The "Du" And Don’​ts Of German Workplace Etiquette

Working in Cologne
Working in Cologne
Angelika Slavik

MUNICH â€" In an effort to loosen up, the Otto group, a mail-order company based in Hamburg, Germany, has taken the bold step of doing the "du."

In German, "du" is the informal version of "you" â€" something to be used among friends, but a no-no when it comes to formal work environments, especially when addressing the boss. A few months ago, however, Otto Group's chief executive officer, Hans-Otto Schrader, decided to dispense with such formalities and invite all of his many employees to address him on a first-name basis. Now, anyone who crosses paths with the big boss can shout: "Hansi, hold on. I have a question for you" â€" as in "du!"

Schrader says he quickly got used to people using his first name. But Karl-Heinz Grussendorf, head of the employee representative committee, says his people are still "a little confused at times" and that some employees "aren't enamored with this new concept."

The changes at Otto Group reflect a larger trend in Germany, where the success and increasing influence of digital industry start-ups have fundamentally altered expectations of workplace behavior. The more often Germans read about swings, indoor slides and relaxation lounges at Google offices, the more they feel that having to wear a suit, having a receptionist announcing one's arrival at the boss’ office, and having an office to oneself are simply obsolete.

There is also a new generation of young employees who don't much care for traditional perceptions of power and office etiquette. And so to win these people over, many companies with rather traditional values are trying to adopt a more relaxed image â€" doing the "du" is part of that.

The problem, though, is that not everyone feels comfortable with these shifts. Tanja Baum is a management consultant. Her company, Agency of Friendliness, serves large companies such as Daimler or Deutsche Post (German Postal Service). "The question of whether to adopt the informal you has been a recurring topic in our most recent assignments," she says.

There's also an argument to be made that adopting an informal style can actually harm a company â€" because of the confusion it creates. A "du" environment might work well in a small company, where everyone's on board with the idea, Baum explains. But it can be tricky in medium-sized and large companies, which tend to have a more heterogeneous employee base.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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