Expats doing business in Belgium will find themselves operating in a diverse, globalised and open economy.
Those 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 Dutch are the official languages of business in Belgium. The language used will vary by location.
Hours of business
Office hours are usually Monday to Friday, 8.30am to 5.30pm.
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.
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's 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 10 percent of the country's population being foreign-born, Belgium's business culture is further diversified.
French, Dutch and German are the three official languages in Belgium. 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's 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, diplomatic and very patient in their business dealings. It would be a good idea to find out which language their associates are the most comfortable speaking before they meet. Some Belgians take great pride in their community and may be offended if they're spoken to in the wrong language, so sensitivity and understanding are paramount when dealing with language barriers. When in doubt, English is usually a good neutral option.
Fleming business culture tends to follow a model similar to an egalitarian, industrious German and Dutch style, and businesses tend to be organised horizontally. Belgian-French business culture resembles that of France, with a strict hierarchical structure and significant emphasis on job titles and rank.
A trait shared by all business cultures in Belgium is an insistence on compromise. 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. It is essential to address people with their appropriate formal titles and use formal language, at least until invited to do otherwise. German and Flemish speakers are 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 embrace compromise, as it reflects Belgian values
Don't arrive late; punctuality is crucial and highly valued
Do dress professionally and stylishly, as appearances matter in Belgian business culture
Don't bring up personal matters or discuss cultural divisions within Belgium during business conversations