6 min read

May 20, 2021

The Immigrant's Guide to American Work Culture

While being a working professional in the United States may be tricky to navigate at times, understanding the workplace culture doesn’t need to be.

Every company has its own work culture. That being said, there are certain aspects of living and working in America that may be considered unique. Just like Spain with its siestas, there are particular quirks to American work culture that can be difficult to understand or navigate if you’re new to the country. Keep in mind that this is a general overview of American work culture and can vary significantly from company to company.


Perhaps the most important — and glaringly obvious — difference between American work culture and that of other nations, is that Americans pride themselves for being on time. You’re often already late if you show up to a meeting just as it’s about to begin, and punctuality is seen as a marker of success.

It’s important to show up to meetings at least five minutes early, if not ten to fifteen minutes ahead of time, so you can find a seat and prepare for the meeting. Moreover, unless a meeting is scheduled for more than 2 hours, it’s generally considered rude to leave while someone is speaking — so make sure you’re ready to settle in and pay attention prior to the start of the session. 

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Most companies in America have a clear organizational structure. This means that if you report to your manager, who in turn reports to the CEO, you shouldn’t directly seek out the CEO if you have questions, want feedback, or are requesting paid time off (PTO). 

Instead, your manager is the person to ask — and oftentimes, their secretary! It’s important to respect the hierarchy in the American work culture. While it may seem unfair at first, especially if you’re working an entry-level position and feel as if you’re constantly being asked to prove your worth, that hard work should pay off in rapid promotions following your first year

Additionally, depending on your office or line of work, the hierarchy at play will tell you a lot about the etiquette required in the workplace. Offices with a more rigid hierarchy will often be more formal, insisting on business casual or business formal attire, a certain email etiquette, and other rules.

Other workplaces may be much more casual, with a flatter hierarchy. In your first few days, it’s best to err on the side of caution and assume a more formal culture until you better understand the company and its specific rules.

Work-Life Balance

Unlike countries with abundant PTO, maternity leave, or long lunch breaks, American work culture emphasizes work over life. While it isn’t unusual to have lunch with colleagues, you’ll find that most employees are strict about keeping lunch to under an hour — if they leave their desk to take a break at all!

In addition to this, even if your “precise” hours may be 9AM - 5PM, you’ll find that the unspoken contract at the workplace often has employees working longer — either an hour or two earlier or later, each day.

Many workplaces will also insist that you be available over the weekend, at least to respond to urgent messages. Although American work culture is undergoing a slight transformation in which work-life balance is more largely emphasized, it still isn’t ubiquitous and Americans employees continue to have some of the longest working hours in the world.

“Go-Getter” Mentality

Finally, American work culture rewards a go-getter attitude — essentially, an employee who is willing to go the extra mile to make themselves stand out in the workplace. While team efforts and group projects remain an important part of the workplace in America, employers like to see employees who take initiative, speak up, and are happy to take on additional responsibilities. 

This is especially important because much of the work in the United States is individual-driven. Managers will rarely hand-hold and they’ll reward employees who can find their niche in a firm or fulfill duties before being told they’re necessary. 

Ultimately, the American work culture isn’t so different from that of other countries. But, a few key differences do exist and, depending on your own cultural background, these changes may be minimal or largely daunting. Either way, you’ve been hired to succeed and your coworkers, manager, and other employees want to help you to do the best job possible. It may take a while, but you’ll soon grow accustomed to the American work culture and thrive, too!


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Keertana Anandraj
Keertana Anandraj is a recent college grad living in San Francisco. When she isn’t conducting international macroeconomic research at her day job, you can find her in the spin room or planning her next adventure.

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