Colombia has an economy which is very much ‘open for business.’ The government is encouraging private enterprises and entrepreneurs, while the growth of SMEs and Start-ups sees a more relaxed business outlook softening traditional attitudes in the office and workplace. Colombia poses challenges for incoming companies and their staff – but the rewards are there.
This is also reflected in Colombia’s growing profile in the world economy. Colombia became the 37th member of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2020 and is also a member of the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the World Bank.
On the economic front, Colombia has many free trade agreements, including with the US and European Union. It is a member of the Pacific Alliance trading bloc, among other regional trade organisations. Colombia’s strategic position in the northwest of South America adds to its trading potential. There is a Caribbean coastline to the north Pacific coast to the west, and the land border with Panama is the route to Central and North America. Colombia also has land access to Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela.
Nevertheless, traditional values and outlooks will still apply in some sectors of the business environment, both for companies and individuals. So, there will be a lot to get used to.
Language: Spanish is the language, so learn some phrases even if advised the meeting will be in English. Check ahead and, if necessary, engage an interpreter.
Punctuality: Although ‘Colombian time’ may come into play regarding timescales and schedules, it is essential to make the right impression by being on time for meetings.
Negotiations: Tread carefully, as communication is often oblique and not very direct. Although discussions can be pretty effusive, do not cross the line by being rude or argumentative. The attitude is based on ‘getting the job done.’ scheduled meetings and timetables will likely extend if there is unfinished business.
Greetings: A smiling and cheery ‘Buenos días’ is the way to start; shake hands with open and friendly eye contact. Small talk will be part of the ‘getting to know you’ process. Colombians are extremely family-oriented, so expect them to be interested in yours! You will quickly be on first name terms but use titles and surnames, to begin with, and address the men as Señor and women as Señora. Even the men will likely exchange hugs with a friendly pat on the shoulder for subsequent meetings. However, where hierarchy still plays a role, be sure to address the most senior members of the other team first.
Business Cards: In Spanish on one side, which should be presented face up, with the English version on the reverse.
Dress Code: Look smart and well-presented—suits and jackets for men; knee-length skirts, trousers, and elegant tops for women. ‘Business casual’ in younger companies is becoming more usual. It is essential for Colombians.
Out of Hours: Always accept invitations to social gatherings, lunches and dinners, as they are integral to developing relationships and business.
Avoid Stereotypical references to aspects of Colombian culture portrayed in the media, movies and on TV.
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