March 11, 2016

Lidl and Kaufland get chummy

Schwarz Group CEO Klaus Gehrig (photo: Schwarz Gruppe)
Big Buddy: CEO Klaus Gehrig wants employees throughout the Schwarz Group empire to take off their ties and call each other by their first names (photo: Schwarz Gruppe)
Contrary to what the young might believe, the older one gets, the more absurd life seems. Perhaps, in the end, all appears surreal. Along the way one may find existence tragic, but often also humorous.

A recent example has just been provided by German discount giant Schwarz Group. Here we have the amusing spectacle of a retailer posting nearly €80bn in annual net revenues characterised by Teutonic efficiency and a strict hierarchy who are becoming increasingly pally.

A "preference" has now been expressed from on high that staff at its Lidl and Kaufland subsidiaries only use first names in future. Officially, everyone has a choice, but doubtless in the traditions of old this will be the end of all surnames within both companies.

The new everyone-is-my-best-buddy policy follows a similar wish from the c-suite that no ties are worn at the workplace. In a fresh break with taboo, this has just been accompanied by an expression of desire that all Lidl and Kaufland employees use the informal "Du" rather than "Sie" when addressing each other, regardless of rank. Now where will all this lead?

For non-German readers one first needs to explain a little. Du roughly corresponds to the archaic English thou and Sie to our modern you. Therefore it is usual in German to use Du when talking to good friends, family members, children up to around the age of 16, and animals.

One uses Sie as a form of respect when talking to adult acquaintances, older people and company superiors. Workers use the Du form far more frequently than office staff and the middle classes. To use Du inappropriately and without the consent of one's counterparty is generally considered a lack of good breeding.

The transition from Sie to Du is usually inaugurated by the older person or the one with a higher social status. It is also considered impertinent for a man to suggest this to a lady. Traditionally, some celebrate the change by chinking a glass of Schnaps (schnapps) together.

Schwarz Group CEO Klaus Gehrig (Caricature: Oli Sebel)
Om mani padme hum: Klaus Gehrig has instigated a cultural revolution at Lidl (Caricature: Oli Sebel)
Many applaud this further move by Schwarz Group CEO Klaus Gehrig towards ever greater informality. They point to the fact that Lidl is now in nearly every country in Europe and needs to have a more cosmopolitan culture. The successful and ambitious company is also on the threshold of entering the United States where everyone is on Christian-name terms and slaps you on the back.

So Gehrig, who has been instrumental in creating a number of liberal reforms at Schwarz Group over the last few years, has generally been praised for making the corporate ethos more modern. This echoes a similar move by Otto Group CEO Hans-Otto Schrader who now wants his 53,000 staff to use the Du form when talking to him.

Much, of course, depends on whether one appreciates the relentless Americanisation of European culture. It may seem straight-laced, but surely there is something to be said for formal dress and manners at work? The use of Sie and surnames in German may not mean much to non-German readers, but it is a wonderfully elegant way of keeping unloved colleagues at a respectful distance.

Also, when there are inevitable arguments in the office, it is easier to be rude in the Du mode than when you have to constantly pull yourself up by using the more respectful Sie. Looking at our existence on earth, it is hard not to find the world a generally vulgar place full of suffering, but whatever the reason for this, it has most certainly not been caused by too much politeness.

Underberg schnaps (photo: Georg Lukas)
Schnaps: The start of a beautiful friendship (photo: Georg Lukas)
According to the law of unintended consequences, what is likely to be the result of all this at Schwarz Group? How, for instance, is one to send a press enquiry to Klaus Gehrig? Will his new email address now run:

Wives will no longer be able to challenge philandering husbands with "But I distinctly heard you say Du to Miss Schmidt!", for now all men of this wayward disposition will be able to reply with innocent mien that such familiarity is only company policy.

And how can management reprimand those who like a little tipple at work? When the boss shouts to the erring underdog: "Fritz, you've been drinking again! You're fired!" The culprit can legitimately answer that he only had a wee dram of schnaps to celebrate the transition to Du with his colleagues...

Podcast microphone (photo: Gerhard Seybert-Fotolia)
(photo: Gerhard Seybert-Fotolia)

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Lebensmittel Zeitung with digital sister (photo: LZ)
Our German B2B newspaper, Lebensmittel Zeitung, in print & digital
Read in German: By retail news desk manager Jan Mende in
Lebensmittel Zeitung, no. 10, 11.03.2016

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Comments for this article are closed.

  1. Catherine Rochereul-Portier
    Created 11 March, 2016 14:58 | Permanent link

    About the differences between German, French & American business

    Thank you, Mike and Jan, for these insights into Lidl and German business! I shall certainly refer to them in my next post.

  2. Birgit
    Created 12 March, 2016 07:39 | Permanent link

    Lidl and Kaufland get chummy (Mar 11, 2016) -- "Du" vs. "Sie"

    "Du roughly corresponds to the archaic English thou and Sie to our modern you." -- It is the other way around! Sie is the extremely formal business way of communicating, while Du is to address someone familiar, family, friend etc...

  3. Mike Dawson
    Created 12 March, 2016 09:24 | Permanent link

    Your comment "Du" vs. "Sie"

    Dear Birgit,

    Have a look at the entry for "thou" on Wikipedia:

    Please refer to, for instance, the following extract:

    "Following the Norman invasion of 1066, thou was used to express intimacy, familiarity or even disrespect, while another pronoun, you, the oblique/objective form of ye, was used for formal circumstances."

    Kind regards

    Mike Dawson

  4. Ruth Raphel
    Created 13 March, 2016 14:53 | Permanent link

    "Du" vs. "Sie"

    As long as "Du" is being dropped in Germany, can you send it to the US Republican presidential office seekers....
    Fun article! Thanks, Mike.

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