Direct but Effective: German Work Culture

To foreign businesspeople expanding to the country, German workplaces may initially seem overly formal and rules-bound. But there are many advantages that benefit employers and employees alike, as human resources consultant and leadership coach Anke Wolf tells us.

July 2021

What’s the biggest surprise for foreign companies when they come to Germany?

Anke Wolf: I would have to say works councils. You have them in many European countries, but if you don’t come from the middle of Europe, like Belgium or France, it’s a surprise. The works council takes care that employees’ rights are represented in the company and can help in case of conflicts. They watch out for the majority of employees, usually everybody who is not senior management.

Could you expand on that?

Wolf: If there is an internal transfer or new hire, the works council has a vote on it. If there is a downsizing in the company, if the company is laying off people for certain reasons and then at the same time wants to hire someone externally, the works council might say: “You know, we have a lot of people and some might lose their jobs. You should consider them first.” The idea behind the works council is that they oversee all employment-related topics. Not only hiring but also other topics like training or performance management. So, the council has a say in how to use performance management, what criteria to use and who is evaluating who.

But the relationship between the works council and management isn’t intrinsically adversarial, is it?

Wolf: The cooperation with the works council is usually constructive. HR and works councils meet regularly, and they negotiate employment-related topics. If a company and a works council can’t agree, they could, in the worst case, go to court, but I personally have never seen that. The employees of all companies with more than a certain number of workers have the right to form a works council.

Anke Wolf © Julia Sellmann/laif, Exklusiv

In your experience, is there anything unique about the office environment in Germany? Do people interact differently compared to other countries, for example?

Wolf: What my international colleagues told me is that they find the German working environment very formal. I experienced the opposite when I worked abroad. It was much more informal there compared to what I was used to in Germany. In Germany, you usually use last names when speaking to each other. And of course, in the German language there are formal and informal forms of “you.” You use the formal one until the point when you agree to use the informal one. But that’s changing a bit. It depends on the industry. For example, if you go into more IT-related or creative areas, people use the informal form right from the start.

What about the use of academic titles?

Wolf: If you have a doctorate in anything, it becomes a regularly used part of your name in Germany. That’s an expression of respect and politeness. But to foreigners it sometimes sounds like you’re a medical doctor.

Is it common for Germans to socialize with their fellow employees outside of the workplace?

Wolf: In traditional industries, it’s not very common to do something in your free time with your colleagues. We usually don’t have a Friday afternoon beer in Germany. But this is changing and it is definitely different when you work with younger people. They merge private and professional life much more.

Germans are well known for their directness. How does this influence communication in the workplace?

Wolf: For Germans, it’s very important to make things clear. There is probably a fine line between what you might perceive as rude, but what to a German is just direct. A German might say, “This is a fact and I really need to make it clear,” whereas you might say, “I don’t need to know this fact right now – I think I understand without it.” On the other hand, Germans are very reliable. They say what they mean and they mean what they say. You can count on that.

Anke Wolf

is a human resources consultant and leadership coach based in Cologne. Before launching Anke Wolf Coaching & Consulting, she worked as a human resources expert and manager in three multinational companies where she advised management in Europe, the US and Asia. Today, her clients include both large, international companies as well as German SMEs.

Is data protection a big issue within German companies?

Wolf: I mean, it’s a European data protection law, but I sometimes have the impression that Germans are especially sensitive to providing personal data to organizations. At work, you would not hand over personal information to someone else without letting the person concerned know about it. A manager might ask to see a performance review, but you can’t necessarily just give out such information. I’ve had many long discussions with non-Germans, especially non-European managers, about this topic. For them, it can be hard to understand that the careful handling of personal data is meant to protect the employee’s privacy.

How important are German language skills for workers coming from abroad?

Wolf: If you don’t live in a large city like Berlin, people may not speak English very well or feel comfortable speaking English, even if they can. When I was the only German employee in my department, I handled a lot of daily stuff for all the expats because they were unable to communicate. So, for example, if they got a traffic ticket, they couldn’t read it and they couldn’t talk to the police. So, I did that. If you want to talk to your landlord, they often don’t speak English. If you plan to stay for longer in Germany, I strongly recommend learning German.

How has Germany adapted to remote working?

Wolf: Before coronavirus, remote working was not very popular in Germany. But I think this has changed. A lot of companies will keep the home office option because it has proven to work in many areas. Companies probably won’t do it 100 percent, but they’ll show much more flexibility than before. People still value social links to their colleagues and do not want to work from home every day. And many managers don’t know how to lead virtually, but this is a leadership problem, not necessarily a cultural problem.