Managing in Italy
Working in a Culturally Rich Country
Italy is one of the world's most-visited countries. It combines scenic countryside with beautiful towns and cities, and it boasts a cultural landscape rich in art, architecture, archaeology, fashion, literature, and, of course, world-class cuisine.
If you've been asked to work in Italy, or if you're going to lead an Italian team remotely, there's a lot that you'll have to learn to fit in with this unique and sophisticated culture.
In this article, we'll look at what you need to know to live and work successfully in Italy.
This article is intended as a general guide for those who work in Italy. In the last few decades, Italy has experienced a dramatic increase in immigration, which means that you may work with a diverse team. Take each person's personality, culture and needs into account, and always use your best judgment.
Italian Life and Culture
When people think of Italy, they'll often think about the country's rich cultural heritage, and with good reason. The United Nations estimates that more than half of the world's cultural treasures are located in Italy. A walk through Rome, Milan, Florence, or Venice takes you through thousands of years of architecture, history and art.
Italian is the country's official language, but many people speak a regional dialect as their first language. In larger cities, most businesspeople speak English, but you'll make a good first impression if you learn at least some Italian before you arrive.
The majority of Italians are Roman Catholic, and the Church has an important and deeply rooted influence within the country. The Vatican, located in Rome, is its own city-state, and there are more Catholic churches in Italy than in any other country in the world.
Although the Church's influence has lessened somewhat in recent decades, it's still an important part of most Italians' lives. Many people celebrate religious holidays, and religion and family values dominate Italian culture.
In Italy, there are significant differences in culture and attitudes between the north and south of the country. Northern Italy is more industrialized, with many urban areas, and attitudes are generally more liberal and open. In the more rural South, however, conservative beliefs and attitudes are predominant, and relationships are essential to business. Here, it's more likely that families will live together in one household, rather than separately, which is more common in the North.
Italy is surrounded by the Ionian, Tyrrhenian, and Adriatic Seas, and it has approximately 7500km of coastline.
Employment law in Italy is complex and rigid, and it often favors the employee over the organization. Until recently, this meant that it was difficult for companies to downsize, even in times of economic difficulty.
Even today, in some cases, it can take up to three years to fire employees who under-perform. These employees often file lawsuits, and judges frequently reinstate their jobs. And, throughout the layoff, employers must pay employees their full salary.
Since the global recession of 2009, Italy has made some important strides in labor reform. Although the 2012 reforms didn't go as far as many people had hoped, it is now easier for organizations to downsize, as long as they provide proof that it is necessary.
All Italians have the right to join a labor or trade union, even if they work for a non-unionized organization. When you write a new employee's contract, you may need to negotiate with their union when you set their salaries and benefits.
People at many Italian organizations start work at 8:30 a.m. and finish at 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Team members will often take lunch together, and many companies provide staff canteens, with meals paid for by the organization.
Holidays and Vacation
Most workers receive at least 31 days' vacation each year (20 vacation days mandated by the EU, and 11 public holidays).
The dates for Italy's public holidays are as follows:
- New Year's Day – January 1.
- Epiphany – January 6.
- Easter Monday – Date changes each year (March 28 in 2016 and April 17 in 2017.)
- Liberation Day – April 25.
- International Workers' Day – May 1.
- Republic Day – June 2.
- Assumption Day – August 15.
- All Saints' Day – November 1.
- Immaculate Conception – December 8.
- Christmas Day – December 25.
- St. Stephen's Day – December 26.
As well as these official public holidays, cities and towns celebrate other religious holidays, such as saints' days. For example, Rome celebrates Saint Peter and Saint Paul Day on June 29, while Milan celebrates Saint Ambrose Day on December 7.
For an official list of holidays, visit the Italian government's website. You should also check with your organization to see which regional celebrations it observes.
Many organizations and businesses close for an extended period in the summer. Avoid scheduling any appointments during this time, as many professionals will be away on vacation.
Also, avoid booking meetings or appointments around a holiday. If a holiday falls on a Tuesday or Thursday, many Italians will take the day off before or after to create a four-day weekend.
How to Get the Best From Your Team
In comparison with people in many other countries, Italian team members are likely to feel uncomfortable in risky or ambiguous situations. To overcome this high "uncertainty avoidance," ensure that your proposals, ideas, or suggestions are backed up with carefully-checked facts, logic, and statistics.
Give your team members extra time to plan the details of a project or task; this time will help them reduce the number of unknowns, and allow them to feel more comfortable. You might also want to use tools such as Risk Analysis, Contingency Planning, or Scenario Analysis with them to explore risks and uncertainties further.
Next, take steps to build team camaraderie. In Italy, hierarchy is observed and is highly respected. Because of this, you may find that managers don't often socialize with their team members. So, get to know your team members and build trust during the work day. Pay attention to your organization's hierarchy, and recognize that your team members will likely show you a great deal of respect.
In Italian organizations, rules are often simply viewed as guidelines, not as strict regulations. Give team members the freedom they need to make their own decisions, and, where appropriate, let them decide how to complete their own tasks.
Where you can, avoid contacting your team members by phone, text, or instant message; instead, walk to their office for a quick chat. This face-to-face time will encourage good work relationships, and it will help you build trust with your team.
Keep in mind that many Italians are not afraid to express their emotions, even at work. So, it can be common for meetings and negotiations to turn into heated debates. Give your team members the time and freedom they need to express their emotions and ideas. This constructive conflict will help them work effectively and build strong relationships.
If you open up and share your emotions, you will build trust and develop bonds with your team. Although it's acceptable to show your true emotions in Italy, take steps to manage your emotions, and practice physical relaxation techniques if you feel that you need to calm down.
Because Italy's immigration rate has risen dramatically in recent years, there's a good chance that you'll work with a diverse team. So, take time to develop your cultural intelligence. You can use tools such as the Seven Dimensions of Culture and Wibbeke's Geoleadership Model to learn how to work effectively with a culturally diverse group.
Etiquette and Dress
When leading an Italian team, your appearance, manners, and character are critical. Together, these are known as "bella figura," which literally translates as "the beautiful figure." This is an important part of Italian culture, especially in the South, and it refers to your dress, character, charisma, tact, confidence, style, and grace – not just your appearance.
First impressions matter in Italy, which is why it's important that your appearance, dress, and manners are impeccable. Pay attention to how native Italians demonstrate their own "bella figura." For example, a team member might recommend the perfect restaurant for your family, or a dinner host might set a beautifully presented table. These small details speak volumes about each person's commitment to, and awareness of, "bella figura," and it demonstrates their intense passion for life and beauty.
Many Italians are knowledgeable in art, sports, music, wine, history, food, and literature. They enjoy discussions about these topics, and they will appreciate your ability to contribute intelligently to the dialogue. You will impress your team members, colleagues, and business associates if you demonstrate your skills as an educated and thoughtful conversationalist.
Brush up on Italian table etiquette, and demonstrate good manners whenever you're out in public. Discourtesy, rudeness, and insensitivity will damage your reputation.
As part of this, it's worth investing in quality, designer work attire. Women should wear modest, but elegant, skirts and formal shirts. Pay careful attention to your shoes, jewelry, make-up, and handbag. These accessories form part of your overall appearance, and quality matters.
Men should wear well-cut suits, with a colored or pinstriped dress shirt, and an Italian tie. High quality cuff links, tie clips, and a stylish watch will not go unnoticed. Never wear short-sleeved work shirts, even in hot weather.
- If an Italian team member invites you to their home for dinner, it's good manners to bring a gift. Hosts always appreciate flowers and fine chocolates. If you bring wine, make sure that it is an excellent vintage, and that you can talk about it confidently; many Italians are wine connoisseurs.
- When you meet a group of people, it's polite to shake hands with each person, including children. And, shake hands again when you leave.
- Always maintain eye contact when you speak with others. This gesture demonstrates your sincerity, and it shows that you're listening to what people have to say.
- Italian team members often call one-another by their formal title and surname. So, make sure that you address people in this way, until your team members ask you to use their first names.
- Most Italian organizations, and especially the government, are heavily bureaucratic. Because of this, decisions and changes are often slow to develop. Practice patience, and expect that any ideas or changes that you want to implement will take a considerable amount of time to progress through the proper channels.
- Although Italy has a reputation for "the good life," people take punctuality in business seriously. So, make sure that you arrive on time for appointments and meetings.
Italy is known for its art, history, culture, and cuisine, so take time to learn about these things when you're leading an Italian team. Many Italians are skilled conversationalists, and you'll make a positive first impression if you can talk intelligently about these topics.
To get the best from your Italian team members, do what you can to reduce their levels of uncertainty. Rely on logic, facts, and statistics to get your ideas across. Use tools with your team to analyze risk, and to come up with contingency plans in case something goes wrong.
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