Doing Business in Belgium
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Expats doing business in Belgium will find themselves operating in a diverse, globalised and open economy.
Belgium was ranked 52nd out of 190 countries in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Survey for 2018. The country ranked first in trading across borders and also scored well in criteria such as resolving insolvency (11th) and starting a business (16th).
Expats wanting to work in the country 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 per day.
Business attire is formal 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 the local business culture, and usually is done 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 and society.
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 Flemings. With a quarter of the population being foreign, Belgium's business culture is further diversified.
French, Dutch and German are the three official languages in Belgium. The majority of residents speak either French or Dutch. While both communities are traditionally from specific geographic regions, they coexist throughout much of the country. Expats doing business in Belgium shouldn't assume that the cultures of these different regions are interchangeable.
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 may be offended if they are spoken to in the wrong language.
When in doubt, English is usually a good neutral option.
Fleming business culture tends to follow a model similar to an egalitarian, hardworking 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 a strict hierarchy, and where job titles and rank are very important. Generally, the Walloon economy is considered to be less productive than its Fleming counterpart.
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. This is a point that expats should be prepared for if they intend to start their own business in the country.
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 with German and Flemish speakers more likely to use English titles, 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