Business ethics don't exist in a vacuum. Whether you're in the United States, China or Spain, cultural attitudes about authority, honesty and personal behavior influence company ethics and codes of conduct. Ethics in Spanish businesses are high, but Spanish attitudes about work can make for a culture clash if you're doing business in Spain vs. the USA.

Ethics in Spanish Businesses

In any culture, there's often a gap between what the rules say is wrong and what's winked at in practice. Sick leave, for example, is officially for when you're sick, not just to squeeze out an extra day off. A lot of people around the world, however, think it's fine to take a "mental health day" now and again.

A 2015 survey of ethics in Spanish businesses found that only 5 percent of employees thought taking a sick day when you're not sick is acceptable. Padding your travel or entertainment account for personal gain was almost as unacceptable. Only 19 percent of workers thought that favoring family or friends when handing out contracts is ethical. Other statistics from the survey showed:

  • A third of employees approve of using the internet at work, but only 31 percent of managers do so.

  • While a majority of employees frown on making personal phone calls during business hours, 44 percent think it's acceptable.

  • Only 12 percent of employees say they feel pressured to compromise their company's code of conduct.

  • According to 77 percent of Spanish employees, honesty is always or frequently practiced at their workplace.

  • Forty-five percent of employees say they're willing to speak up if they observe misconduct.

  • Women are stricter about workplace ethics than men, and younger employees have a more relaxed attitude toward ethics than older employees.

Business Hours in Spain

When comparing business in Spain vs. the USA, the sense of time is one of the big differences. In Spain, it's common to start work around 10:00 a.m. and work until 8:00 p.m. with a couple of hours for lunch squeezed in there somewhere. You're unlikely to find workers skipping lunch or eating it at their desk as they work.

This approach to time has a ripple effect on business and everyday life.

  • Prime-time TV typically starts at 9:00 p.m. It's one reason Spanish people are often short of sleep.

  • The late start and finish to the day often make it hard to touch base with colleagues in other countries, even those in the same time zone.

  • Many Spanish employees structure their social life around the workplace. The long business days are spent chatting with each other, which cuts into productivity.

  • Meetings are social get-togethers. A meeting that might run a half hour in Germany or the USA might stretch to two hours so everyone can catch up.

  • If you want to talk business at lunch, let your colleagues know in advance. It's an intrusion on a social event, so they may not appreciate you springing it on them.

Some businesses have had success introducing a more American sense of time. At many Spanish businesses, however, it's fine to start and end meetings late and stretch deadlines. Business ethics in Spanish companies don't require respecting time.

Meeting Etiquette in Spain

The social part of Spanish business meetings is important. Spanish businesspeople want to get acquainted before they strike a deal with someone. The first part of a negotiation is typically spent talking about family, friends and private life so the company can size up the new person.

Meetings don't usually have a detailed agenda. They may get quite heated, as yelling, shouting and interrupting are considered acceptable business conduct. However, saying anything that dishonors or belittles someone else is a black mark against you.

Spanish business greetings are an extensive ritual:

  • Business cards are exchanged at the start of the meeting.

  • Everyone shakes hands with everyone else before getting down to business.

  • You should address people formally, such as "Señor Garcia." Whoever is hosting the meeting will decide when it's OK to go on a first-name basis.

  • The Spanish "tu" for "you" is usually only used between family and friends. However, if you're not a native Spanish speaker, nobody will be surprised if you don't get that right.

Power and Hierarchy

In the USA, many businesses have rejected the traditional hierarchy where decisions are made at the top. Another difference between business in Spain vs. the USA is that Spain is far more hierarchical. Senior executives make decisions, and employees carry them out. When lower-ranked employees handle problems or take the initiative, many managers will see this as bad if not suspicious behavior.