How the social system impact the working culture

Being back at work reminded me that I wanted to blog about work culture for a while and especially how the social and employment system impacts it. Today i will start with a perk that most American can only dream of and european enjoys…. I am referring to job security!

In Europe (Though there are large differences between the countries in Western Europe, I chose to focus for this article on points that are common to all. )

Basically you can not fire someone so easily and need to provide a valid reason for firing off someone. The valid reasons vary from incompetence, to inappropriate behavior in the workplace, punishable offense or economic difficulty. Depending on how strong the unions are in your company, firing can be something that happens once in a while or something extremely rare. To avoid being stuck with workers that do not fit with the company overall profile, new hire are put on probation period that vary from a few days to 1 year. Another common trick of companies is to hire on short term contracts for up to 2 years with the possibility to renew once. That way they can keep the best employee and check if the position is viable long term. This is how I started in my current job in Germany.

Basically once you have a permanent contract, you can theoretically stay in your job until it’s time to retire or at least until they have financial difficulties and let you go with a check and the promise of cashing unemployment benefits for a while. As a employee it is a huge security but it is also risky on the long term.

The company for which I am working since 2011, a lot of employee started there in apprenticeship at 14 or 18 years old and have never worked for any other company. After 10 years on the job, their skillset do not necessarily match with the job market requirements anymore and the more they stay the harder it gets to find a job outside and the more they will have to stay even if the working conditions are no longer bearable (stress level, knowledge and capacity to perform the task). In Service job people deliver the quality which they think is sufficient even if the customer does not agree on the metrics. The same person can be frankly rude to you and still praise itself for serving your food fast or for getting you the best possible deal on your train ticket.

People identify with the company, and make the company’s interest their own. They look for long term solution and are not afraid of addressing problem as soon as they see them. They know what they get paid for and will make sure that they get the job done in the given time frame. They will work 100% to achieve this during office hours eventually putting in a few extra hours but will refuse to sacrifice their private life and especially the time spent with family and friends for this. An employee who makes too long hours or refuse to take his vacation is seen as inefficient.

Because their structures are not agile, european companies have to aim for high quality, maximum efficiency and a great amount of strategic workforce planning to stay competitive.

Work in the United States

In the US you can get fired without notice, for any reason and mostly without compensation. Coming back to work on a Monday, you may realize that your coworker has been fired on Friday evening and all his / her stuff are gone. Because they can fire employee easily and do not need to cover for inexistant maternity and sick leave company don’t offer short term contract. They only look for people who offer to stay longer but actually can be let go at any time.

As a consequence American employee tend to prioritize their interests over the one of the company. They have to market themselves constantly and often pay out of their own pocket for training to keep up with the job markets. Changing job is easy and quick and one has to change regularly to progress even if that means moving hours away of ones family and friends. The less glamorous side of this is that American workers have to spend a lot of their work time on looking good, being seen as hard working, positive and flexible sometimes at the cost of efficiency or activities that bring value to the company. They will send work emails at odd hours or connect in the middle of the night to conference call on a different time zone just to show the big boss how hard they work even if it does not bring any added value to the discussion and will thus bring their weekly productivity down for the entire week.

Waiters, call center agents or receptionist are always friendly and ready to help but underneath the surface the quality of the delivered content is mostly just average if not clearly poor. Like this air hostess who smiles and ask how people are doing but are not supposed to help you find space to stow away your carry-on luggage on a fully packed flight forcing you to put your the luggage under the seat thus blocking the possibility to make a quick exit to all passengers seating in your row. Customer do not complain because that is the standard and they do not want to bear the responsibility of getting someone fired.

The people who came to pack our shipment in North Carolina needed two days to do a job that their German counterparts finished off in half a day one year before. They were extremely nice and friendly but did such a lousy job that half of the things were damaged at arrival or packed in such a way that we took double the time to unpack it or had to clean it. The insurance will refund us but what is the point of complaining when you know that they are being paid by the hour, have received no job training whatsoever and probably already left the job on the search for something better or have to work two to three jobs to live decently.

The friendly packers who thought relevant to pack all my laundry material together with a used toiled brush

American companies are very agile and have an innovative mindset but in highly competitive fields they lack qualified and experienced workforce thus forcing them into a price war that is often detrimental to the employees.

Knowing how each culture works really helped me to improve my performance at work. In my field of project management, I have learned to challenge the status green (everything is on track) of my American stakeholders because they tend to minimize risks until it’s too late to mitigate them by fear of repercussion. On the opposite side, Europeans tend to overuse yellow lights even if they have already started to solve the issue or are just facing minor set-backs. In a global business world, it is essential to see the other perspectives and social contexts and see which tools to use in order to take the best of both cultures.

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