Working in Germany promises to be a valuable learning experience, resume booster, networking tool, and life-lesson in what it means to be a true professional. Get ready to become the most efficient, detail-oriented, proper, and direct version of yourself you ever thought possible. But, before venturing abroad to join the German workforce, check out our do’s and don’t’s of workplace etiquette and practical, real life hacks for making the most out of your time abroad.
1. Learn German (obviously).
Learn German before you go on the hunt for jobs in Germany. It’s so obvious it shouldn’t even have to be on here, but, alas. Learn basic phrases, learn the difference between du, Sie, and sie, and learn how to tell time - because it’s different and it will be important! Learn as much as you can.
Although your pending position may or may not require any German-language capabilities, it will greatly increase your overall experience if you can at least learn how to say “entschuldigung” to the person you knocked over on the subway or quickly understand the checkout clerk at the grocery store when she tells you your total. Besides, you want to turn some folks from colleagues to friends, right?
Don’t worry, jobs in Germany for English speakers certainly exist, they’re just a little harder to come by.
2. Set your watch ahead.
Although it’s often played up as a silly stereotype, German efficiency is no joke. Trains and meetings alike run on time so punctuality will prove extremely important to your success in Germany. Showing up even a few minutes late can be considered very offensive, so always plan to be early, and if you will be uncontrollably late, always call to explain.
Although it may seem stressful at first for those unaccustomed to such promptness, don’t be surprised if you begin to appreciate and enjoy things actually happening when they are supposed to during your time working abroad in Germany. Who knew being efficient could be so, well, efficient!
3. Stick to the schedule.
Germans are generally most comfortable when all aspects of their lives are organized. This means that schedules are not guidelines, but rather dictate very specifically who, what, when, where, why at any given moment in time. Don’t cancel last minute and don’t attempt to be spontaneous or offer up surprises; it won’t be well-accepted.
Inevitably, therefore, one should plan in advance when adding or altering the schedule at any time. If you’ve been holding off proposing an idea or arranging a meeting, don’t delay! Suck it up and secure your slot before it’s gone.
4. Become a more detail-oriented version of yourself.
Germans are master planners. Expect projects, proposals, and general work to be compartmentalized and examined in great detail. Don’t expect to slide your way through any assignment by the seat of your pants, but be prepared to back each idea up with logical and convincing information. Simply put, be present-minded and do the work required; what a concept!
Although project timelines may seem to progress at an initially slower pace as a result of the incredible thoroughness, the strict adherence to schedules (as mentioned above) will inevitably ensure a timely completion in the end.
5. Be the epitome of professional and respectful.
Treating others with respect is just another tool Germans use to maintain order and enforce efficiency. Titles, certification, and diplomas are taken seriously in Germany, and therefore deserve the utmost respect. Because hierarchies are important, one should always address their superiors with formal pronouns and titles unless directed otherwise.
It’s not too difficult to understand the seemingly secret universal code of conduct all Germans follow when you simply focus on remaining professional and respectful!
6. Opt for handshakes over hugs.
Consistent with the overall theme of formal and professional workplace etiquette, allowing appropriate physical space is important. Greet others with a brief but firm handshake, and add a slight nod or polite smile if you feel like going all out. Handshakes are usually expected at both the beginning and end of work gatherings, so if you must leave early, be sure to shake some hands before you bolt.
Germans are, as a whole, not especially touchy-feely type people, so the lack of intimate physical touch also functions as a bonus lifehack of living and working in Germany.
7. Look your best (but don’t be a trendsetter).
Workplace dress code is simple, literally. Understated, conservative dress is expected, with no outlandish statement accessories, bright colors, or heavily applied makeup. Although rules differ from one company to the next, a clean composition of light and dark (generally a dark suit or jacket) are always a safe bet.
Presentation is very important in Germany, so steer clear of sloppy or casual attire. That means no sweats even just for a quick jaunt to the grocery store.
1. Go before you go.
You will be extremely hard-pressed to find a free public restroom anywhere in Europe, and Germany is no exception. Get in the habit early of going before you leave the house or you will find yourself spending a lot of extra cash on bathroom stops while out and about!
2. Make sure your grocery game is on point.
While we’re on the subject of German efficiency, let’s be sure we really hammer it home. German efficiency is not just a workplace expectation, it is important in most areas of everyday life as well. Most notably, the grocery store. Don’t be that person who forgot to weigh their produce, doesn’t bag their own groceries (it is a rule-of-thumb that you do), and makes the clerk wait while they search for loose change. Be ready to bag and have your money in-hand.
3. Get a grip on the public transportation system.
Chances are, public transportation will be your most common (or only) form of transportation while working abroad in Germany. Though it can be intimidating at first, there no sense of satisfaction greater than becoming an autobahn expert. Get yourself a map, familiarize yourself with the different types of transportation, and learn how to read the lines. Once you make an invested effort to understand the web of madness, you will find it to be actually much easier than initially meets the eye.
1. Don’t be easily offended.
Workplace (and often everyday) communication in Germany is direct and to the point. If you are most motivated by compliments for a job well-done and can’t handle honest criticism and bluntness, working abroad in Germany may not be for you.
That doesn’t mean you should be making rude comments or saying the first thing that pops in your head. Rather, assertive behavior and straightforward communication show confidence and aptitude, similar to a firm handshake.
2. Don’t waste time on tangents.
If it wasn’t made obvious enough by the point above, don’t try to engage your co-workers in menial small talk, but instead stick to serious and relevant topics. Germans believe in a clear distinction between work and personal life, and that includes discussing intimate details.
If you do want to get to know your co-workers and the setting is appropriate (i.e. after-work drinks or a casual business luncheon), resist the urge to ask about controversial or deep issues and instead break the ice by bringing up international travel, sports, or hobbies.
3. Don’t try to be slick.
Sucking up with gifts, attempting to smooth-talk, or partaking in unfair agreements will backfire pretty quickly while working abroad in Germany. Because fairness and loyalty are also highly valued in German business, it is best (as it always is) to abide by high moral standards and be clear with your intentions.
There are exceptions to the gift rule, of course. If you feel strongly that a gift is appropriate, opt for something small but of high quality.
4. Don’t take the first bite.
The most common outside-of-work encounter you will experience with co-workers will likely be a business lunch at a restaurant. It is more casual than a meeting, and generally the one who extended the invitation pays the bill. Whether it is lunch, a round of drinks after work, or a meal at a host’s home, however, do not take a bite until the initiator of the get-together takes a bite, makes a toast, or until the host wishes you to enjoy your meal by saying “Guten appetit.”
Also, don’t forget to look others in the eye when you clink glasses, or to wish everyone else to enjoy their meal if you are the host! If you plan to make a toast yourself and would like to impress your guests, whip out the classic “Erst mach' dein' Sach dann trink' und lach!” (First take care of business, then drink and laugh!)
1. Don’t save your grocery shopping for Sunday.
Like many EU countries, most banks and grocery stores close on Sundays in Germany. The majority of business, actually, close for at least one day out of the week, so it is always best to check open hours before you venture too far in the wrong direction. If you don’t want to be stuck with no money eating cheerios and stale milk on Sunday afternoon, plan your grocery shopping for another day!
2. Don’t mess up your recycling.
Germans take environmental issues very seriously. They actually lead the continent for having the greatest wind and solar electricity generating capacity in Europe. And they take their recycling to another level, which is extremely admirable. So figure it out and don’t eff it up. You can actually be heavily fined in some cities for getting caught putting trash into the wrong bins, so make a point to understand the recycling system and then use it correctly.
Additionally, get in the habit of bringing your plastic bags back to the store to re-use (or else you will have to pay for each new bag you use every time), and bring empty glass bottles back to where you bought them from once you finish the beer inside them. Stores generally over charge for beer cases with the intention that buyers will bring them back to be recycled and get refunded the difference.
3. Don’t forget to carry cash.
Unlike the rampant credit-card usage those who have lived in the states are used to, carrying cash is much more common and important while working in Germany. Not only do some places only accept cash, but it is generally frowned upon to use a credit card for small purchases. Plus, if you do forget to go before you go, you will need those spare Euros if you want to access a restroom!
When Working in Germany…
For such a punctual, organized, thorough, and professional bunch, one can hardly be surprised to find out that workers in Germany believe rules, regulations, and laws are meant to be followed. So take the time to learn the expectations and then abide by them. Afterall, honesty, integrity, respect, and efficiency can be hard qualities to come by outside this well-oiled machine of a country, and we can all do well to take a few notes from the Germans.