Friday, June 24, 2011

Friday Feature: The French Office & how to survive it

I’ve thought long & hard, (that’s what she said), about posting this. I’ve had so many recent conversations about this subject I felt compelled to send this out into the void at the risk of making some generalizations. When I arrived here, I was such an idiot, in so many ways. I made all the mistakes below, and more. Ugh. I shudder to think at how ridiculous I must have seemed... or, well probably still do seem lol.

I’m adding a disclaimer in light of the above:

The following is based on my personal experiences and each company, depending on its size, location and make up, will behave differently. I don’t advocate sweeping-statements about cultures or people in general, but that said, you may relate to some of these situations and if so, I hope that the advice based on my own reactions is helpful to you. Take it with a grain of salt ;)

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So, you've done it! You’ve moved to France and by some miracle, landed a job that will give your life meaning and line your pockets cash! Yay, good for you! That, already, is some feat. Before you get too excited, be prepared for some cultural differences, good and bad, that will make this experience unlike any job you've had in the States.

1. Professional Distance
You. Are. The. Job. Professional distance is a biggie. Just as you can expect French friends to take longer to warm up to you, your colleagues may not give you the welcome you expect from day one. In France, people probably won't ask you how your kids are, wait, in fact, most don’t give a rat's ass if you have a family and probably prefer you not mention it.

They're there to work, not to make friends. The good side of this is that you don't get the opportunity to play favorites with someone based on their personal life. Theoretically, you're judged on your work. Theoretically.

The downside to that distance is that it makes it really hard to connect with colleagues. Everyone seems, to me, to be in their own little bubbles and not really concerned with the emotional investments and motivations people harbor for their pet projects.

Tip: Hang in there. Unless your company is populated with douchebags, you'll slowly but surely integrate. Don't be offended, it's not you, it's them.

2. Perceptions of Hierarchy
Nobody likes a cocky noob. Though this goes without saying in any company, I think it goes double for French companies. Status is very important in this culture. By this I mean both hierarchy and seniority. You should be aware of your 'place’, it’s key to not pissing everybody off.

I know from experience that if you waltz in with all the answers, you will be despised no matter how helpful your insights might be. You may get advice claiming you need to disregard the opinions of others to gain respect, but I don’t think that’ll get you very far. All people enjoy being listened to, and having their ideas considered. I’ve been in situations where that just *doesn’t happen* with French bosses, and I think as expats, that might make us stand out more as mangers.

Tip: Even if you were hired to shake things up, it's important to ease into your job, listen more than you speak at first and you'll ruffle fewer feathers. You can't revolutionize the French workplace over night. Question co-workers to get the low-down on who to 'vous' (formally address) and who you can 'tu' (informally address). That will help you to avoid an embarrassing faux-pas, AND give you the low-down on who the status-mongers are from the get-go. Be sure to treat the 'vous' people with kid-gloves when it comes to their ego or you may regret it!

3. Positive Reinforcement
I’ve heard that from day one in French schools students are taught that they’re not good enough. They colored outside the lines, they misspelled the word 'immatriculation' - whatever the teacher can criticize, he or she will without hesitation. In my opinion, this explains a lot about the thanklessness in the office.

I think of it this way: your boss is not there to encourage you to work well, but rather discourage poor performance.

Tip: Be realistic about this cultural difference and learn to pat yourself on the back. When the French do dole out a few kind words, write them in a notebook and break them out on days you feel you deserve them most. Or, do like me, and find some expats you can complain to, that’ll make you feel better ;)

4. Benefits & Their Evil Twin, Taxes
Time to sit back and stroke your golden goose, France has a benefits program that will make your toes curl. The healthcare options are outstanding. Being American, I appreciate this even more. It’s a great comfort to know that the financial burden of being ill has been lifted. Having kids also brings another bundle of joy -- tax reductions and government checks!

The greatest gift of them all has to be the vacation: five weeks plus twelve RTT days are enough to make anyone jump for joy!! However, nothing is free, and the taxes you'll pay to enjoy all those fabulous benefits will likely make your smile turn upside-down.

Tip: Two words: Monthly. Payments. The first time I had to pay taxes in France, it was a lump sum deal. It felt like someone was ripping my heart out of my asshole signing that check!! Splitting the checks in twelfths was a hell of a lot easier.


5. Meeting Etiquette
Meetings are a whole other ball of wax on the other side of the pond. The Parisian faction are fashionable, and believe strongly in being fashionably late. Be warned, you will consistently be calling people to be sure they show up to your meetings. This is completely normal, even if it makes my 'merican head stoke out.

The rules are just not the same, and sometimes you just have to cope with the hand you're dealt and try to find a balance between how your Frenchie colleagues react to your promptness, and what you can stand.

Tip: Let your colleagues know how you operate if you're the one organizing. Give them the lowdown from day one to avoid aggravation/surprise when they show up 20 minutes late and you're pissed off. Expect them to show up early? Tell them straight out. Willing to bend a little? Let them know what you're willing to accept, so that if they show up later, you can kindly remind them... in front of the others. (A little ego-check never hurt!)

6. Hours
Americans have an entirely different outlook on what constitutes a work day. More often than not, we go in early to get out early, but in France, people don’t think the early bird gets the worm. Most people mosey on into their offices around nine-thirty or ten am, and head back home around seven-thirty or eight.

A ten hour day for a 35hr work week? Et oui! That's because lunch will be at least an hour or even and hour and a half long and breaks are frequent. What your French colleagues *may* lack in productivity is made up for in conviviality ;)

Tip: Follow their lead as far as hours go and take breaks with colleagues to better know them. Not eating with your crew will put a big fat 'outsider' label on your back from day one and hinder your integration. If you don't dig eating with your colleagues every day, try to make it a point to go with them at least once a week so they don't get hard feelings.


7. Hiring/Firing Practices
Getting a job in France is no simple task, even if you have a work visa. For expats it means finding someone willing to overlook your French language flaws, cultural faux-pas, and most importantly, the fact that you aren't French, and trust that despite all these 'drawbacks', you just might be competent one day (after months of their condescending tutelage).

What makes this process even more difficult is how hard it is to fire someone here. Sometimes I think having to fire someone is what the French fear most. It is the culmination of someone's failure to judge the employee's abilities, and who likes to admit they're a poor judge? Certainly not French management. It's also a ginormous legal hassle, full of proving, discussing, documenting, blah blah blah, shoot-me-now kind of crap. So, obviously, no one likes this part either.

Tip: Don't be surprised when you have ten hours of interviews and a cavity search before getting the nod. Also patience is a key trait to master since sooner or later you'll be stuck with a dud who can't be sent packing because it deflates someone's ego or would make some waves. Your future French boss might also be provocative during the interview, expect questions that are meant to shake you up, try to keep your cool. (I’ve had this happen to me, and heard it from a lot of friends, American or otherwise.)


8. Quitting Practices & your CV (resume)
Everyone has their limits. Sometimes you take a job and give it your all, only to find that it just doesn't fit. However, before you hit the road, there are a couple of things you should consider.

The French don't like flighty employees. “Duh, who does?” you’re saying. I know, I know. But in the US, at least in my case, it was better tolerated. Almost all my interviews here had a “Wow, you’ve changed jobs a lot” moment and my American bosses never seemed to blink at that fact. Stability is a huge asset, and if you move around too much, you're risking your rep’.

The second thing to think about is the 'demissionaire' phase (quitting period). Unlike in the states, two weeks is not an option. Three months is a typical notice period for a 'cadre' status, and in non-cadre situations it depends on your contract and can vary but is usually a month or so.

Tip: If you’ve got ants in your pants, try to negotiate your departure using vacation time to shorten the amount you have to work before leaving. Study your options before quitting, know your rights and the rules associated with your "Convention Collective" (see next point for more info on this). You might even be eligible to search for a new job on company time, or give less notice, or make a mutual break of the contract to obtain other benefits. Knowing these things in advance helps the process go smoothly and more to your advantage.

9. Collective Conventions
This documentation is a must read. It describes for all types of work in France the benefits and limitations like vacation days, your rights if you should quit or be laid off, etc. A quick google search will lead you to legifrance.gouv.fr where you can read this information for free (in French).

Tip: Know people in your field? Pick their brains! Still unsure? You could ask HR if no other option is available during your interview. As a noob, they might overlook your lack of knowledge in that area and fill you in.

10. M vs F
Break out time machine, you're going to take a trip back to 1950. In the U.S. if a man kissed my cheeks, told a dirty joke, called me beautiful and then asked me to get him a coffee, I'd probably pour it on his unmentionables and contact my nearest sexual harassment lawyer.

But I'm not in the U.S. I'm in France, where it's not offensive, it's "charming" and expected. Get used to some banter that would be deemed inappropriate according to American standards. Although many expect this will evolve and become less frequent due to the DSK incident, I think it's ingrained in their culture and fully expect it to continue on the sly.

(Note: of course you should use your own judgement about what feels acceptable to you. If you feel uncomfortable, bring it up with HR or your boss. My point is, they don't have the same standard of comfort here, and not to get your panties in a twist at the first incident because the intention may not be to harass you.)

Also expect to fight for your authority. Women do not enjoy the same commanding presence in France, much to my dismay.

Tip: Don't let the jerks belittle you or boss you around. If you're female, you've got to find a passive-aggressive way to put them in their place without totally f-ing their ego in front of other people unless you are looking to get a "bitch" label slapped on your back. And learn to laugh at the 'charming' personalities as long as you feel OK with it.





BONUS:

I have heard this question a lot lately: "I'm bumping heads with my French boss a lot, what do I do? nothing works!?"... Here are a few things I've noticed about French bosses and am sharing in hopes that it may help...

5 Management Do's & Don't's

- Don't work better/harder than your boss. Insecurity can be a real issue. One trick I used to use was to make my boss think that the idea I want to implement was his/hers and that I just added to it, or perfected it. Then I get recognition without hurting someone’s ego.

- Don’t be disrespectful towards them. This might seem obvious to you, and you should treat your boss with respect regardless, but it's even more important in France. Think twice about snarky jokes or sarcasm.

- Don't compromise your ideals. You can tell your boss you disagree, just don't do it every day or they'll get seriously annoyed with you and you'll earn a "trouble-maker" label. Pick your battles wisely, go after the ones that will make the biggest difference in your happiness at work.

- Do be a “yes” person. In my opinion, management here has to deal with some downer personalities compared to the typical American employee. I think they appreciate the can-do American attitude.

- Do take initiative. They seem to like it when you propose ideas, as long as they're not *too* out of the box. You may frighten them to death if it's too innovative (see first point!)

- Do be patient. Since your hire represents a big risk for your manager, try to keep that in mind when he or she doesn’t trust you over night.


Please, add your own tips, comments, ideas, "shannon you're full of shit"'s, etc in the comments :)

14 comments:

  1. OMFG!!!! Still laughing out loud. I. Can't. Breathe. There is nothing for me to say here except. Yep.

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  2. Glad you can relate kittster ;) PS we need to chat dbs pronto! see you in july!

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  3. Yep. This is a very important post. SO MANY myths and misperceptions. I'm sitting here trying to remember what drove me craziest: the tardiness, the late hours, or the constant shrugging of the shoulders... all of the above, I guess!

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  4. Very cute and funny, but nevertheless, - I'm sorry to say that your description of "The French Office" is perfectly applicable to many American offices, and probably the entire World.

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  5. All right !! So i'll try to answer you about a few points... I apologize in advance if i make grammatical errors, feel free to correct me...

    First of all you are apparently living and working in Paris and it makes a great difference with the "province" (all france except Paris) i won't

    explain you why here (cause i don't have 10 hours... ;))) but i think that you have to know it....

    Anyway, to answer you point by point...

    1- It's true... But do you really want your boss and colleagues to know everything about your private life? With a little time you'll find some

    peoples to talk to... Isn't it enough? Do you really want your life to be a conversation subject beside the coffee machine? ;))

    2- It's true... In fact "power relations" is an heavy problem in france... In fact nobody really knows who has power and who didn't... So in a new

    job you you'd always better "walking on eggshells" (marcher sur des oeufs) as we say in france...

    3- Absolutly true i think... In france nothing is never enough... From the "maternelle" to retirement...

    4- This is a important subject... In France the "price of a life" is really important... We have many faults but we can't accept to pay for illness... So

    everyone in france (rich or poor) can be treated for free. And it's the same for school from the "maternelle" to university...But of course workers

    have to pay for it... And yes, monthly payement is the key ;)

    5- This is particulary a very "parisian" habit... ;) and you must be very strict. Another key is to always start your meeting with 5 minutes late and

    no more... Usually at the third time everybody will be here on time... (on the contrary if you give them 10 minutes they will take 20 and if you give

    20 they will take 40... ;)) )

    6- This is also a very parisian habit... But you forgot to mention the "Subway", "RER" and "Périphérique" problem... Usually parisian start their

    working days later because being in the subway from 6 to 8 am and 5 to 8 pm is just impossible (and i don't even talk about strikes ;)) )

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  6. 7- In fact in France firing someone is very expensive. Each month an amployeur pay 40% of your salary as taxes... And firing someone means

    that you'll have to pay him (usually) a allowance that represent 6 month pay... So...

    8- Yes... Because in our contry everything is so complicated that you'll need 6 month to be really operational... ;))) So if you fly away before two

    years it's an absolut waste of time for your boss ;)))

    9- You forgot to say one thing : We don't have syndicats... I know that it's seem incredible but it's true... Except a few worker ( generaly civil

    servant ) everything have to be dealed face to face with your boss... And generaly la "convention collective" is never strictly applied (for good or

    evil) ... Does somebody says "complicated?" ;))

    10-Well we have allready talked about that didn't we? ;)) . So just one world: you forgot to say that it's a game and that you can also play with

    it... I don't know how things happens in USA but in france, with a smile, twinkling an eye and a decent skirt you can have so many gentle things...

    So why don't you play with it ? It's not even a question of "seduction" it's just that you are a woman and we are men... Why act as if dit not exist?

    Obviously with some limitations (we are just "silly pants" as you said once ;)) )

    By the way kissing a cheek is a really important subject... And very complicated, we could write hundreds of pages about this subject... To be

    short if you are a woman meeting a man: when you say "vous", you shake hand ; when you say "tu" you kiss the cheek (2 times in Paris i think)

    (yes, depending on where you are in france changing the practice on number of kisses ;)) ) (who said again complicatd????).

    And by the way again before 6 pm you say "bonjour" but after you say "bonsoir" and this will make you a real parisian girl ;))

    Cordialement
    yann "the french guy" ;))

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  7. That's very interesting, that French office life is a mixture of tutoi and vousvoi. I never knew that -- must be quite a problem.

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  8. @sweet - glad you related to it :)

    @anon - entitled to your opinion, as I am mine, but I don't think the french & us office environments share these issues. At least, as I said, not in my experience ;) The US offices were *much* less political, and the treatment of women was so drastically different that it really took me a while to come to terms with it over here.

    @yann - my oh my... you, a frenchie, have just confirmed my blog's truthitude. Thanks :) And some v good points in there-- somebody does says complicated lol. Thanks so much for chiming in!

    @expat - oh yes. total mix in my exp., it can be rather problematic, especially for idiotic me who switches them around a lot. (le sigh).

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  9. One thing you've completely overlooked here is education. As an outsider, the French will never really know how to relate to you, because they've got no idea what school you went to. Unfortunately, that will also be a major hurdle in your career progression, because many jobs are 'reserved' for graduates from particular schools.

    French office life is also full of these little networks, with lots of favours exchanged between people who graduated from the same places.

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  10. Hi,

    I am French, and I’ve been working in Paris for US consulting firm with strong international presence (including France) for 7 years now.

    I believe your analysis of the French Office is really accurate! My few comments:

    Regarding professional distance, I would say: Take your time. It’s not only @work, but more a general rule in France. Getting to know people takes time. I mean longer than in the US where you can share your full private life in minutes with a complete stranger. As an expat, you also may be seen at first as a threat: If the firm is willing to invest on sending you abroad, there must be a reason. Was there any explanation given to your colleagues about it? They may also wonder if there is any hidden agenda.

    About your tips: You are perfectly right to keep a can-do attitude. This is highly valued. This is typically the kind of thing that will make you stand out from the herd. But you have to remember one thing: The incredibly high respect shown to hierarchy. If you need to say you disagree, do it face to face, and certainly not during a meeting with other team members (or even worse, hierarchy or external people). Some bosses do accept a straightforward conversation, others will need more diplomacy. You may use your « expat excuse » to tell things!



    Finally, there is one thing that is striking me in several US expat blogs: This fear to be ridiculous. Of course there will always be some narrow-minded people, but my feeling is that most people are very forgiving towards foreigners around here. I mean, you may not speak perfect French, you may still struggle with the kiss-on-cheeks etiquette, you may have tutoyé your big boss, who cares? People do understand you are having another culture, and will happily forgive these small faux-pas. Use your « expat excuse », and remember that your male colleagues will be all the more forgiving since you are a woman. I know it should not happen, I understand you are not comfortable with this one, but when in Rome, do as the Romans do!

    I have in mind the perfect example of a female manager over here, who is definitely respected, and who perfectly knows how to use her feminity in some cases, and can be a very tough manager in other situations. There is a set expression for this: Une main de fer dans un gant de velour.

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  11. Shan - I missed this post when it was originally posted, but so very glad I caught it now! What an informative one. You tied together a lot of things I had heard and read about, from both French employees and expat ones, but you have put all the situations and tips into one post. Good, good stuff. So glad I came by today to finally catch this one! I'm bookmarking it for future reference. :)

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  12. I stumbled upon your blog post a few days ago and you have really inspired me personally to get started on crocheting once again! I was simply wondering if you were able to send me the actual design with this particular beret (it can be adorable!) because the website link will not are working for myself..? I would genuinely be thankful!

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  13. Hi,

    I live in NY (travel to Paris frequently)....and always wondered what it would be like to work there. This is very informative.

    merci :)

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  14. what a perfectly apt way to describe the whole shenanigan, (or shannonigan, anyone?) I'm a Brit working for a bathroom company in Paris (export + french customer service) and with the exception of point 6 on working hours, would wholeheartedly agree. also very interesting the views of the two frenchmen yann and steve and it definitely helps to look at where a lot of it comes from. like any place, there are positives and negatives, and i don't think I could move back to the UK, but I do disagree with the 'when in Rome' arguement. Don't hide behind 'it's the way we do things round here' or you'll end up with 5 monkeys in a cage scenario, which can be googled for those who don't know it. The sexism is latent, the hierarchy still betrays far too many signs of the bourgeoisie and the 'insecurity' is unacceptable...I'm afraid the majority of the workplace issues are unjustifiable. Explainable, yes, justifiable, no. I've never seen so many people so aware of a problem and yet so unwilling to change it. (my current boss shared my view until she superceded our former boss - without a payrise of course - and started acting up as soon as any other of the fabled 'cadre' clan were around) There is no excuse. I see managers who tutoi and those who vousvoie...the difference is unmissable in the respect and motivation of their direct subordinates. I don't need to say which way it favours...
    Change it where you can. Avoid it where you can't. BAC+X doesn't make you a better worker (yes, i have bac+x or i wouldn't have my job), credit where it's due is a due not a negotiation or diplomatic exercise, (how are there so many who believe this yet so few who experience it?) you'll spend more of your waking working life with colleagues than your loved ones, so get to know them! And if I had my own business, I'd go out of my way to avoid students from the Grandes écoles. 'Psychorigide' and arrogant with, of course, some exceptions (as Shannon pointed out, generalisations are dangerous!). Can't wait until we can move to Province...anywhere but Paris!

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