Meeting etiquette

UK flagBusiness meetings in the UK

Business meetings remain an intrinsic feature of corporate life in the United Kingdom. They vary in their nature and content, but are seen as a key element of business communications.

Senior managers and directors will often have personal assistants who plan their diaries and meetings to fit into their working day. It is often necessary to plan a long time ahead when arranging meetings with senior executives, as diaries tend to be booked up well in advance.

It is good practice to ensure that agendas are circulated in advance of any meeting, to enable everyone to be fully prepared. Locations of meetings, attendance lists, and any required equipment, e.g. computer and projection equipment need to be planned in advance. Meetings should be structured carefully so they keep to time, follow the agenda, and are chaired effectively with minutes taken by an appropriate person.

The use of technology has extended its influence into the world of meetings; video conferencing and conference calls mean that managers do not have to travel too far to attend a meeting. This saves the organisation costs in travel and time, but does not allow face-to-face personal contact, which some cultures may find unsatisfactory. Any contributions to meetings should be thought through to ensure that what is said is of value to the meeting and to the organisation as a whole.

In the UK, it is expected that any action items arising from the meeting are documented, and circulated to all attendees. A person should be nominated, usually the person chairing the meeting, to review the action items from the previous meeting, to ensure that progress has been made as expected and any matters arising are dealt with. At formal meetings, minutes may be taken by a secretary and circulated afterwards.

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Importance of Business meetings

It is good practice to make meeting appointments at least a few days in advance. After arrival in the country, you should always confirm the details of any meeting by telephone or email and ask for directions to the meeting venue, if these details are not provided or are unclear. Although the British have a reputation for respecting rules and for time-keeping, their cultural awareness provides some degree of tolerance when dealing with foreigners. You do not need to panic if something goes wrong during your stay and interferes with your schedule. This is simply a matter of keeping all the affected parties informed and telephoning to cancel or reschedule your appointments. The chances are that any business contact will understand and be more than willing to help you.

The most suitable time to arrange a business meeting is probably about 10am., particularly in the initial stages of negotiations. It is unlikely that a first meeting would take place over a meal, however this depends on the parties involved and the context of the meeting. In the United Kingdom, you should not attempt to approach a business partner unannounced.

When meeting someone for the first time, most managers will value some advance information about the company you represent. This will enable them to establish some basic details about your company, which will save time at the meeting and increase your credibility. It is also useful for you, if visiting a company in the UK for the first time, to find out some information about that company so that you can understand more about their business culture, interests and where there may be opportunities and synergies that can be leveraged.

Recognising that meetings take up a lot of time and are often not very productive, some UK companies have introduced a meetings policy. If you are new to a company, it is advisable to familiarise yourself with all company policies as quickly as possible. A few companies in the UK have adopted some US and Japanese practices in restricting meetings to a very brief time, to ensure that managers keep focussed on what needs to be discussed. One leading supermarket for example, removed all the chairs from its meeting room; because attendees had to stand, this kept the meetings short and focussed. This is rare, but it is worth checking to see what the format, content and style of a meeting will be, so that you are adequately prepared, mentally as well as physically.

 Business meeting Planning

Organisations differ, but in the main there will be a secretary or Personal Assistant (PA) who controls the diary of the manager you are visiting. The best way to set up a meeting is to arrange it with this person, and then call the day before to confirm your attendance. You are advised to check in advance if any resources or equipment you require are available, to prevent delays or embarrassment at the meeting.

Meetings can be confirmed via email and the majority of UK organisations use this method. The agenda and names of the attendees are often circulated in advance of the meeting.

Whilst many managers do work longer than the official 9am to 5.30pm, it is rare for meetings to be held outside this time. Normally, the time executives spend in their offices outside of these hours is set aside for them to catch up on work and correspondence they have not been able to get on top of during the day.

Punctuality is expected and appreciated in the UK, but no one really minds if you arrive a few minutes late for a one-to-one meeting, provided there is a good reason e.g. traffic. Obviously, if more people are involved, there is a greater likelihood that someone will have another engagement to attend.

Finally, it should be remembered that the transport network in the UK can frequently cause delays, which means you should always allow additional travelling time, especially when travelling to an important meeting. Local radio stations provide detailed travel information throughout the day, so if you get stuck in traffic, it is advisable to tune into a local station and telephone the person you are meeting if you are going to be late. This will enable the meeting chairperson to decide whether to wait, or whether to start the meeting as planned and give your apologies. Please beware that use of a mobile phone is not legal whilst driving. So, you should park in a safe place to make or answer any phone calls or use hands free kit.

Negotiation Process

It is advisable to send a senior manager to discuss business issues in the UK rather than a junior employee. This stems from a certain degree of distrust of young managers that is still rooted in British culture. This does not necessarily mean that British managers find young people to be incompetent. Some senior managers may have relatively few formal qualifications and may traditionally value experience and expertise as indicators of success. Moreover, sending senior individuals provides more credibility and a sense of authority, which is essential for successful business negotiations. However, these attitudes are gradually changing and it is probable that in modern companies and young industries such as Information Technology, these findings may not necessarily hold true.

Although discrimination on the basis of sex, race, age and other protected characteristics is unlawful in the United Kingdom under the Equality Act 2010, it is still possible to come across an “unreconstructed manager”. This varies depending on the industry and location of the company you are visiting, with knowledge-based companies often being more liberal compared to traditional manufacturing organisations. If you encounter prejudice or discrimination in your dealings with a British manager, you should maintain a professional demeanour and seek advice or instructions from your own company or an agent that you may be working with in the UK.

During the negotiation process, it is necessary to keep in mind that British business professionals often approach their work in a detached and emotionless way. They will tend to look for objective facts and solid evidence, so emotional persuasion techniques are usually a waste of time. Personal bonds also seem to have little relevance for business in the UK, which differs from other European countries. Aggressive selling techniques such as derogatory remarks about the competition, on the other hand, will probably have very little positive influence on your business partners and may actually be counterproductive.

Similarly, any facial expressions tend to be kept to a minimum, thus making it difficult to guess the thoughts and opinions of British negotiators. This behaviour is not suspicious or mistrustful; it is just the typical professional approach.

Also, it is advisable to be aware of the hierarchical structure of the particular organisation with which you are dealing. In the UK, it is common for companies to declare that they value teamwork and democracy even though, in practice, the senior manager is the person who makes the final decision.

Meeting protocol

The traditional greeting among British managers is a light but firm handshake accompanied by a polite greeting.

In general, British people are more reserved than continental Europeans and you should refrain from physical contact apart from the initial handshake. Smiling, on the other hand, particularly at the initial stage of an encounter is considered  an expression of positive intentions. It is also worth mentioning that it is not  normal practice to shake hands with or greet everyone on entering a room full of people.

Sometimes at the start of a meeting, with many attendees, the chairperson will arrange to go around the table, with each person introducing themselves, with their name and job title, and if external to the organisation, the company they represent.

 How to run a business meeting

When running a meeting, the most important factor to be aware of is the planning and preparation necessary to ensure the meeting achieves its objectives. Hence, the agenda for the meeting should stipulate clearly who is invited, the meeting location, date, time and what is expected to be discussed. Individual communications with attendees might be necessary to explain the expected format of the content. Increasingly, meetings are placing emphasise on shorter presentations and give more focus to discussion and question and answer type activities. Although the agenda is usually followed, people are not stopped if they digress and are allowed to explore related matters in detail. It is not uncommon that meetings finish with an agreement for another follow up meeting with decisions on the current meeting’s main objectives not having been made.

It is important to ensure that all required attendees are aware of the meeting, and of any necessary work they may need to do in advance. Attendees are always expected to confirm their attendance and may sometimes put forward a replacement delegate, if they are unable to attend themselves.

It is also important to ensure a meeting location is appropriate, that the room has all the required facilities, and enough space for the numbers likely to attend. If you are responsible for the meeting, it is advisable to arrive early to check the room layout, chairs, desk or tables etc. If people arrive to find a shortage of chairs, it will delay the start of the meeting and cause unnecessary disruption.

If a meeting includes non-English speaking attendees, it may be necessary to ensure that an interpreter is available, which should be arranged several weeks ahead of the meeting. Any presentations that have been completed and sent in advance may need to be checked and pre-loaded onto the computer that will be used for the meeting or duplicated for distribution in print.

Some organisations prefer PowerPoint presentations and meeting documents to be circulated in advance of the meeting, so that all attendees are able to review any materials that will need to be discussed. This often increases the efficiency of the meeting, freeing up more time for valuable debate and discussion and helping to advance business goals.

It is courteous in the UK to allow other people to speak, and not to interrupt them while they do. It is also useful to obtain feedback after the meeting and establish what the attendees thought of the content and the discussion. It is considered helpful to acknowledge others’ points and, if necessary, agree to disagree; but at no time should you lose your temper or let your behaviour become overly animated.

Follow up letter after meeting with client

The minutes of any formal meeting will usually be circulated for comment and approval after the meeting has concluded. Actions for any decisions that were taken, including the attribution of responsibilities and deadlines applicable will normally be included in the minutes of group meetings and should always be reviewed. In one-to-one meetings, individuals are normally responsible for making their own record of any important points of discussion and action items.

It is important that action items are followed up and completed within the timescales agreed in order to maintain credibility and prove that the responsibility was well-placed. Many executives will be impressed by a prompt follow up of actions agreed at the meeting.

It is perfectly acceptable to make a telephone call to the attendees of the meeting before the next meeting, to follow up on the progress of any action items or clarify any questions that may have arisen.

It is generally normal practice for managers to brief their teams on the outcomes of the meetings they have attended, unless these are subject to confidentiality. It is good to ensure that open communication channels exist within teams, and if you are joining such a team you should expect this approach.

The other area that can be followed up after a meeting is any learning that has emerged from the meeting. Any items discussed that were not fully understood should be researched before any future meeting. This will help to improve confidence and motivation within your team.

Business meals

It is becoming increasingly common for business referral networking to take place in the context of a working lunch or an evening meal. Through the use of social media networks such as LinkedIn and Eventbrite, it is possible to find numerous local business groups and networking opportunities.

Britain has some of the most prominent and expensive restaurants in the world, particularly in London and other major cities. Most towns and cities offer a variety of cuisines, particularly Italian and French inspired restaurant chains, as well as the multinational chains of fast food establishments. Larger cities will often host a choice of Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern, American, Thai, and Japanese restaurants with multicultural cities like Manchester and London being able to cater for the most demanding of tastes. In recent years, British food culture has seen the increasing popularity of “gastro pubs”, where high quality restaurant food is served in a more casual public house environment, often with a good selection of drinks and real ales served on the premises.

Probably the most famous national dish is Fish & Chips, typically battered cod, haddock or pollock with a portion of chipped potatoes, deep fried and sprinkled with salt and vinegar. This dish is available from numerous local fast food shops selling take-away meals. In England, another very traditional dish is the Sunday Roast, most often this is a joint of beef, roasted in the oven with potatoes and served with Yorkshire pudding, mixed seasonal vegetables and gravy. Most pubs, hotels and brasserie-style restaurants offer a carvery roast dinner on Sundays as a comparatively inexpensive menu option. In Scotland, a very traditional dish would be boiled Haggis served with mashed potatoes and turnips; and in Wales you would find Cawl, a rich stew made with Welsh lamb, leeks, parsnips, swede, potatoes and carrots. Generally, every region has its own speciality dishes and it is one of the most pleasant experiences to discover the various tastes that are available.

In the UK, meals with work colleagues are more often the subject of social or festive gatherings than formal opportunities to discuss business and may include spouses or partners, depending on the occasion.  Therefore, it is acceptable to use any such events as an opportunity for informal discussions and the development of social bonds.

It is important to take note of the exact time of the meal and understand the various terms that may be used to refer to any proposed meal:

  • Breakfast is the first meal of the day and may be served up until 11.30am;
  • Brunch is a mid-morning meal which features breakfast and lunch menu items;
  • Lunch or luncheon is the midday meal and can be served anywhere from 11.30am to 2.30pm;
  • Tea will frequently refer to a late afternoon meal, somewhere between 3pm and 6pm;
  • Dinner predominantly describes the main evening meal, traditionally served before 8pm, although the exact time will vary for convenience and personal preference;
  • Supper is often a light evening meal, served up until 11pm at night.

Confusion around meal times is rife and, in fact, the British will also use some of the words interchangeably with meanings often influenced by local dialects. For example, a fish supper in Scotland is actually a very large portion of fish and chips, which can be eaten at any time of day. The words dinner and lunch are reversed in some areas in which case tea replaces the word dinner which simply refers to the main hot meal of the day. Also, different food names can have different meanings depending on which area of the country you are in. If in doubt, it is advisable to ask a local person for clarification.

Generally, British managers are very willing to discuss business matters over a meal, where the intention is clear beforehand. The golden rule is to follow the lead of your host since people will inevitably differ in terms of their business entertaining practice. Over the last few decades, the practice of inviting business colleagues into your home has diminished considerably and the vast majority of business meals take place in restaurants, pubs or cafes.

 Business meeting tips

It is good practice to start a business meeting with an informal conversation about a general topic. This will help to ‘break the ice’ and make the participants feel comfortable.

For any external meetings with new contacts or companies, ensure you bring enough business cards and materials about your company. The ideal time for handing out business cards will depend on the context of the meeting, but generally this will be at the beginning of the meeting.

Negotiations are usually open and flexible and the British will favour a collaborative win/win approach to agreements.

Remember to respect people’s personal space and always maintain a respectful distance.

Do make direct eye contact with your British business partner, but use some discretion so as not to stare and be considered impolite or rude.

Watch out for subtle communication that may be disguised as seemingly humorous or sarcastic remarks, not that there are always hidden meanings to such remarks.

When entering a building for the first time, a doorman, receptionist or personal assistant (PA) are often the first people you encounter. A ‘Good morning/afternoon’ greeting and then explaining who you are there to see will suffice.  You will probably be asked to sign a visitors’ book, in accordance with fire safety regulations for most business premises. Depending on the security procedures of the company you are visiting, you may also need to be issued with a visitor pass and be escorted onto the premises.

If you are asked to wait a short while for the person you are there to see, this time may be used to chat informally. With strangers, the British tend to make small talk on fairly inconsequential topics like the weather, commenting on whether it is raining, or brilliant sunshine outside for example.

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