12 business etiquette tips you need to know to do business successfully in Russia.
Russian businessmen at the ceremony marking opening of trading at the MICEX-RTS united stock exchange, 2011. Photo: RIA Novosti
Much has changed over the last two plus decades that foreigners have been coming to Russia to do business. Clients are rarely expected to conduct numerous vodka toasts to prove that they are a trustworthy partner, and business deals are no longer signed in the banya (Russian sauna).
That said, there are still a number of things that a potential investor or entrepreneur should keep in mind before entering a boardroom or making business contacts in Russia. Below are the top cultural factors you should take into account to successfully engage in business in Russia.
1. It is important to get formal language and titles right. They are not suggested and often status and titles are proud accomplishments. One expat stated that they were berated by telephone by a Russian Ministry official after correspondence was sent out with the wrong title. It almost torpedoed the deal. Don’t act informally unless your partners suggest it. Be formal in meetings and refrain from self-deprecating humor as this will most likely be misunderstood.
2. Russian business culture is not homogenous. There is a mix of old bureaucracy and Western thinking in Moscow and people who understand both of these systems are extremely valuable. The perestroika generation that grew up during the transition often are particularly adept at navigating the space between these two worlds. Remember to pay attention to the age of your colleagues and which system they grew up in: This will help you understand their approach.
3. Russians place more emphasis on and are largely more successful than their Western colleagues at achieving a work/life balance. This can tie into not wanting to joke around at work. As Russians try not to work all of the time, they tend to be serious at meetings, so that they can have time for joking with family and friends later. Russians typically don’t linger on the phone when a conversation is over. Hanging up the phone once an agreement is made doesn’t mean a partner is being rude: Russians just don’t engage in small talk as much, so don’t be surprised by the abruptness.
4. People want to get to know whom they’re doing business with. Expats generally agree that as compared to the West, people invest more time getting to know people before they do business with them. This can make the business process seem a bit slow, but Russian partners just see it as being cautious. One long-time expat in Moscow stated that it is necessary to invest your time in people. When you can develop good personal relationships with your Russian staff you may be amazed by their flexibility, appreciation and dedication.
5. Remember holidays and birthdays. For example, if you don’t properly celebrate International Women’s Day (March 8), you may come to regret the friction you feel from your female colleagues in the months afterwards. Gifts, gifts, gifts! Many more occasions than you may be used to at home require gifts or would be enhanced with presents. In Russia if you’re not sure whether to bring a gift, it’s probably a good idea to bring one.
6. It can be quite tricky to schedule a meeting in the morning. Russians tend to start work a little later and work a little later in the evenings than they do in the west. This varies from industry to industry, but in general it is better to schedule discussions for after lunch, and leave a little window of time between appointments: Don’t be surprised if a partner can’t meet right away or is late.
7. Connections are very important. Even if you feel extremely qualified as a foreigner trying to land a job in a Russian company, your ability to get that job is often contingent on connections. This applies to business deals as well: Personality and relationships are paramount.
8. Mobile phones for relationships. It would seem that a nation that values their family and free time would be very hard to reach. Instead, people will answer their phones in a meeting, while teaching a class, at the cinema, nearly anywhere. Remember that relationships are important and only privileged people are given cell phone numbers and they want to keep these relationships going. They will answer their phones and they will expect you to do the same.
9. Evaluate and train your employees. You can be quite direct with Russians and give your feedback. Russians appreciate this, especially when you explain that your comments are not personal, but are meant for the improvement of the company’s performance or the employee’s skills. Create an open atmosphere where giving feedback to each other is able to flourish. Always be direct: Do not hint at something and assume that others understood what you meant.
10. If you need to engage officialdom, be prepared for the bureaucracy. Most of what you heard is true, although understanding the system and being prepared will help you. You will often have to track the right contact person down and send faxes and wait. This takes patience and persistence. However, explain very clearly to all involved if there is a strict deadline that it is not flexible.
11. Get something in writing if you can. You will rarely get an agreement in writing (in an email for example) since that would commit to something that may not be possible when the time comes. Personal relationships are very important and should be fostered because these are the people that will help you when you need it. Russians dislike planning not because they are lazy, but because they dislike breaking their promises.
12. Finally, doing business in Russia requires flexibility. Successful businesses in Russia adapt quickly to changing circumstances. You may encounter resistance to planning, but your ability to plan and improvise will ensure that you have a backup plan and often be one step ahead of the competition.
Some comments from expats:
“Planning is possible! Many Russian employees will say that planning in Russia is of no use since it will not work because…it is Russia! Indeed things always or often go in a different direction than initially expected. But my experience is that with good planning and checking you will have more time for improvisation.” Charles Hoedt, Founder of In Your Pocket Russia and Director of Nuffic Neso Russia. The Netherlands. Has lived in Russia since 1998.
“The most important person in a company is often the bookkeeper. Make sure you have a good one that you can trust, that has a good network with other bookkeepers and who is following the constant changes in laws and financial regulations. Keep in mind that a Russian bookkeeper is quite conservative and often thinks in terms of impossibilities, while you want to solve things.” Charles Hoedt, Founder of In Your Pocket Russia and Director of Nuffic Neso Russia. The Netherlands. Has lived in Russia since 1998.
“Russians are cultural people. They know their Pushkin and Chekhov and are not afraid to quote them, even in business settings. Reading up on culture should be mandatory for everyone that wants to do business in Russia. Good nerves are important – processes and decision-making can take a lot of time – but when things are happening it goes fast and Russians work very efficiently.” Lasse Lindberg, actor. Finland. Lived in Russia from 2005-2009 and 2011-2013.
“Learn the language, try not to compare everything and everyone to your own country, and have a lot of patience.” Anna-Christin Albers, bar owner. Germany. Has been in business in Russia since 2004.