A German office hierarchy

Before starting to work in Germany more than a few people warned me about German office manners, and more specifically, about the hierarchy on the German office floor. In all versions of the story there was likely to be a strict chain of command, and I was on no account to say ‘du’ to any of my colleagues, let alone my boss. As soon as I had crossed the border everyone had to become ‘Sie’, from the 16-years old girl in the supermarket to the company’s CEO.

Arriving in Hamburg a few days before my first day at work, I couldn’t help noticing how extremely formal people on the street were. Girls my age asking me for directions? Sie. Colleagues in the supermarket asking each other for help? Definitely also Sie. I admit, it still strikes me as odd. I worked in a supermarket for many years during my high school years, and apart from the big boss no one was Sie, and certainly not my direct colleagues – not even when they were some 10 years older than me. In German supermarkets however employees address each other as ‘Frau’ or ‘Herr’ plus surname, regardless of their age. Yes, for real!

So you can imagine my confusion when on my first day at the previous job I found my supervisors to be my age or only a few years older. Were they supposed to be ‘Herr U.’ ‘Herr B.’ and ‘Frau M.’, or were they P., J. and B.? It turned out to be the latter, even the highest-ranking manager was simply P. And I can tell you, that feels a lot less scary than when you have to take into account all the formalities.

My mom used to tell me that your first boss is always the scariest. How very true that was! I vividly remember how terrifying I found my first boss, and even the simplest question as ‘how do you like the work here?’ would seem like an oral exam question that had no right answer. But I guess with work experience increasing the experience with bosses does too. You learn they are not there to eat you alive, however imposing they might look at first sight.

I found the current job when I was (yet again) spending too much time on Facebook. I exchanged a couple of messages with the HR assistant, inquiring about the company and all that. To my eternal surprise a couple of days later I received an invitation for a job interview in my mailbox saying ‘Dear Ms. (surname)’. That seemed a rather formal way of addressing a potential candidate your age whom you had just spoken to on Facebook, but hey. After being offered the job my boss-to-be and I exchanged a number of emails, in which he consequently addressed me as ‘Ms (surname). So I thought it was finally going to happen: the strict office hierarchy everyone had been warning me about. It turned out to be quite the contrary. My new boss, as soon as I entered the building, was no longer ‘Herr S.’, but D. The team supervisor too goes by his first name, and both regularly join us for drinks and lunches.

So what is it? Is it working in an international company that makes the difference here? Does it have to do with the start-up business? Although as one of our managers with some justification said, with some 300 employees we have really outgrown the start-up thing and we are now a middle-size company in the online branch. But whatever the lack of formality on my German work floors so far really causes, I’m liking a lot!

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Photo credits: e-connected/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0





3 thoughts on “A German office hierarchy

  1. My experiences are about the same for Hamburg… but in Munich area Germans were less formal. I’m not sure where the “border” of this formality lies exactly, maybe on the same line as were Aldi Nord and Aldi Süd have divided the country….


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