Doing Business in the United Kingdom

Although no longer in the driver's seat of a worldwide empire, Great Britain is nonetheless a major global economic power and many expats are interested in doing business in the UK.

Each of the sovereign state's four countries – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – retain their own unique characteristics, but when it comes to the working world, practices, etiquette and culture are fairly standardised as all are governed by a uniform respect for politeness and courtesy.

While the business world remains traditional in essence, the UK has become a thriving multicultural environment, and expats will find little ill-will directed toward enterprising foreigners.

The World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Survey for 2016 ranked the UK 6th out of 189 economies. The country scored particularly well in getting credit, protecting minority investiors and starting a business. The UK’s position as a popular place to do business is a clear result of its long-established political and economic stability, sound infrastructure and a highly-skilled workforce.


Fast facts

Business hours

Usually 9am to 5pm, Mondays to Fridays. Outside the private sector, employees will often work much longer hours.

Business language

English

Dress

Business dress depends on the industry, but for most it's conservative and formal, with both men and women wearing dark suits (pant suits are acceptable). Media companies tend to be an exception, with much more relaxed dress codes. Since the end of the dot com boom and the start of the recession, the dress-down Fridays phenomenon has abated.

Greetings

A firm handshake is the best way to greet business contacts. It is best to address senior business colleagues using their formal title until directed otherwise.

Gifts

Not expected, and borderline inappropriate. A round of drinks, on the other hand, is happily received.

Gender equality

The UK is fully equal, with women making up nearly half of the workforce and assuming more managerial positions than in most European countries.


Business culture in the UK

Key to successfully doing business in the UK is being able to read between the lines. While code-breaking skills aren't absolutely necessary, deciphering the difference between what a person says and what they actually mean could take some practice.

Communication style 

The British are a reserved lot who pride themselves on good behaviour and good manners, although good breeding is no longer as important as it used to be. As a result, business dealings are incredibly diplomatic, with maximum effort directed at remaining considerate and civil. These fundamentals manifest in a restrained communication style, where directness is avoided and evasive, cryptic and often humorous statements are substituted for what is actually meant.

Expats will need to become adept at understanding the subtleties of conversation, where tone and facial expression may be key indicators of true meaning and humour is used as a defence mechanism or to mediate difficult situations.

Individualism

Individualism is highly-valued in Britain, and expats should anticipate working among colleagues who are competitive and ambitious. Experience and performance are the foundations for advancement in the working world, and those in management positions tend to be well-rounded.

Business hierarchy

A traditional hierarchy is still important in UK business even though it's moved towards a more egalitarian approach, where positions parallel each other rather than exist below or above one another. As a result, duties and responsibilities can sometimes be unclear; which can be a point of frustration for those expats accustomed to explicit directives and cultures of subordination.

Appropriate dress

The British business sphere is still very formal. Dress is conservative, punctuality is paramount, and outward displays of emotion are viewed with distaste.


Dos and don'ts of business in the UK

  • Don't underestimate the importance of polite requests. Specific instructions are often couched in a subtle ask.

  • Do use humour in the workplace. The British respect wit and irony, and often use these tactics to form relationships and to mediate difficult situations.

  • Don't ask colleagues or clients personal questions. The British are reserved and private and view this as intrusive and rude.

  • Do be on time. The British are punctual and tardiness is considered discourteous. If lateness can't be avoided, it's necessary to inform the relevant party ahead of time.