Doing business in Israel. A guide to best business practices and Israel business culture.
Whether you are considering doing business in Israel, coming on a short business trip or have made Aliyah and considering opening a business, it's important to understand Israel's business culture. Business culture in Israel is diverse, the population is a melting pot of people from different religious and cultural backgrounds, east and west, casual and formal and if you are in Israel, you can save yourself a lot of anxiety by understanding local business practices.
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On first name terms with the executives
You might be used to addressing your CEO, members of the Board of Directors and executives as Mr. or Ms., but in Israel, chances are that unless you are addressing the Prime Minister, a judge or your local mayor, you can most likely call him/her by their first name. Great respect is given to academics and certain professions; professors, doctors and lawyers. Call them by their title and once you have gotten to know them better, you can usually switch over and call them by their first name.
The concept of - It's not what you know, but who you know - gets things done and makes business deals happen in Israel. Personal connections are of the utmost importance. How come this is possible? Israel is a small country and everyone knows each other; the CFO's brother was your officer in the army or the young entrepreneur's mother, owns a travel agency and one of her clients is a venture capitalist looking for a good investment.
Israeli business people build their networks and are masters at capitalizing on their professional and personal networks.
As we said, everyone knows each other in Israel, and when exploring a new business relationship it is common to have a friend or colleague make a formal introduction by way of email. Contact information will be swapped and a couple of lines detailing the relevancy of the introduction. Once the introduction is made, new colleagues often follow up by sending their professional Bio Sketch.
When doing business in Israel, hand shaking (with the right hand) is the norm for the first encounter. It could happen that during the handshake your Israeli colleague may put their hand on the shoulder or the arm of their counterpart during conversation.
Kissing on both cheeks is an acceptable form of greeting in a business setting both among men and women who know each other very, very well.
You must however respect the religious background of your business partners. Religious Jews will not shake hands of members of the opposite sex or touch them in any way.
Be punctual but at the same time understand that Israelis are more relaxed about time and it is not uncommon for people to arrive 10 or 15 minutes late. If you are visiting Israel and have a string of meetings on the same day, it might be a good idea to let your colleagues know beforehand so that they can stick to your schedule.
Fridays and Saturdays are not working days in Israel. Israelis will not be available on the Sabbath (sundown on Friday until after sunset on Saturday night).
The Israeli work-week is from Sunday to Thursday. General working hours are from 8am - 5pm. Offices working extensively with the USA may have extended working hours and offices could be open until 8pm. The average Israeli works a 9 hour day or a 45 hour work-week. Some offices work on Fridays. Shops are open but everything is shut down by 3pm on Friday afternoon (including public transport).
It is common for overseas visitors to attend the introductory meeting in a business suit. A pant's suit or a tailored skirt is appropriate for women. If you are planning a follow-up meeting, you can relax - a tailored button down or polo-shirt and trousers works well. Ladies, a modest hemline is called for and you need to refrain from wearing revealing clothes.
General office dress is casual, jeans are acceptable.
Come with a stash of business cards and exchange yours with all of the meeting participants prior to the meeting. It is not usual for Israelis to have a photograph of themselves on their business card which is a common business practice in the Far East. Business cards are mostly in English but some have Hebrew information on the back.
If you are anxious that you will forget a face, take a group photo with your smartphone. For a fun touch, send the photo with a note of thanks after the meeting.
Meetings generally take place in the Board Room but meetings at cafes and restaurants are also common.
If you are visiting a start-up, the meeting may take place in a co-working office or space.
Israelis are much more flexible when it comes to the structure of the meeting. The topic of the meeting will be clear from the outset but the actual agenda may not be strictly adhered to.
Don't be alarmed if there are interruptions during a meeting. Israeli business relationships are much less formal and adjourning a meeting for a few minutes to take an important call, can happen.
Israelis tend to interrupt one another while they are talking, this is not considered rude, so don't delay and don't be afraid to speak up in order to get your point across.
Turn mobile phones onto silent but don't be suprised if Israelis send text messages during meetings.
Israeli's love to negotiate and figure a price, it's a traditional part of the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean mentality. Just like Israelis would bargain the price of tomatoes in the vegetable market, they will also negotiate a business deal or professional service. Be prepared for extensive price negotiations.
When visiting colleagues for the first time in Israel, a small traditional gift from your home country will be appreciated; tea from China, a Beaujolais from France or fine chocolates from Belgium. Gifts will be reciprocated when Israeli business people visit your country.
If you are invited to someone's home, a hostess gift of flowers or wine, is perfectly acceptable. Always remember the rules of Kashrut (Jewish dietary laws).
It is common practice for companies to give their employees or clients a gift before the New Year or Passover holidays. It is not common for workers to buy personal gifts for their managers.
Israel is a cultural melting pot and however much international business experience you have, Israel's cultural and religious heritage is very complex. Don't discuss Israeli government, politics or religious issues during a business meeting. If your Israeli partner starts talking about these topics, remain neutral and avoid causing offense.
Hebrew and Arabic are the only two official languages in Israel but English is the global language of international business and Israelis with international business activities, speak English well.
On meeting your colleague for the first time say: "I am very pleased to meet you"
Israelis are not overly fussed by using please and thank you but visitors from abroad should do it anyway.
The Hebrew word for please: "Bevakasha"
The Hebrew word for thank you (very much): "Todah (rabah)"
The Hebrew slang for great or wonderful: "Sababa"
End off the meeting by saying: "Wonderful to meet you. Thank you for your time (and if it's worked out well, add - I look forward to working with you in the future)"
Israelis are not big on small talk. How was your flight? Are you coping with the heat? Can I offer you something to drink before we start? is about as much as you will get from an Israeli. Refrain from asking about the children, your upcoming vacation or asking how long your colleague has been with the company.
Remember that whatever you say is confirmed or negated by your body language. Shaking your legs, playing with your beard, tapping on the table, yawning without putting your hand over your mouth and winking are all no-nos.
The Start-up Nation
From Start-up Nation to Smart-up Nation - Israeli entrepreneurs are generally broadminded and fearless, they look out of the box and way beyond. They are goal oriented, address complex and difficult situations and use them as catalysts for innovation an invention. Failure is not a stumbling block - it's a motivational tool.
Wishing you the very best of luck in your endeavor!