Managing in Colombia

Making Working Relationships a Priority

Managing in Colombia - Making Working Relationships a Priority

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Colombia is a country on the rise, but what values are important in the Colombian workplace?

When you think of Colombia, you probably imagine tropical jungles, coffee plantations, and drug barons. However, the Colombian government's peace talks with the country's largest left-wing rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), has reduced violence in the country and ushered in a promising new era of prosperity. While it has had a legitimate reputation for danger, Colombia is beginning to transform itself into a reputable place to do business.

Colombia's economy continues to grow year on year, and is now the fourth largest in Latin America. With increased safety for its people and a growing middle class, the country has changed significantly in recent years and is now a safer place to live and work. The relaxed pace of life, the beautiful weather, and the laid-back friendliness of the Colombian people also contribute to its appeal.

In this article, we'll explore how to live and work successfully in Colombia, whether you're relocating there or managing a team remotely.


This article is intended as a general guide only. Consider each person's unique needs, and use your own best judgment when managing a Colombian team.

About Colombia

Colombia is a large country of 439,733 square miles, on the northwest corner of South America. It borders Panama, Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru, and has coasts on the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. The high-altitude capital city, Bogotá, is located in the center of the country. Colombia's geography is diverse, and includes mountainous urban centers, the Amazon rainforest, tropical grasslands, and coastal areas. It is the third biggest country in Latin America, with an estimated population of 48 million people.

Colombia is a large country of 439,733 square miles, on the northwest corner of South America. It borders Panama, Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru, and has coasts on the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.

Colombia was originally inhabited by indigenous peoples, until the Spanish conquered it in 1499. It won its independence from Spain in 1819, and became the Republic of Colombia in 1886. It remains an ethnically diverse country, with people descending from indigenous groups, Spanish colonists, African slaves, and European and Middle Eastern immigrants, who have all influenced its culture. There are more than 70 languages spoken here, but the official one is Spanish.

Religion is an important part of Colombian culture, and the church is often central to community and family life. Most Colombians are Roman Catholic and celebrate many religious holidays.


Most Colombians do not speak English. You will need to learn Spanish to work and live here. There are some differences between Latin American Spanish and the Spanish spoken in Spain, but they are minor, and speakers from one country will easily understand those of another.

Useful Phrases

English Spanish Phonetic
Hello Hola Oh-lah
Thank you Gracias Grah-see-ahs
Please Por favor Por fah-bor
Where? ¿Dónde? DOHN-deh
What is your name? Cómo te llamas? Koh-moh tay yah-mahs
How do you say in Spanish? Cómo se dice en español? Koh-moh seh dee-seh en eh-spahn-yol
How do you say in English? Cómo se dice en inglés? Koh-moh seh dee-seh en een-GLEHS?
I am sorry Lo siento Loh see-ehn-toh
Where is the restroom? ¿Dónde esta el bano? DOHN-deh ehss-TAH EHL BAH-nyoh?
Can you help me? ¿Puede ayudarme? Pweh-deh ah-yoo-dar-meh
I don't understand No entiendo Noh ehn-tyen-doh

Working Hours and Bonuses

People in Colombia typically work eight hours per day, for a maximum of six days or 48 hours per week. They can work up to 12 hours of overtime every week, provided they receive authorization from the government and have a rest day on Saturday.

Employees are entitled to a yearly service bonus (semestral bonus), which is equivalent to a month's salary. This is paid to the employee in two halves, usually in June and December.

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Working Parents

Allowances for working parents are quite limited in Colombia compared to, say, the U.K., but are better than what is usually available in the U.S.A., where allowances vary widely depending on a company's size and policies.

In Colombia, working women are entitled to 14 weeks' maternity leave, with additional weeks granted for multiple and/or premature births. Provided all the requirements are met, the General Health Social Security System (Sistema General de Seguridad Social) must pay 100 percent salary during the maternity leave.

Fathers are entitled to eight working days of paid paternity leave (covered by their health insurance companies). However, if the father is a child's sole carer, he is entitled to the same period of leave as would have been awarded to the mother.


Colombians are entitled to 15 days' vacation annually, but they also enjoy a large number of public holidays, many of which are religious occasions.

The following is a list of the Colombian public holidays and the dates on which the public will observe them in 2016 and 2017. Some of these dates are fixed, such as New Year's Day, but some have been moved to the following Monday to make a three-day weekend. For example, in 2015, Saint Joseph's Day fell on March 19; however, because this was a Thursday, the public holiday was moved to Monday, March 23.

  • New Year's Day – January 1.
  • Epiphany – Celebrated on the Monday after January 6, if January 6 does not fall on a Monday (January 8 in 2018).
  • Monday of Carnival (Barranquilla only) – This four-day carnival begins on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday, but the first public holiday for it falls on the Monday after this weekend (February 12 in 2018).
  • Tuesday of Carnival (Barranquilla only) – Date changes each year (February 13 in 2018).
  • Saint Joseph's Day – Celebrated on the Monday after March 19, if March 19 is not a Monday (March 19 in 2018).
  • Palm Sunday – Celebrated on the Sunday before Easter Sunday (March 25 in 2018).
  • Maundy Thursday – Date changes each year (March 29 in 2018).
  • Good Friday – Date changes each year (March 30 in 2018).
  • Easter Sunday – Date changes each year (April 1 in 2018).
  • Labor Day – May 1.
  • Ascension of Christ – 40 days after Easter (May 14 in 2018).
  • Corpus Christi – Second Thursday after Whitsun (June 4 in 2018).
  • Sacred Heart – Ten weeks and a day after Easter Sunday (June 11 in 2018).
  • Saint Peter and Saint Paul – Monday on or after June 29 (July 2 in 2018).
  • Declaration of Independence – July 20.
  • Battle of Boyacá – August 7.
  • Assumption of Mary – Monday on or after August 15 (August 20 in 2018).
  • Columbus Day – Date changes each year (October 15 in 2018).
  • All Saints' Day – Monday on or after November 1 (November 5 in 2018).
  • Independence of Cartagena – Monday on or after November 11 (November 12 in 2018).
  • Immaculate Conception – December 8.
  • Christmas Day – December 25.

How to Get the Best From Your Team

Close relationships are essential to Colombians, in both their personal and their professional lives. In countries like the U.S.A., and the U.K., people tend to conduct business more formally, so the informal attitudes of people in Colombia may be unfamiliar. Here are a few tips to help you get the most out of your new team.

Keep it relaxed. Colombians tend to be flexible and laid-back, even at work. They don't like to rush and they are often late for appointments, but you shouldn't interpret this as laziness or rudeness. Similarly, schedules often change and remain unconfirmed until the last minute. People may not show up to social functions, even if they have confirmed that they will.

The midday break, or siesta, is the traditional way of beating the heat between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Again, don't mistake this for idleness. Colombians often start work early and continue into the evening after having taken their siesta.

Make a connection. When you first meet people in Colombia, give them a kiss on the cheek and start talking informally. You might discuss friends, family and hobbies for half an hour before starting work. It's important to get to know people before you work with them. Colombians' frequent social interaction often blurs the line between work and personal life. It's quite common for business meetings to take place over lunch or breakfast, which provides a good opportunity to get to know people better.

Colombians tend to communicate subtly and indirectly, and they often use body language to express themselves. They also tend to be comfortable with getting physically close to their friends, family and colleagues. They are not afraid of showing their feelings, but don't confuse this with aggression.

Be a strong leader. Colombians have a high respect for authority and expect the most senior person at home or at work to make the decisions, although leadership styles are slowly becoming more inclusive.

Despite the importance of developing rapport with others, Colombia is a hierarchical society. This means that, as manager, your team will look to you for control, passion for ideas, and confidence. How you conduct yourself will impact your team's performance and will help them manage any workplace anxiety, uncertainty and stress. Team building and group goals are also more important here than personal goals and individual performance.

Conflict and Safety

Since the 1960s, there has been armed conflict in Colombia between the government, left-wing guerrilla groups, and right-wing paramilitary bands. This is largely due to illegal drug trafficking. The problems escalated during the 1990s but have since improved, thanks to peace talks between those involved. The government created a new constitution in 1991 and, since 2002, Colombia has seen a number of improvements, including decreased violence, reduced cocaine production, and demobilization of some of the paramilitary groups (although there has been a rise in criminal activity).

There were more than 3,000 kidnappings in Colombia in 2003, but the number has fallen by over 86 percent since then, according to the U.S. State Department. The number of homicides has also decreased by over 35 percent in the same period.

However, Colombia is still a place of turmoil and remains risky for foreigners, especially employees of international oil and mining companies. Corruption and extortion is increasing, as it is across South America, and prostitution and trafficking remain significant problems. Travelers also need to be aware of pick-pocketing, armed robbery and theft.


This report, written by Kyra Gurney for InSight Crime, describes how the Colombian government's new measures to combat some of these problems are impacting the country's organized crime.

Additional Guidance

  • Transportation. Most people travel by bus or air in Colombia. While buses are cheaper, foreigners should fly between cities to avoid the rural areas and jungles that harbor drug cartels. Driving is also considered dangerous, as Colombians can be aggressive and erratic drivers, and often ignore traffic lights. Donkeys, bicycles, pedestrians, and cars share the roads, which also makes city travel chaotic.
  • Greeting. Always use people's titles until they invite you to use their first names. It's also courteous to shake hands, make eye contact, and smile when you meet and depart. It is considered acceptable for a man to kiss a woman on the cheek once they have met a number of times. This process of handshaking and kissing will also involve friendly small talk and may take a while, so leave extra time in your schedule for these rituals.
  • Business cards. Colombians treat business cards with respect. Include any university degrees or professional qualifications on yours, and be sure to translate one side of it into Spanish.
  • Business meetings. Expect meetings to vary from their agenda, which is usually only a general guideline. It's more important to establish trusting relationships than to emphasize your point. Similarly, meetings can run longer than anticipated, so make sure you leave plenty of time for them.
  • Communication. When dealing with sensitive issues, avoid speaking directly and openly, as this may cause offense. Colombians prefer a more subtle and relaxed approach, and often say more with body language than they are prepared to verbally. It will be up to you to "read between the lines," using their non-verbal cues. It's also wise to avoid any situation where your colleague may "lose face." Putting someone in an awkward situation in the presence of their team members, or managing them in a confrontational style, will damage your relationships and impact your professional success.
  • Gifts. Gifts, such as traditional offerings of flowers or spirits, are usually expected and appreciated. Avoid lilies or marigolds, though, as they are often used at funerals.
  • Dress code. Formal business attire is the norm for both men and women working in Colombian cities, although the dress code is more casual in smaller towns. Despite the relaxed and informal attitudes, however, it's best to dress conservatively at work.
  • Dining. Colombians' approach to eating is communal and they enjoy sharing food. At the same time, etiquette is relatively formal. Always wait to be seated and for the host to begin the meal. Colombians always use a knife and fork, even to eat fruit. If you are hosting a party, a social gathering, or a meeting at work, don't forget to offer everyone a cup of Colombian coffee!


For more information on adapting to a new cultural setting, see our article, Cultural Intelligence.

Key Points

Colombia has changed dramatically in recent years. Since the government engaged in peace talks with rebel groups, the level of violence there has reduced. Nevertheless, it can still be a dangerous place. It is important to be aware of your surroundings and take precautions at all times.

Colombians are a friendly, easy-going and family-oriented people, who enjoy celebrating their cultural heritage. Socializing is a key component of living and working in Colombia, so it's important to relax and enjoy any opportunities to get to know your colleagues. By focusing on building your relationships, keeping meetings and schedules relaxed, and providing strong leadership, you can develop a loyal and hardworking team.