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Business and Workplace Culture

Panama - Business and Workplace Culture

Spanish is the official language in Panama and the main one for business. Some international companies that have many expats working for them may use English as the language in the office. If you are going to be dealing with a Spanish company then it is a good idea to ensure that you have at least conversational Spanish skills. It is recommended that business cards are printed in both languages where possible. The exchange of business cards is normal practice when you first meet an associate.

The working culture in Panama is a relaxed one. Workplaces tend to be informal and there is a strong emphasis on building friendships. If you are working in a large organisation you should expect there to be regular social events and if you are working in senior management you will be invited to a number if dinner parties. You should not take a gift with you when you go to a dinner party but you can expect to receive a gift from the hosts. If you host a dinner party you will need to hand out gifts to the guests. Decision making is a time consuming process in Panama. There is not often a rush to get things done quickly but Panamanians do expect punctuality. If you have an appointment you are expected to keep it and if you do not have an appointment then you are unlikely to be seen.

There is a still an old fashioned attitude towards women in Panama, but this is one of chivalry rather than sexism. Women have been known to reach the highest levels in industry, so a ‘glass ceiling’ may apply in individual companies but not in the working culture as a whole. Men still expect to open doors and pull out chairs for women. This means that very few women will have problems with sexual harassment. Any employee who suffers from this type of harassment can instantly terminate their contract and will receive severance pay from the company.

Any form of discrimination in Panama is illegal and there is legislation to deal with this. If any organisation is found to be guilty of this they are subject to fines from the Ministry of Labour. These can be from $500 to $1000. Discrimination on the grounds of race, social class, sex, disability, religious views or politics is prohibited. Most companies will have a complaints and grievance procedure in the event that you are subjected to this kind of behavior.

It is common to join a union in Panama and these are particularly popular with workers in manufacturing and construction. The unions are able to negotiate pay rises and help with any disputes. Strikes are not particularly commonplace, but a number of strikes took place in 2010 which succeeded in overturning anti-strike legislation that had been put into place by the government. Law 30 places limits on union memberships and strike action. Workers were not permitted to organize protests in the streets, making it a criminal offence. The strike by the banana plantation workers succeeded in getting the government to set aside this legislation.

Etiquette is very important in business in Panama. Most companies will have a dress code, with men expected to wear conservative suits and women expected to wear a skirt and blouse or a dress, although trouser suits are becoming more fashionable for women. It is not expected that a woman will wear anything revealing if she wants to be taken seriously in the work place. Shaking hands is the expected form of greeting but if you know somebody very well you should expect to be hugged.

Always use the title of the person you are talking to until you get to know them better. First names are not used until a working relationship has been established. As most of the Panamanian nationals will have two surnames – their father’s surname and their mother’s – you should always use the first name listed which is normally the father’s surname. When you first meet people in the business place you should be prepared for a lot of small talk before business begins. This is a good way to get to know the people that you are dealing with.

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