No two businesses are the same, so speaking about an ‘Irish work culture’ risks papering over the many differences between workplaces. Nevertheless, Ireland has a strong national character and this shapes how people work. With these provisos in mind, here’s a guide to Irish work culture.
In general, the Irish like to think that their society is a meritocracy – those who cultivate their skills and put in a lot of hard work will rise to the top. Whether this is true or not is a matter of debate, but the belief pervades work life. Hierarchies are relaxed, people move on to first names swiftly, and socialising with colleagues is common. Bureaucracy and overbearing authority are generally resented.
As in many cultures, who you know is often as important as what you know. Lots of business begins with third parties putting mutual acquaintances in touch. Irish businesses do use business cards to make contact, but they do not hold the same significance as in other cultures – they’re a little too formal. You’re better off making friends with business contacts over after work drinks.
The Irish are generally casual people. When you’re attending meetings, it’s customary to give everyone a firm handshake – men and women – and to make eye contact when you’re having a conversation. Failing to do so may make you seem insincere or insecure. Beyond handshakes, the Irish are not known for public displays of affection. You’ll get away with a hearty backslap, but don’t lean in for cheek-kissing or hugs.
There’s a myth, current in many circles, that the Irish are not time conscious and don’t stress punctuality. Wherever this myth came from, it’s not true. Make sure that you’re on time.
Generally, business meetings in Ireland are coordinated by a chairperson, usually the most senior person in the room. A meeting will generally open with a bit of small talk to make people comfortable before moving onto weightier issues. Good humour will take you a long way, so if you find yourself on the receiving end of a well-meaning joke, take it lightly. Family, weather and traffic are all safe subjects for small talk – the only real taboo is salary. Don’t ask people how much they earn.
The dress code will depend on your company, but professionals typically wear suits, dresses and blazers. Men wear ties and women opt for skirts more often than in America.
This is probably true of many places, but plenty of business takes place in social settings in Ireland. Bars, restaurants and golf courses are popular venues for nurturing business relationships and closing deals. Don’t worry if you’re not a big drinker – just order a squash and stay engaged in the conversation. The Irish are more interested in what you want to say than how much beer you drink.
You may be invited over to someone’s home for a meal. Take a small gift – wine or chocolates is typical. Make sure you don’t overdo it. An ostentatious gift will probably do more harm than no gift at all.
Use your judgement
The problem with all these generalisations is that they may not be true of where you find yourself working. Use your judgement, ask your colleagues, and watch what others do. Above all, relax. You’ll be given a lot of leeway as a newcomer. If you’re curious about what it’s like to work for a specific employer, it might pay to visit Glassdoor. It’s like TripAdvisor for workplaces.
Getting to know the Irish
This small nation is brimming with fascinating stories and lore. All of us are shaped by our history, but the Irish – after centuries of tumult and boasting a sparkling literary tradition that has immortalised the past – are acutely aware of theirs. Neil Hegarty’s The Story of Ireland is an accessible introduction and provides a way into the vast library of Irish historiography. Ireland’s fascinating story rewards reading in its own right, but it can also provide keen insights into the national character.