Working with the Dutch – an explanation for professional expats

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Arriving into the Dutch business world can be like entering The Twilight Zone, everything seems like home but there are subtle differences that let you know the world has changed. Through the Rabbit Hole, there are indeed cultural variances from what you will be used to and to get ahead in this foreign corporate culture, research is key. In the following article we do not look at the legal dimensions of being employed in the Netherlands, rather we outline some of the key things to look out for and provide tips and tricks on how to succeed in the Dutch business world.

Direct – We begin with the most important idiosyncrasy of the Dutch business culture, their straight-talking manner. The people of the Netherlands do not believe in implications, excessive compliments or veiled conversation and instead prefer to speak openly and directly, a fact which in the business world can make them seem like incarnations of The Terminator. Indeed, it has often been remarked by expats how a favorite phrase of the Dutch is ‘This cannot be done’, a rather impressive statement which can very rarely be argued with.

However, for the business minded this does make accomplishing something that much easier. The Dutch are a crude business people who will point out errors, regardless of seniority, with an eye toward improvement. Although it can come across as callous, and many an experienced professional expat has been left crying like Bridget Jones, the Dutch expect you to reciprocate in kind, leading to a much more productive workday and a better end product.

Right hand first – When meeting a potential Dutch business partner for the first time, it is wise to shake hands with everyone in the room and give your last name rather than saying ‘hello’. Maintaining eye contact while introducing yourself and meeting eyes at intervals are also the norm, as too much looking away can make you seem untrustworthy in the Netherlands. In terms of a dress code, the Dutch are often considered conservative. A black, formal suit is the safest choice. However, there can be exceptions to the rule and researching the company you are dealing with will give you a better insight into what to wear.

The flat hierarchy – The Dutch are known for their egalitarianism and their celebration of the individual. Filtering through the business world, daily company life can seem somewhat peculiar to the outsider. While corporate structure in the Netherlands is comparable to that of the rest of the US and Europe, in some senses it is not so stringent. In other parts of the world, seniority can form itself into something of a social hierarchy, where upper management have little to no interaction with their lower level subordinates. This is very far from the case in the Netherlands, senior management work with lower level staff daily and greet each other on a first name basis. A proud people, the Dutch do not respect the arrogant or people who get above themselves, rather being down to earth is valued and a high level of respect flows between employer and employee.

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Debate club – The combination of egalitarianism and directness does lead to some problems. First and foremost among these is the almost unending parade of meetings that occur over what some would perceive as a relatively menial decision. The Dutch are a careful people who place stock in forethought and the aim of these consecutive meetings is to arrive at a consensus through debate. It is believed that everyone has valuable insight and one will often witness employees at opposite ends of the hierarchy respectfully discussing a topic as equals. Another thing to note is that due to their regularity, these meetings are often informal.

The white rabbit and his golden watch – Sticklers for time, where Mussolini made the trains run, they wouldn’t dare stop in the Netherlands. The Dutch pride themselves on their punctuality and being late to a business meeting is viewed as a cardinal sin. If you are going to be late, even if it is just ten minutes, it is best to phone or send an email to forewarn them. Moreover, the datebook is ubiquitous in the Netherlands and it can be extremely difficult to organize a short-notice appointment with anyone, from the CEO of a large company to a preschool child. Both social and work meetings are thus planned weeks or months in advance.

Now we are curious. Have you experienced one of these Dutch ‘habits’yourself? What did you think? How did you respond?

We would appreciate it if you would share them with use and the other Expats in our community; please write down your experiences in the comment field below.. You can do it anonymously…of course!

And while you’re here please read the other experiences, questions and answers and reply to them with your own ideas, experiences and/or questions. We would like this to be a platform where expats may benefit from each other’s experiences! And if you’re not an expat but have some advice for expats…feel free to give that too!

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