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Working in the US

Office Etiquette for Expats in the US

Have you succeeded in finding a new job in the United States? Congratulations! Before you embark on your expat career, though, you should learn more about work culture in the US. Our guide provides a handy overview of etiquette, e.g. introductions, business lunch, meetings, working hours, time management, and more.

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In the previous part of our short introduction to US business culture, we have already mentioned how important “selling yourself” is. Due to the general competitiveness in the corporate world, it is essential to establish yourself as a “brand”, so to speak.

Work Ethic and Time Management

You should demonstrate a “can-do” attitude and a strong work ethic. How does this work in practice?

The US is a fairly work-centric culture in many respects. The drive for efficiency and productivity is definitely noticeable with regard to time management and punctuality.

So, you should always make sure to be on time, or even better, a few minutes early. Moreover, putting in extra hours or being “on call” during your vacation time is by no means unusual.

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Business Meals

If there’s a scheduled meal instead of a meeting, expect the conversation to be plenty of work-related “shop talk” as well. Business dinners or after-work drinks can be the exception to the rule, though: They are often dedicated to socializing and getting to know each other a little better.

An aside on business meals: If the company doesn’t pick up the tab, don’t forget to tip your waiter generously. A tip of 15-20% of the price is standard in the United States.

Moreover, restaurants and bars normally have very strict non-smoking laws, just like corporate offices, so you should excuse yourself and go outside before you light up. As far as alcohol consumption is concerned, you’d better wait and see what other people order. Just go for soft drinks if you want to play it safe.

Casual Invitations and Gift Giving

In the US, it is very common to be invited to dinner or a casual get-together: not only by friends and neighbors, but also by colleagues or your boss. Even though you don’t need to abide by any dress codes for these casual invitations, you should, of course, try to be on your best behavior and show up on time. You will soon find out that Americans extend invitations very quickly. Friends or neighbors will tell you to come over any time if you need anything. This is not to be taken literally, though. In any case, you should call beforehand to find out if it is a convenient time.

Remember to bring a small gift for your host, like a nice bottle of wine, candy, or flowers. If you choose flowers, be careful not to pick roses. No matter how beautiful they are, roses (and especially red roses) have a rather romantic meaning and may therefore not be appropriate.

Professional Attitude and Team Spirit

In addition to proving your work ethic, you should show that you are committed to professionalism. For example, taking the initiative, being pro-active and making suggestions for improvement is a significant part of this. Good customer service or a smooth relationship with business clients is another, so this is one more occasion to remain friendly, patient, and eager to find a solution that works for everyone.

While customer relationships can be summed up with the mantra “the customer is king”, you should also prove your team spirit within the company. Participate actively in discussions, meetings, and “brainstorming” sessions, and remember to acknowledge the contributions of others. While it’s a good thing to be personally ambitious, “backstabbing” or gossiping will soon earn you a bad reputation.

Resolving Conflicts

If you want to address a problem at work, the usual way to go about this is to talk in private with the respective co-worker first. It is okay to criticize a specific kind of behavior (e.g. “unfortunately, there’s always a delay when you should send me the data I need, and I can’t finish my project on time”). However, criticizing a person is regarded as a lapse of professionalism (“you are lazy and unreliable”).

Only if this conversation doesn’t solve the issue should you approach your boss. HR will get involved for mediation or other measures if this isn’t helpful, either. One tip: leave a “paper trail” (i.e. written documents, for example, in the form of emails) in order to prove that you tried to find a solution and did so in a reasonable manner.

Following Office Etiquette

The last key aspect of “being a team player” is following general office etiquette. Again, this highly differs from company to company, and you will work out the gist of it soon.

For instance, in a large office with lots of cubicles, it’s impolite to talk so loudly that it will disturb your “next-door” neighbor, or to bring strong-smelling food for lunch, so they’ll enjoy your fried fish vicariously. In an open-plan office with an “open-door policy”, it would seem rude to close your door unless you are on the phone or in a confidential meeting, etc.

Management Style and Leadership

Expats in a supervisory or executive position may have to get used to a slightly different management style. While US business culture often appears rather informal and relaxed, it is not egalitarian. There is a distinct chain of command with regard to decision-making, and it will be your turn to make these decisions. Furthermore, while they may have the last word in many matters, most managers seek some form of input from their team, or take the time to explain the reasoning behind their decisions.

However, to establish yourself as a leader, you have to build a rapport with your team first and convince them that you are the right person for the job. University education, formal qualifications, references, and academic titles aren’t always considered ultimate proof. You should first and foremost demonstrate your expertise and abilities hands-on, thus setting an example for your employees.

You can also provide incentives, e.g. financial bonuses, or praise those employees who do a particularly good job. Oftentimes, you will need to participate in an established review process to judge each employee’s performance. All this should meet the unspoken assumption that putting in extra effort is not only expected, but also rewarded in the end.

Diversity and Equality

One last piece of advice: The United States is obviously famous for being an incredibly diverse society. Depending on where you live, this will probably show in your work environment as well

Not only should you take care to treat everyone equally and refrain from disparaging remarks. Sexual innuendo, as well as all kinds of potentially offensive humor that makes of fun of specific ethnic, religious, etc. groups, should be off-limits too.

First of all, this is a matter of basic decency and common courtesy. But what is more, depending on the specific situation, it might also open up you or your company to lawsuits on the grounds of harassment or discrimination. Litigation is probably an expat experience you could do without. 

Updated on: December 06, 2018
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