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Business Etiquette in the UK

As an international student, you may have experienced some cultural differences from what you would expect at home. If you are looking to gain employment in the UK, it is essential that you do everything you can to learn about the cultural expectations of the UK so that you are able to fit in and get on. This guide will pay particular attention to the workplace.


What is a Business Etiquette?

A business etiquette is an unwritten code for how to conduct yourself in a professional setting such as the workplace. It refers to the expectations that those around you will have of you and can be applied to many areas of an individual’s work life including emails, phone calls, business meetings and general workplace behaviour. It can also extend outside of the workplace in to your personal life.


First Impressions Count!

When it comes to business etiquette in the UK, it is important to remember that first impressions count…and they last! When you first meet someone, the impression that you make on them in the first 6 seconds will often be what they remember you for, for a very long time. So making sure that you are presenting yourself in a good manner from the start is very important.

Examples of creating a good first impression include:

  • Being on time.
  • Being formal and dressed smartly.
  • Acting in a reserved manner.

For example, when arriving for a meeting with your manager, you may arrive in good time, maybe 2 or 3 minutes early. You are dressed smartly so that the employer can see you have made an effort, and when approaching them you may extend your hand for a hand shake, ask them how they are and enthuse with a smile. All this will create a good impression.

Examples of creating a bad first impression include:

  • Hugging or prolonged eye contact.
  • Chatting and personal discussions during office hours or making personal calls.
  • Being too friendly and open. It is important to mix with colleagues quickly after starting, however it is best to do this is at lunchtimes.

For example, turning up to work laughing and joking and being very loud, walking around and hugging your colleagues, and sitting down at your desk to tell the office what a great night you had with your friends last night would not been deemed as appropriate.


So, is there such a thing as being late?

Yes, in the UK there is definitely such as a thing as being late. Whilst we appreciate that this isn’t the same for all cultures, in the UK employers will not tolerate lateness. The American researcher, Edward Hall conducted a study in to working cultures around the globe and found that there are two polarities in relation to time keeping:

  1. Monochronic cultures –where things happen in strict sequence and
  2. Polychronic cultures -where timetables and priorities are endlessly juggled and changed

Hall found that the monochronic culture is characterised by good time keeping, keeping to agendas, forming orderly queues, focusing on one thing at a time, seeing events as part of a sequence and working at a quick pace. The polychronic culture is the opposite to this.


The UK is wholly monochronic. In the UK, children are penalised at school for turning up to classes late. This is also evident in the workplace where persistent lateness to work can result in a disciplinary or even worse, the termination of your contract.


With that being said, most managers in the UK are flexible about time being taken off work, or lateness which is a result of circumstances out of your control, such as the bus being late. They do, however expect that you call to inform them of such matters, and you should never turn up to work late and then say that your bus was late. If you wish to take time off work for an appointment, or for a holiday, you must raise this well in advance with your manager.


The Working Week

The average working week is 40 hours a week over the Monday to Friday with normal business hours operating 9am to 5pm, although most full time employers will work more than this. Some job sectors will see working unsocial hours, eg. Shift work or night shifts. Executives and managers may remain working in the office until 7pm or later, particularly within the corporate sector. The British workday has become much more flexible as employers grow ever more aware of employee’s responsibilities. For example, if you have children you may be able to work with your manager to establish suitable working hours to fit around your responsibilities. There are also more opportunities to work from home, but again this is something that you will need to speak with your manager about. The minimum annual leave entitlement in the UK is 22 days per year, however the UK has additional bank holidays which are days that you are not expected to work.



Communication in the Workplace

Employers will require for employees to maintain good communication with all those that they come across in the workplace. This allows for a happy and collaborative team who meet company objectives and performance targets. The following can be said for communication methods in the UK:

  • Indirect and subtle (vague) – employers may not always tell you directly what they want for you to do. They may expect you to use your own initiative or to ‘work it out’ based on previous meetings or discussions.
  • Avoid offending – the UK values political correctness. Language used within the workplace must never offend another colleague on any ground.
  • Try not to lose face – in the UK, we do everything that we can to not embarrass another person, or make them feel uncomfortable in any way. We are not personal to them, or ask them questions that they may not be comfortable answering.


When in the workplace, you should expect a mixture of direct and indirect communication methods. Feedback and general instructions may usually be referred to as ‘suggestions’, which can sometimes be confusing. Employers may say something along the lines of “if you have time you may want to look in to that” which really means that they want you to look in to it soon. In meetings, you must be able to understand others and get your views across. Listen attentively and take notes during the discussion. It is acceptable to question people, for example you may ask for a colleague to clarify a point they have made, but you should never accuse. You are able to discuss, but not able to argue. If you push from answers, you will get vague replies.


It is considered rude to talk loudly at work or to speak in a foreign language. Use English at all times in the office, even if your colleague speaks the same native language to you. Assuming charge, or voicing your own strong opinions is rarely acceptable. It is always better to take a diplomatic approach, especially if you are new to a company. Negotiations should be subtle, slow-paced and understandable. And finally, Brits love to banter. Usually, this is in good humour, and will rarely be personable.



Expressing how you feel

Finally, Brits are not keen on displaying too much emotion, or really paying too much attention to how they feel. You may come across the term ‘stiff upper lip’ when researching the cultural nuisances of the British public. Generally speaking, in the workplace you should avoid being overly sentimental, and boasting about your achievements. It is always correct to present yourself in a reserved manner and avoid being too enthusiastic or dramatic. You should always remember to never touch your colleagues or managers, and whilst it is ok to talk about your family in brief conversation, you wouldn’t want to disclose too much personal information.



Some Last Top Tips

In the UK, it is all about being pro-active in the workplace and being able to deal with ambiguity. Employers will very rarely give you a structure of what your day will look like, and they will not tell you what you should do throughout the working day. This will be your responsibility, and if you have finished a task, you should find something else to do, without asking your manager or colleague what there is to do. If the workload does decrease, you should focus your time on developing yourself personally, and perhaps speak to your manager about doing some online training related to your area of work. Finally, you should attend all meetings, get-togethers and networking opportunities presented to you. These often present excellent opportunities to develop your social skills, help you to settle in to working life, and meet new people to build your UK network.


Written by Ellen O’Brien, adapted for website by Morgan Gore