workers left by French clients. 

Quigless, whose office speaks about half German and half English to clients, agrees that customers are more comfortable when they are able to communicate in their native language. “When they can tell that I’m fluent in English, their confidence diminishes,” she said, “so I try to speak German whenever I can.”

The four Americans all agree that one of the most noticeable differences in their workplaces here compared to the jobs they’ve had back in the US is the formality of language on the job. “You might call managers by their first names in the States, but here you always address them in the most polite way possible,” said Jeyarajah. 

She notes that addressing bosses and managers by their titles — or with the formal “Sie” instead of “Du” — is the norm in most German offices even if the employee has worked there for a long time.

Dressed to impress

While formal conversation is a hallmark of most German workplaces, another formality — what to wear — varies greatly. In many companies, in fact, it can be very casual. Von Suskil’s co-workers dress more casually than he expected before arriving here. “I’ve worn a tie several times, and people have commented jokingly on it,” he said. 

In Quigless’ publishing house, staff dress according to their position in the office: Secretaries dress casually, but those with higher-ranking jobs wear formal business attire. Fogel and Jeyarajah also report their dress codes are more easy-going than they would have been had their jobs been in the States.

For the first day on the job, though, Jeyarajah recommends dressing formally — just in case. “See what everyone is wearing,” she said, “and you can dress accordingly after that.” Work attire depends on the company, and while some workplaces require formal business wear, others prefer their employees to dress casually. 

What’s clear is that in Germany, like any other country, no business will operate exactly like any other. The best way to approach a new job in a foreign country, said Fogel, is to keep an open mind. 

“Be open to the culture,” he said. “Learn about it and experience it. Try new things.”

by Clara Görtz