When you think of Italy no doubt you would think of these three things; pizza, pasta, and coffee.

 

Or maybe you think of famiglia, Fiat, Ferrari, Gucci, Leonardo Da Vinci? There are no bounds to Italy’s exports – even its food is considered the most popular cuisine in the world. But do you know much about its corporate culture? If not, don’t worry, our Italian colleagues at Polyglot have given their invaluable insight into the country that ranks top for global cultural influence

In Italy do as the Italians do. 

 

1. Dress

Dress is formal and conservative in Italy. Women typically wear dark coloured suits with heels, understated makeup and minimal jewellery. Men also wear dark coloured suits and closed in shoes. This implied dress code applies irrespective of season. And remember this is the country of fashion so choose your clothes carefully and get informed about the unwritten rules if you really want to make a good impression. 

 

The Italy Workplace Fashion Commandments state:

For men:

– Thou shalt not wear white socks or sandals and certainly not both together

For women:

– Thou shalt take care in stocking selections (leave the beige stockings at home, wear black instead)

 

2. Hours

Italians usually arrive at the office around 9 and won’t leave until at least 6 to 6:30. Thankfully though they do have their lunch and coffee breaks. With a hierarchical workplace structure, if you’re at an entry level, forget about leaving on time, as you will be in the office until your manager is around. But don’t worry, you will be still on time for a great “aperitivo” with your colleagues (spritz and wine glasses could cost you between 3-5 Euros).

 

 

3. Lunch

Similar to France, Italy has a generous lunch situation. You either have a workplace canteen or a ‘ticket’ (like a voucher) which you can spend at restaurants or supermarkets. The vouchers typically range from 8 – 11 euros. Lunch is a clear break from work and can range from one to two hours, depending on your company and region. Lunch is a proper meal – no sandwiches here. For the canteen, it’s heavily subsidised and you may pay a euro or two for a plate of food. 

 

4. Hierarchy

Hierarchy is important in Italian culture. Not just in family structures but also within a business. Hierarchy is based on age, position and experience. In an Italian business it’s normal for subordinates to not see their CEO or boss in casual encounters. There are distinct lines in the organisational chart that are rarely, if ever, altered. Understanding these distinctions is key to not causing offence to your Italian counterparts.

This is reflected also in the language: Italian has two speaking levels, formal and informal. For example, if you’re learning Italian you’ve most certainly come across the phrase “ciao come stai?”, this is an informal expression. Even if it’s the only Italian phrase you have learned, do not under any circumstance use it with your CEO. It’d be the equivalent of saying “Hey, what’s up?”.  Use it at your own peril. 

 

5. Handshake

The importance of a handshake is not to be underestimated in Italy. While a resume is a hirer’s first impression of your suitability for the role – a handshake is indicative of your personality. A strong handshake would communicate to your Italian colleagues that you are confident, a weak handshake, the opposite. Be sure to look directly in the eye of the person you are shaking your hands with.

 

6. It's Who You Know: The Power of Networking

Trust is a core element of business in Italy. Therefore, business relationships and even jobs are highly influenced by who you know. With relationships being so important in Italian culture a recommendation from an acquaintance is going to weigh more than as a stranger. So if you want to set up a meeting, it would be advantageous for you to establish relationships in the industry to help you build trust within the community. 

Saluti (Cheers)

A small tip: food is always a good way to bring Italians together. If you want to get on the good side of your colleagues or clients, organise an aperitivo or a dinner with them. It’s also the best way to meet new people!

 

7. High Context Culture

Italy has a high context culture. What that means is, subtleties and non-verbal cues are what drives the conversation and relationship, rather than straight-to-the-point verbal communication (like in Australia). To give off a positive impression to your Italian counterparts, you should be mindful about the way you not just present yourself in regards to fashion, but also your posture, your eye-contact and any other visual cues you transmit. 

This is especially important to know as it underpins many of the other points illustrated in this article. Whether it be the handshake or your attire. While words are important, what you give off visually plays a significant role in fostering trust and building relationships. 

 

8. Coffee

If you can’t find your Italian colleagues at their desk most likely you will find them at the office coffee vending machine! On your first day you should receive a magnetic key that you can load money onto at the machine. Then when you get that inevitable coffee urge you can waltz up to the machine, tap your key and presto your coffee will be made. Usually the coffee breaks are before starting work, then sometime around 11am, at lunch and at around 4pm. 

The coffee break is an opportune time to bond with your employees. It’s a reprieve from the desk, if you will. As hard workers, for Italians the coffee break is a time to just separate themselves from work for a few minutes. Be sure to not just drink your coffee and sit back down, revel in that time. 

 

9. Meetings

Meetings should be arranged a week or two in advance. It’s also general practice to send a brief agenda prior to the date. You should be on time (although, for the client they might be a bit late). Like France, you should avoid planning any meetings in August. This is peak travel time for workers and some businesses even shut down during this period. 

 

10. Business Lunch / Dinner

To establish a good relationship with Italians, you should invite them out to lunch or dinner. As mentioned, food is the best way to make Italians more comfortable. Sharing a meal is a great way to have an informal conversation that builds trust and familiarity with one another. The host should always pay for the meal, although the guest may offer – be sure to politely decline. If you are dining just with colleagues, the bill can be split. And always be careful with wine, you don’t want to be drunk with your manager – not very appropriate in the Italian corporate workplace.

 

Italy is a cultural mecca with rich history, delicious food, strong family values, incredible fashion and iconic brands. With a reputation for quality goods, Italy is an attractive place to do business in. Understanding the nuances of its work culture is essential to developing great partnerships. 

 

Acknowledgements

This article would not have been possible without our Italian colleagues invaluable insight. A big thank you to: Chiara Amato Polito, Elena Molteni, and Giulia Scanferlin.

 

About the Author:

Passionate for the written word you are always guaranteed to find Alex either hunched over a laptop with a coffee, reading a book, or writing in her notebook. Paper and post-it's cover her desk - just the way she likes it. She is a staunch advocate for physical books in the book vs e-book debate and won't be convinced otherwise. You would probably find Alex's Desk in the thesaurus as a synonym for Organised Chaos.
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