Doing Business in Belgium
Expats doing business in Belgium will find themselves operating in a diverse, globalised and open economy.
Belgium was ranked 43rd out of 189 countries in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Survey for 2016, marking a slight drop from its 2015 ranking of 41. The country ranked first in trading across borders and also scored well in criteria such as resolving insolvency (10th) and starting a business (20th).
Expats wanting to work in the country that is home to the de facto capital of the European Union will need to make considerable preparations. Its multilingual and multicultural makeup has created a business environment as varied as its population – many foreigners find themselves having to become familiar with not just one, but multiple business cultures in Belgium.
German, French and Flemish are the official languages of business in Belgium and the language used will vary according to location.
Hours of business
Office hours are usually Monday to Friday, 8.30am to 5.30pm. By law, workers cannot usually work more than 38 hours per week, and more than eight hours a day.
Business attire is formal, smart and conservative. Belgians take appearances seriously and are known to be stylish.
When greeting a Belgian businessperson, a handshake is appropriate for both men and women. Cheek kissing is reserved for friends and usually doesn’t take place between men.
Gift giving is not generally a part of local business culture, and usually takes place between close associates on a more personal level. If someone does receive a gift, it is usually opened in the presence of the giver.
Men and women are treated equally in business.
Business culture in Belgium
The business culture in Belgium can be confusing due to the country's diversity. There are stark contrasts between its two predominant communities – the French-speaking Walloons and the Dutch-speaking Flemish. With a quarter of the population being foreign, Belgium's business culture is further diversified.
French, Dutch (also called Flemish in Belgium) and German are the three official languages in Belgium. The majority of residents speak either French or Dutch and, while both communities are traditionally from specific geographic regions, they coexist through much of the country, especially in Brussels. Expats doing business in Belgium shouldn't assume, however, that the cultures of these different regions are interchangeable, as Belgian businesspeople will take offence to that.
It is very common for Belgians to be multilingual, especially when it comes to being able to speak French and Dutch. Depending on where they will be working in Belgium, expats may encounter language switching, while negotiations between businesspeople from different communities might also take place in English.
Expats will need to be subtle and diplomatic in their business dealings. It would be a good idea to find out which language their associates are most comfortable speaking before they meet – some Belgians take great pride in which community they belong to and might be offended if they are spoken to in the wrong language.
When in doubt, English is usually a good neutral option (but it should not be assumed that someone can speak it).
Flemish business culture tends to follow a model similar to an egalitarian, hard-working German and Dutch style and businesses tend to be organised horizontally, while Belgian-French business culture is similar to that of France, where businesses are structured according to strict hierarchy, and where job titles and rank are very important. Generally, the Walloon economy is considered to be less productive than its Flemish counterpart.
If someone is unsure which language community a business belongs to, this can generally be judged based on the initials after the company name – NV or BVBA indicates Flemish, while SA or SPRL are French business acronyms.
A trait shared by all business cultures in Belgium is an insistence on compromise, even when it doesn’t significantly benefit either party. Belgian businesspeople see meeting halfway as a willingness to work together.
This expectation is mirrored in the strong union culture in Belgium, which creates many demands on businesses; a point expats should prepare for if they intend to start their own business.
Business meetings in Belgium are conducted formally. Participants are expected to arrive punctually, and the meeting should be structured and efficient. Formal titles are generally used in Belgian business with German and Flemish speakers more likely to use English titles (Mr, Mrs or Miss), while French speakers are more likely to use Monsieur, Madame or Mademoiselle.
Dos and don’ts of business in Belgium
Do be willing to compromise as it is a quintessentially Belgian value
Don’t be late. Punctuality is important, and lateness is frowned upon.
Do dress well. Belgian businesspeople tend to be stylish.
Don’t discuss personal matters or the cultural divisions in Belgium