The Netherlands has a well-deserved reputation as a highly-organized society, embodying the principles of pluralism, social responsibility, and tolerance. It is what is called gedogen in Dutch, an untranslatable word that implies the ability to tolerate even exceptions to the rule. The Dutch society is a consensus-oriented society where everyone has his or her say. And they all know the value of their opinions, which they do not hesitate to give.
As an egalitarian society, the Dutch have a tendency to avoid displays of discernible wealth, whereby houses and clothes often seem ordinary and discreet to foreigners. Every person is equal and is treated accordingly, which is often difficult for foreigners to understand. This way of looking at things is also reflected in their work ethics and culture.
A CEO of a company pouring his own coffee, and general managers talking to the cleaning lady is nothing if normal in the Netherlands. People are equally treated with respect, and no one is simply bossed around and given orders without a proper explanation as to why. The Dutch tend to consider the risks and consequences of anything they do by acquiring very detailed information in advance. If something goes wrong, however, a Dutch person is willing to take full responsibility for the consequences. The same applies for the alternative – if one succeeds, he or she will take the full credit.
Another difference from most societies is that the client is not always right. Whereas clients often take advantage of their higher status and preferential position over the sales personnel, the sales person openly disagrees and criticizes their client in the Netherlands. This often results in a culture shock with foreigners, who leave with the impression that the Dutch are not quite service-minded people.
The Netherlands is low on masculinity and high on femininity with respect to the power distance in the working environment. This means that one can give their opinion even if they are on the lower rungs of the hierarchy. One can disagree with the boss, even in the presence of other employees. The best way to illustrate this is by the following example: it is often a common sight in hospitals around the world to see employees with the same profession or status eating together, for instance, doctors would eat with doctors. Nonetheless, in the Dutch hospital, the whole ward eats together - the boss, the healthcare staff, the interns, and the secretary. It is considered natural to interact on a personal level with everyone, not just those with the same job status as yourself.
But what can an expat expect when working with Dutch colleagues?
The Dutch are often described as direct to the point where one could think they are actually rude. They do not mince words or beat around the bush. Instead, they say it straight up and direct, whether it is feedback from your manager or saying ‘no’ when you ask someone for a favor. They will often criticize your work indifferent of your. In return, they expect you to do the same. This means that if you detect mistakes in their work and you do not inform them about it, they might be disappointed with you. However, keep in mind that some expatriates have reported that being direct with the Dutch does not always sit well.
The Dutch are famous to Americans for the many hours a week they spend in meetings, or explaining to their subordinates why they give them a certain order. As was already mentioned, they like to consider all risks when committing to something, and they tend to be careful when it comes to decision-making. This process is rather complex. In a meeting, everyone involved is given their turn and is heard. In the end, a compromise on which everyone can agree will be made. Once the details are agreed upon, the work can begin. Thus, changes and decisions are usually lengthy processes. So, if you want to do something important - relax and take your time with careful consideration.
Keep It Simple
One of the first things foreigners often notice when working for a Dutch company is the plain, simple language people use when communicating with each other at work. The Dutch have an appreciation for plain speaking over subtlety, diplomacy and coded speech. This leads to less miscommunication in the Dutch business life.
Another point to keep in mind is that whenever you have something to do, get straight down to business. Most societies like to spend time on ‘chit chat’ and ‘getting to know you’, but the Dutch prefer to jump in and get the work down without the unnecessary opening conversations.
Know the Boundaries
The Dutch are firm on keeping business and private life separate. To them, work time is meant for work and nothing else, which could probably explain why they are efficient and well skilled in their professions. Of course, this leaves little time for socializing with colleagues, especially for you as an expat. Nevertheless, if you would like to create a social connection with your colleagues, you can visit one of the company drinks, also known as borrels. It is a good opportunity to establish the social connections you want.
Last but not least, do not take things personally. If a Dutch person disagrees with something you have suggested, it is not because of you or as a judgment of your character, it simply means they do not agree with your idea. They need evidence and convincing arguments when presented with new suggestions; so, instead of taking it personally, try to provide more convincing evidence the next time you have a good idea.
In summary, one of the main struggles expats typically experience while working for a Dutch company is the cultural difference. Being exposed to work ethics that differ significantly from the one you are used to could often result in a cultural shock. It would be useful to adopt the framework that if you do not understand something or you are not familiar with it, it does not mean that it is not natural, civilized or right. If you would like to feel embraced by your Dutch colleagues and employer, accept that you are working in an egalitarian environment that strives for consensus. Accept the fact that you may have a different cultural background and allow yourself the time to adapt.
Good luck and enjoy working in the Netherlands!