Business etiquette

UK flagAttitudes and values form the basis of any culture. They reflect the ways people both think and behave. Knowledge of attitudes and values can therefore be of significant importance if you wish to communicate with your counterparts effectively. Ignorance can result in a cultural barrier that may hinder the communication process and have a detrimental effect on the success of your activities in a given country.

How important is the work-life balance in the UK? How do they value fairness in business? Although seemingly unimportant and often neglected during the preparation phase, an understanding of such issues may prove to be invaluable when doing business in the UK. The following section will introduce you to the essential attitudes and values you will find in the UK and highlight their implications for business practice.

Corporate and Social Responsibilities

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is becoming more important for businesses in the UK, where there is strong growth in consumer activism thanks to the prevalence of social media and grass roots organisations.

The three main themes for CSR in the UK are work place issues (work life balance, human rights, employment); community contribution (big society/social justice) and the environment (sustainability of resources, etc). The UK has subscribed to the Millennium Goals of the United Nations and many business leaders are actively working towards achieving these. The UK Government supports CSR through tax breaks and the encouragement of charitable giving.

There are several issues that currently represent sensitive topics for UK society. Most notable is the tax avoidance of large online retailers and international chains exposed by the media in 2013. In times of austerity it is seen as distasteful that such profitable companies should be seeking legal loopholes to reduce their tax liabilities when normal people and small businesses are struggling to make ends meet.

Waste management is an important environmental topic, due to unsustainable consumption of natural resources and environmental damage caused by excess waste. The sector is currently undergoing a period of substantial change and extensive discussions are taking place in order to find the best solutions to the problem. The United Kingdom is substantially reducing the amount of industrial and commercial waste disposed of in landfill sites and increasingly a growing percentage of household waste is being recycled or composted.

Genetically-modified (GM) food has become a major health and environmental issue in the UK. Some authorities argue that people still do not have enough knowledge about the way genes operate to be able to determine the potential long term effects of any modified crops.

The United Kingdom is also concerned with global warming and, as a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, continues to reduce greenhouse gasses. This issue is closely linked to another problematic area, that of transport and its impact on the environment and air quality.


In general, the British value time-keeping for business arrangements. If you set up a meeting for two o’clock, the chances are your counterparts will arrive on time or just before. Since the British are so time conscious, sometimes you may feel their lives are very rushed. In fact, however, they are only doing their best to avoid losing time, which is valued as an economic resource. It is considered very impolite to arrive late for a business meeting. If your delay is inevitable and you arrive late, it is usually sufficient to excuse yourself with an apology. If, however, you are running more than a few minutes late, you should call ahead to apologise and give an indication of how long you will be; in the case of a longer delay that would compromise the value of attending the meeting, you should consider offering to postpone the meeting to a new time and/or day. The busier people are, the greater the likelihood that they will have to leave for another engagement, so respecting their time is very important.

Attending social events is slightly different, and guests may be expected to arrive about fifteen minutes after the specified time, but this is contingent on the nature of the event and the number of attendees. You need to be particularly careful when using public transport, as some journeys may take significantly longer than advertised. Public transport, such as trains and buses, is generally reliable although it is recommended to allow extra time, especially if travelling in winter when the transport network is usually unable to cope with even the slightest flurry of snow (unless you are travelling in Scotland). The golden rule is that the more important the appointment, the more time you should allow for potential delays.

Gift giving

Gift Giving is not a usual part of British business etiquette, although reciprocation is good practice when gifts are received. Some organisations are encouraged not to accept any form of gift and some are prevented from doing so on legal grounds. However, where a gift is offered, it is important to ensure that it is not expensive enough to be considered a bribe or so inexpensive as to be considered an insult.

There is a large range of suitable gifts to choose from: company greeting cards, pens, books, diaries, alcohol, flowers, souvenirs from the visitors’ country or invitations to a cultural event etc. If a gift is received in public, it is advisable to open it immediately and express your gratitude to the giver.

Usually, the successful conclusion of negotiations presents an ideal opportunity for gift giving. Here the meaning is an acknowledgement of the occasion. Ideally, such gifts will be gold, silver or porcelain and it is important to consider the suitability of the gift and the taste of the recipient. It is not usual to exchange business gifts at Christmas; however, it is still good practice to send a greetings card to express thanks to your business counterparts.

If you receive an invitation to dinner or a party at the home of one of your business colleagues, it is normal to bring a bottle of wine and possibly a small gift such as flowers or chocolates. When giving flowers beware that red roses (which signify romantic intentions) and white lilies (which express grief and are used for funerals) are best avoided.

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Business dress code

When it comes to business dress codes, classical conservative attire is the norm for both men and women in British culture and dark colours such as black, dark blue and charcoal grey are predominant. It is common for women to wear either trousers or a skirt in an office environment, and head scarves are accepted as part of religious freedom. Many senior managers are fond of quality and express their status through their choice of clothing. Shopping in designer boutiques is popular among British society and bespoke suits, designer shirts, silk ties and hand-made shoes are signs of affluence and status.

Denim is not normally acceptable for professional business meetings and the Scots do not wear kilts to work. When in doubt about the dress code for a particular business event, it is advisable to be overdressed rather than risk making a poor impression. It is always relatively easy to hire suitable attire for special events; your efforts will be appreciated and you will feel that you are fitting in.

Many organisations provide their non-professional employees with a work-based uniform, which enables everyone to look ‘corporate’ and reflects a certain image of the company. The type of uniform, whether smart or more casual, will give you a good understanding of the type of organisation and the culture to be found there. Many companies are adopting ‘informal’ smart casual uniforms, which are comfortable to wear, but still present a professional image for the company.

Dress code inevitably varies across industries. In the creative sectors (e.g. digital marketing) a more relaxed dress code is common – just a shirt and trousers. Numerous office-based organisations have introduced Casual Friday, Casual Day or Dress-Down Friday, where a more relaxed dress code (and hopefully increased creativity) is encouraged based on the California inspired Dot Com Business Culture.

If unsure of the dress code and what to wear, it is perfectly acceptable to ask a representative from the company. It is often better to find out in advance, so you can make any necessary changes before your introduction to the company. This will put you at ease and make you more relaxed in your encounters with the company representatives.

Bribery and Corruption

A highly valued sense of fairness is probably the reason why the British are an honest nation with relatively low levels of corruption. This has been confirmed in a recent report (2012) by the Global Coalition against Corruption, Transparency International and the United Kingdom has regularly ranked in the top 10% in the International Corruption Perception Index, which compares countries from all over the world.

Bribery and corruption are generally taken very seriously in the United Kingdom and the chances of a bribe being accepted are very low. The risks are too high and it is strongly advisable not to try to bribe anyone.

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