Managing in Switzerland

Working in a Conservative Culture

Managing in Switzerland - Working in a Conservative Culture

© iStockphoto

What's the most effective way to manage in this conservative country?

Switzerland is best known for its chocolate, cheese and designer watches. But it's also a fascinating mixture of German, French, Italian, and Romansh cultures – a product of their shared histories and common values – set within a picturesque Alpine environment.

Switzerland is the wealthiest country in the world. In 2017, the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report showed that it had the highest average wealth per adult.

It's a highly desirable place to live and work, with a high standard of living, a healthy population, and beautiful scenery. In this article, we'll explore how to live and work successfully in Switzerland, whether you're relocating or managing a team remotely.

About Switzerland

Switzerland is a country in Western Europe with an area of 15,940 square miles. It's bordered by Italy to the south, France to the west, Germany to the north, and Austria and Liechtenstein to the east.

Switzerland is surrounded by Italy, France, Germany, Austria, and Liechtenstein.

It consists of 26 states, or "cantons." There are four main cultural regions and languages, which are German (65 percent of the population), French (18 percent), Italian (10 percent), and Romansh (1 percent). Romansh is spoken predominantly in the southeastern canton of Graubünden. In 2014, 23 percent of the population were from other countries, mainly Italy.

Switzerland's landscape is divided between the Alps, the Swiss Plateau, and the Jura Mountains. The Alps take up the largest area of land, but the majority of Switzerland's eight million people live on the Plateau, which includes its largest cities, Zürich, Geneva and the capital, Bern.

The country is well known for its history of being neutral during conflict, and it hasn't been at war since the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815. It maintains an active foreign policy and is involved in peace-building work around the world. It's also the birthplace of the International Red Cross and a founding member of the European Free Trade Association. It's not a member of the European Union, and its currency is the Swiss Franc.

Switzerland has no official religion, but most of the cantons recognize the Catholic and Swiss Reformed churches.

Useful Phrases

The four national languages of Switzerland are German, French, Italian, and Romansh. Swiss languages differ from the standard versions, but they're similar enough to be understood. They can also vary depending on your location.

It's a good idea to know a few key phrases in each of the standard languages, but to be prepared for differences in dialect.

English German French Italian Romansh
Hello Grüetzi (groo-et-see) Salut (sah-lew) Ciao (chow) Allegra (ah leg-rah)
Goodbye Auf Wiedersehen (ouf vee-duhr-zey-uhn) Au revoir (oh-reh-vwahr) Arrivederci (ahr/ree/veh/DEHR/tchee) A revair (ahr ree-VIRE)
Good morning Guten Morgen (goo-tehn mor-gen) Bonjour (bohn/zhoor) Buon giorno (bwohn/DJOHR/noh) Bun di (boon-dee)
Good night Gute Nacht (goo-teh nah-cht) Bonne nuit (bohn NWEE) Buona notte (bwaw-nah nawt-te) Buna notg (boon-ah notch)
Thank you Danke (dahng-kuh) Merci (mer-see) Grazie (GRAHTS/yeh) Grazia (GRAHTS/yeh-er)
My name is… Ich heisse… (Ich HI-sah) Je m'appelle… (je ma pell) Mi chiamo… (mee key-amo) Jeu hai num… (je hi noom)
How much is it? Wie viel kostet? (vee feel kos-tet) Combien ça coûte? (cawm-byen sa coot?) Quanto co sta? (kwahn-toh koh-stah) Quant cuasta quei? (kwahnt coos-tah kweh)
Can you help? Können Sie mir helfen? (ker-nen zee meer hell-fen?) Pouvez-vous m'aider? (poo-vay voo may-day?) Può aiutarmi? (pwoh eye-you-TAR-me?) Saveis vus gidar mei? (sa-vay voo geeh-DAR-me)
Please Bitte (bittuh) S'il vous plaît (seel vooh pleh) Per favore (pehr fah/VOH/reh) Per plaschair (pehr plej-ay)

Working Hours and Salaries

Switzerland is an expensive place to live, but it also has rates of pay that are two to three times higher than in other European countries. In most cases salaries are negotiable, but they are often based on seniority rather than on qualifications or experience.

Most Swiss people work from Monday to Friday, and office hours are typically 9 a.m. to between 5:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Most people work eight and a half hours a day, with half an hour for lunch, but Swiss law sets the maximum working hours at 45 per week. Working people are also entitled to four weeks' paid annual leave.

Maternity Leave

Working women in Switzerland are entitled to 14 weeks of maternity leave after childbirth, and 18 weeks in Geneva. They're paid 80 percent of their annual salary during this time. Their jobs are protected during pregnancy and for 16 weeks afterwards. Employers are expected to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant women and new mothers, such as excusing them from physically demanding and evening work. Switzerland does not currently offer paternity leave, but new fathers can take a few days' paid leave depending on their organization's policies.

Public Holidays

The Swiss enjoy several holidays each year, although many of them are specific to particular regions. The following list shows the holidays and the number of cantons that they're celebrated in.

New Year's Day – January 1 (in all cantons).

Berchtold's Day – January 2 (in 14 cantons).

Good Friday – Date changes each year (March 30 in 2018; April 19 in 2019. In all cantons except Ticino and Valais.)

Easter Monday – Date changes each year (April 2 in 2018; April 22 in 2019. In all cantons except Valais.)

Ascension Day – Date changes each year (May 10 in 2018; May 30 in 2019. In all cantons.)

Whit/Pentecost Monday – Date changes each year (May 21 in 2018; June 10 in 2019. In all cantons except Valais).

Corpus Christi – Date changes each year (May 31 in 2018; June 20 in 2019. In 14 cantons.)

St Peter's/St Paul's Day – June 29 (in three cantons).

Swiss National Day – August 1 (in all cantons).

Assumption Day – August 15 (in 14 cantons).

All Saints' Day – November 1 (in 15 cantons).

Immaculate Conception – December 8 (in 13 cantons).

Christmas Day – December 25 (in all cantons).

Restoration Day – December 31 (only in Geneva).

Workplace Culture

The Swiss value efficiency and courtesy in the workplace, so it's important to understand business etiquette and know what's expected of you.

  • Hierarchies. Swiss culture is deeply hierarchical and only people with the highest authority can make final decisions, which are expected to be implemented without question. People tend to be discreet with their power, however, and are often modest. Women are rarely appointed to senior positions, and generally have to work harder than their male colleagues to achieve a comparable level of success. It's normal for business women to remain highly professional at all times, in both their behavior and their dress.
  • Dress code. The Swiss like to dress conservatively and modestly. They dislike overt displays of wealth, despite their high standard of living. It's a good idea to wear clothes that are simple, clean and well-pressed. For men, suits and ties are suitable, and for women, suits or dresses.
  • Meetings. Punctuality is important in Switzerland, so try to arrive at meetings early and to telephone if you're going to be late. Even being five minutes late can cause offense, especially in the German-speaking areas. Swiss culture is formal, so it's best to address people by their title and to shake hands with them when you meet.
  • Conversation. Swiss people are polite and private, so try to avoid asking questions about occupation, marital status, age, and religion. It's also best not to discuss money and banks, Swiss neutrality, Switzerland's role in the world wars, and voting rights for women, which only came into effect in the country in 1971. They also tend to be quite serious, so avoid making jokes, which can be misunderstood as mockery. Try not to interrupt when people are speaking, and offer your opinion when you're asked.
  • Body language. Fidgeting, moving your hands, and making sweeping gestures are often considered rude. It can also be seen as an insult to point your index finger to your head. Slouching, stretching and yawning in public are frowned upon, too. For more about body language, see our article, Avoiding Cross-Cultural Faux Pas: Body Language.
  • Wining and dining. Asking for a tour of someone's house at their dinner party can be seen as an invasion of their privacy. Leaving food can be considered rude too, so be sure to finish everything on your plate, and always use a knife and fork. Demonstrate your manners by keeping your hands on the table (not in your lap) and your elbows off. Most Swiss men will expect to pay for a meal when dining with a female colleague.
  • Gifts. Giving a gift is appropriate after a successful meeting or negotiation, but make sure it's something modest such as a nice bottle of wine or a book. Bring flowers for your hostess and small gifts for children. Always send a handwritten thank-you note after you've been invited to someone's home.

Free "Build a Positive Team" Toolkit

When you join the Mind Tools Club before midnight PST September 27

Find out more


Your country (and even your individual state) may have its own laws on corporate gift giving, so make sure that you fully understand them. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) in the U.S., for example, makes it illegal for companies to give any gift to a foreign official, at home or overseas, in order to obtain or retain business. The U.K.'s Bribery Act 2010 also prohibits it. See our article on giving Gifts in the Workplace for more information.

Additional Tips:

  • Transportation. The Swiss are frequent train users. Switzerland has the most dense rail network in Europe, carrying more than 350 million people every year. Roads are funded by tolls and vehicle taxes, and drivers must purchase a toll sticker, from a post office or garage, to use them.
  • Weather. Switzerland's weather can vary greatly between the mountains and the southern areas. Summers tend to be warm and humid, with some rain. Fall is the driest season, and winter tends to have less rain than summer. A warm wind, known as the "föhn," can occur at any time of year, bringing low humidity.
  • Conscription. Switzerland has mandatory military service for all able-bodied male citizens. They normally join the Swiss Army when they are 19 and must serve at least 260 days. The Swiss are proud of their military preparedness, but it's a controversial subject that's best avoided in conversation.

Key Points

Switzerland is a beautiful country, with a landscape dominated by mountain ranges. The Swiss enjoy a high standard of living, but they also believe in hard work and long hours.

Swiss people are polite, conservative and private, so it's important to be professional and respectful. Switzerland is deeply hierarchical, and seniority is often favored over qualifications and experience.

A modest, reserved and considerate approach will win you great respect, but it may take a while to develop mutually trusting relationships with your team members.