Caroline Hauser Slapak
Try | Make Mistakes | Learn | Succeed

Understanding Israeli Workplace Culture Part 3 (+ Bonus: The Funniest Habit That Is Only Acceptable in Israeli Culture)

This is my third post about Israeli culture in the workplace. In the first blog post, I exemplified 5 situations I’ve been through and described how these cultural differences brought me very positive feelings. In the second post, I gave another 5 examples, but this time I described uncomfortable situations and how I overcame those cultural gaps.

In this third post, I want to describe some usual practices in the workplace that are completely different from the ones I grew up at (Brazil). Some of them can be similar in the USA or Europe, but are unusual in Brazil. These situations are more of the neutral kind – they didn’t make me feel either good or bad. They’re just different than what I’m used to – and some of them are just funny!

“Protektzia”

This subject is a very delicate one, yet very important in Israeli culture. Therefore, I decided to start the post with this subject and share my tips on how to overcome this hurdle.

For those who don’t know this word, it’s a Hebraized version of the English “protection”. In another words, “protektzia” is the use of personal connections to get things done. In business, the correct translation of this word is nepotism and, unfortunately (or fortunately, if you know how to benefit from it) it’s a known issue here in Israel (not only in the business environment!).

“Protektzia” is so institutionalized in Israel that, in most high-tech companies, a reward is offered for successful referrals. The reward can range between ₪ 1,000-10,000, depending on the company and on the position the candidate will run for. Here is an example of an article published on Times of Israel: Know a good developer? Hola will pay you ₪ 7,000.

In the past, I have published a couple of articles that can help you, an oleh chadash/newcomer, overcome this hurdle:

A way I try beating “protektzia” is asking if someone on the Facebook group Olim in Tech knows anyone in company X. This community was created to empower and connect olim (newcomer) who work or want to work in hi-tech. Modestly speaking, I internalized the good side of “protektzia” so well that I even keep on using the Olim in Tech community to try to achieve professional goals (even though I’ve already gotten a job!).

Don’t get offended by Israeli sarcasm

Israelis are famous for their sarcasm expressed in extreme situations, usually in a self-deprecating way, also known as dark humor. Otherwise, we would go nuts with all the religious war/terrorism surrounding us.

While researching to write about this subject, I found a study about this kind of humor at workplaces. As listed in this study, the main effects that bad sense of humor can cause are:

  • Hurts feelings
  • Lowers the self-esteem
  • Creates a hostile environment
  • Demoralizes ethics
  • Decreases productivity

Knowing all of that, the next time your boss makes a joke about the bad job you delivered during a meeting full of people, don’t take it personally. Probably, after your boss sees you blushing, he’ll say: “it was a joke” and everyone will laugh. Ouch! Just don’t let this get you down, because this is the Israeli way of communicating.

Be aware of the formal greeting rule

In Brazil, a very warm country, we shake hands when first interacting with someone and we even kiss each other in the cheek (especially when interacting with a woman) when saying goodbye. Sometimes, we even give hugs after the kiss in the cheek.

In contrast, in Israel people can meet you and greet by just nodding their head and saying “נעים מאוד (Nahim meod/Nice to meet you)”. They do that because there are a lot of religious people in the workplace and they respect religious laws that restrict physical contact with a member of the opposite sex (שמירת נגיעה/shmirat neguiah).

What I do is observe what the person I’m being introduced to will do: if the person reaches for the hand shake, I react and reach their hand; if the person just nods their head, I smile and nod my head back.

The dress code is NO DRESS CODE AT ALL

You probably already know the fact that Israelis dresses very casually (T-shirt with jeans is the most common outfit you’ll see in offices around Israel). But maybe what you don’t know is that I’ve seen women (from VPs to secretaries) using transparent blouses only with a bra under it; while men use shorts with typical Israeli shoes or flipflops during the summer; both genders can be seen wearing Blundstone; or ladies using UGG boots during the winter (note: the climate in Israel isn’t that cold…).

“Casual” dress code in Israeli workplace…

Of course, not everyone dresses like this, especially if working for a company in Jerusalem or Bnei Brak, where most of the religious community lives. These people wear clothes according to Orthodox Judaism rules. But, if you see someone using a suit, he’s for sure, not Israeli! Tie?! Forget it!

Lunch time is quick and, usually, the employees eat at the office

I’m aware that this is a trend in the USA and Europe. But it for sure isn’t in Latin American countries!

The average time for lunch is between 20-30 minutes (in Brazil it’s 1 hour!). Some companies offer a benefit a card with a certain amount of money for lunch (payment for lunch isn’t an employer obligation – check item “III – Benefits from Which you May Benefit” by clicking on the link). Even in companies that offer this benefit, the employees usually order in or get take out and eat in a small kitchen designed for employee lunches; while some people eat in front of the computer…

Another thing that companies offer employees is a microwave, so if you bring homemade food, you can heat it before you eat. As I mentioned in the previous subitem, if you work in a religious “friendly” company, there will be also a kosher microwave.

“Kosher microwave – for kosher food and covered container heating only” (free translation by Caroline Hauser Slapak)

Would you like to have a cup of coffee?

In Brazil, this is also a very common question when you arrive to the office. But there, expect to get a filtered fresh black coffee. Here in Israel, there are 2 main types of coffee:

  1. “Nes” – a nickname for the brand Nescafe, the most famous instant coffee in Israel;
  2. “Botz” (בוץ) – which literally means swamp! In a nutshell, this method is based on the diffusion process. You just need to add the coffee powder and hot water and wait for the powder to sink into the bottom of the cup. Israelis learn to drink those during the army service period, because of its simplicity, and many keep drinking it that way even after the army service period.
This is how a coffee “botz” looks like

Some companies (usually high-tech companies) may also offer a Nespresso machine with coffee capsules or pods. But this isn’t so common…

To finish this subitem, don’t expect Israelis to drink black coffee! They add milk (or soya/rice/almond milk) to the coffee and drink it (usually in a big thermal container, like mine, in the picture below!). And companies usually offer milk (and soya/rice/almond milk) in the refrigerator and you can drink as much as you want! Definitely, this is a cultural thing and I have already internalized this nuance. I still miss filtered fresh black coffee, but thank God there is an amazing Brazilian Beit Cafe (coffee shop) in Tel-Aviv, called Origem Fresh Cafe.

My big thermal container for my Israeli coffee time

Meetings in Israel never start on time, but is still good practice to arrive on time

Well, in Brazil meetings also never start on time and it’s acceptable to arrive 5-10 minutes late. Here in Israel, they can start meetings with a 15-20 minute delay. But, in case you arrive late and they have already started, expect to be the main joke of the meeting… so don’t forget to arrive on time!

Israelis are “very worried about germs”

I had one of the weirdest conversations of my entire professional life when my co-workers and I spent a hole lunch time only talking about germs (חיידקים/Chaidakim). I mentioned that the employees have lunch in the office, right? Do you think they use the cutlery that the company provides? No, they prefer to use plastic because “they don’t know how hygienic was the person that cleaned the cutlery before them”. Oh, and the sponge to clean the dishes and the cutlery? They also don’t know for how long the sponge has been used, so they prefer not to use it.

Bathrooms are definitely the main germ place! They state that they don’t take their bags with them to the bathroom. But, on the other hand, they take their mobile phone with them (hum… don’t let any of your Israeli friends watch this video: Your Cell Phone Is 10 Times Dirtier Than a Toilet Seat)… Another 2 funny examples that contrast to their “don’t germ me” are (1) they don’t care how long the water filter has been in place; (2) landline telephones are usually full of dust, I’m sure no one has ever cleaned them…

If you really want to make your Israeli friends/co-workers freak out, show them this article, with the most common places where we find germs in the workplace… Definitely, I will show it to mine!

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I would like to finish this last post about Israeli culture (the way I see it) suggesting you watch an Israeli TV series called “Ramzor/רמזור”, which means traffic light. This series isn’t based on the workplace environment (I really tried to find a good one to share with you, but didn’t find any), but this TV series is an amazing way to better understand the Israeli way to think and act, depending on their relationship status (red light = married with children, yellow light = lives with girlfriend, green light = single – as the seasons goes by, the characters change their relationship status).

There is an episode that got stuck in my head since I saw it and it’s exactly how things happen here. The scene is the following: one of the characters has to go to his daughter’s ballet presentation in Tel-Aviv. They’ve been looking for a parking spot for too long and no parking is available (a known problem in Tel-Aviv). The character decides to park his car in a forbidden area. So, he leaves a note to the police officer, with his telephone. Watch it (sorry, no English subtitles, but you can understand it only by watching)!

For you to understand that this is something real, here is a picture that I took in the streets of Tel-Aviv!

“If you want to leave your parking spot, call me. I work here” – and the person’s mobile phone number (free translation by Caroline Hauser Slapak)

I hope you enjoyed reading my three-series post about Culture in the Israeli Workplace.

About the Author
Caroline made Aliyah from Brazil in 2015. She has a BA in Business and MBA in Finance. Most of her experience in Brazil was working for business consulting firms (locals and globals). After she made Aliyah, she was "lucky" to find her first job very quickly. The second time she was looking for a job, she had encountered some differences in the hiring process. In an attempt to expand her network, she was constantly meeting new people and exchanging experiences. From these discussions, she understood that the differences are not only specific to the Brazilian job market, but they are very peculiar to Israel. As everybody else, she had to make mistakes and learn with her own failures; some important information she had to dig deep to find them. As a business consultant, she have learned a lot about organization & methods and this is how she's able to summarize them as "lessons learned". In this blog, she'll share her knowledge and practical tools to help all the other job seekers. "Happy is that one who transfers what he knows and learns what he teaches." - Cora Coralina (Brazilian writer)
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