Culture Shock Holland: Working in the Netherlands

Five years ago this girl set foot in Holland. A  physical small step for Poonamkind…but a huge step for my internal system of values! The days, weeks, years after would turn into a rollercoaster ride on the waves of culture. Investing in the future of your working life is no small feat. Working in the Netherlands, even sorting utilities in the Netherlands is stressful unless you’re well compensated.

One of the first things you are going to notice in Dutch working culture – whether you like it or not- surely is the Dutch appreciation for plain speaking over subtlety, diplomacy and coded speech. This leads to a reduced usage of the word “miscommunication” in Dutch business life. Dutch love to be outspoken: they have an opinion about almost everyone and everything and it will be expressed, not matter what, even when it would mean a serious breach to the harmony and the context of the moment, but that is not really a big deal: “I am not working to make friends” is a commonly heard statement.


Insensitive collegues?
Insensitive collegues?


The above perhaps can be put better in perspective when one realizes that the Dutch simply like to put a clear wall between their private and work life. Work time is meant for work and nothing else; probably that is why Dutch are relatively efficient and well skilled in their profession. The drawback of this is of course that there is also little time to socialize with colleagues, especially with the ones who require some extra time as to get introduced to (aka you, the new foreign employee). I surely experienced that as quite a shock, but I must admit that it has a clear advantage as well: personal issues stay outside of work and vice versa.

Private and public: two seperate worlds
Private and public: two separate worlds


Still missing some social connection with your Dutch colleagues? Then just make sure to visit one of the company drinks (borrels)! There you will get all the social connection you would be hoping for, along with Dutch beer and bitterballs. With a stomach full of those, even the stiffest Dutch will express himself, although the expressing itself might be loud and sometimes escalate in singing and/or shouting. It does not matter whether the boss is around or not: a borrel is not part of work, so who is he to comment on it?

The Dutch attitude towards hierarchy probably was my biggest culture shock anyways. Being a decent Indian girl I have been taught to treat my senior colleagues with respect, and refer to them as Sir or Madam, even if they would be just one year older than me. One can imagine the respect I am supposed to give to my manager in India! I am not sure what values Dutch parents and teachers teach their kids, but respect for your boss is surely not one of them. A Dutch boss will be addressed by its first name, any order given will be discussed into great detail by its people and if the word “Sir” is ever used, it is with so much sarcasm that it would sink the Rainbow Warrior.

Well, it surely took me some time to start calling my 63 year old supervisor “Hans” instead of “Sir”, but I must admit it has its good sides: discussions are brought back to the pure content when hampering and irrelevant variables like age and hierarchic position are being removed. Of course, a side-effect is that discussion can take ages…the Dutch tendency of wanting “cohesion” for anything is legendary as well.

That leads to something I already mentioned in my previous article “International isolation of the Netherlands”: the Dutch society is relatively conservative. That is not really the consequence of Dutch nature (all Dutch have their own opinion and sometimes it can be quite progressive) but of the fact that all change has to be discussed into great length; only when there is consensus a change can be made. The same process led to some of the greater recent disasters in Dutch business life: ABN Amro went down because of the lack of a leader who could reconcile the different visions in the bank, whereas Hyves (Holland’s version of Facebook) and telecom giant KPN got serious blows due to a lack of flexibility to react on changes in the market.

Nationale Nederlanden office in Rotterdam
Nationale Nederlanden office in Rotterdam


Another typical aspect of the Dutch way of living is the high amount of risk avoidance. That basically means that contract goes above personal relationships: no matter when it is about marriage (“trouwen onder huwelijkse voorwaarden”) or doing business. Basically this means that no business will be done before a contract is signed, and that the companies are being enriched / hampered by a huge amount of internal and external rules for their employees. The Arbo-inspector checks whether the monitors of a company are set at the right height, the insurance company makes sure that a company is insured against any potential calamity, no matter how unlikely it is, and by extended “code of conduct” training employees are being taught that it is not allowed to touch a woman employee when she does not want it. It surely looks like the Dutch have a strong belief in the proverb “avoid getting the feet wet”. Surely that proverb was quite a mantra in the day that that high seas threatened the continuance of this country beyond the sea level.

So, my dear expats, do not take it too personally when your boss (“Karel”) calls you in a meeting, starts correcting your excellent memorandum without even mentioning once how good it is (Dutch are not very fond of compliments), then ask you to organize another meeting to review it with some more colleagues, and then – after numerous further adjustments – scolds you because you did not get their signature on version 7.4 of the memorandum! It’s just the way they are!

Happy working in the Netherlands!!


  1. It’s not just in the Netherlands, most people don’t address their bosses or older colleagues by ‘Sir/Madam…” in America either. It’s customary to just call their names.

    • I beg to differ, I am from America and worked most my life in America and it depends on the company and the position of the job. Their is very much an hierarchy in the USA and I can tell you their is also a HUGE difference between the Dutch and American work life. For example look at the medical community in the USA vs. NL. Walk around any medical center/hospital in NL and try to figure out who is the doctor, nurse or orderly…. good luck, now do that in the USA, EASY, just visit the lunch room.

  2. Excellent article! I enjoyed reading it. You may want to look a little deeper into the origin of certain behaviourial matters, but most of your observaties are spot on! Unfortunately. Well done, thank you for your contribution in our country and good luck!

  3. I’m Dutch and I don’t really recognize much from this article. I guess it also depense on where you work, what kind of job you are doing.

  4. Great ! Loved how you zoned in on how long it can take to get anything agreed on, for everyone must have an opinion and agree.

  5. How is calling someone by its name a sign of not respect? Because this is what they teach in India, does not make it correct. Also, respect should be gained and not automatically inherited by age or status. I will never respect an £%&hole even if he is 200 years old, but I will do respect someone younger than me, if he or she deserves it. I am not Dutch by the way.

  6. Stereotypes are annoying. Although the article is written in good faith, I dislike throwing people into a single bucket and judging them.

  7. Excellent article. The reason why I say this is because I have worked with quite a lot of Dutch people who were my seniors, and I can relate almost everything in here with them. Its aptly described as the Culture Shock. It happened to me too recently, but not of Netherlands, but of England!

  8. I grew up in the Netherlands and after a long time temporarily back and recognize everything mentioned in this article.

    Another thing I noticed is that the Dutch by and large have a utterly warped idea of their own behaviour.

  9. yes, yes and yes. I have been in the Netherlands a lot longer and slowly understanding the culture, although you can never generalize their are a few tendency’s here that are quite unique, you named a few but the worst one is the racist character of a lot of dutch people, although by saying that Dutch people will immediately say if you do not like it here go somewhere else 😉

  10. Thank you, many aspects that really conflicted with my own cultural norms I start to understand now.. Although I don’t personally appreciate adjusting to the Dutch-way but at least I won’t feel offended when my superior did not compliment my hard work and only criticize every little detail.

  11. I must comment on this very old thread:
    “So, my dear expats, do not take it too personally when your boss (“Karel”) calls you in a meeting, starts correcting your excellent memorandum without even mentioning once how good it is (Dutch are not very fond of compliments)…”
    Dear, they do that only to foreigners. Showing no appreciation for a good work done, skipping on your “excellent performance” once that’s established as a fact as something “not-so-important” while suddenly some other things become crucial, that’s the regular part of Dutch workplace culture when it comes to treatment of the foreigners.
    On the other hand, they do not at all hesitate to use all your skills and experience, even above the limits of your job description.
    I don’t know where’s that coming from; perhaps the recidive of colonial past.

  12. I am having to work for an Anglo Dutch company at the moment and they’re really not that nice to work with. Pretty rude, highly critical (but never of themselves!) and constantly undermining decisions. They seem to also go out of their way to drop you in the cr@p.

    Yes, yes, I know they’re not all like that and there are good people – but I have been shocked at dutch work culture. It’s not pleasant to be around. Interestingly there are quite a few Germans at the same office (c.20%) and they are a lot nicer. Quite disappointed and surprised at dutch work culture.

  13. This is a very misleading article. As someone else who is also Indian I completely disagree with this description. Firstly it is not possible to generalise and work culture varies from organisation to organisation. Dutch universities are far more hierarchical than many Indian universities. The academic culture is not egalitarian in any way. I agree with the comment above that many places do not have a good work culture.


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