Life, Love and Ethics in the French Workplace

Life, Love and Ethics in the French Workplace

Work in a French company and it might come as a shock when you realize that the structures of most businesses are conceived to maintain a clear distinction between different levels of pecking order, whilst communication between top management, middle management and non-managerial staff is often limited, or non-existent.

“I worked in a Pizza Hut in the States and everyone mucked in together. Here in France there’s a definite difference made between us, the menial employees, and the big bosses who run the franchise,” Roy says a shade bitterly.

Moral? Don’t be fooled by those a fantasy of some heady Bohemia peopled by libidinous, laid-back Latins. When you first join a French company strict formality is more likely to be the name of the game.

So what does that mean in practical terms?

– Don’t use first names unless you’re asked. In some offices you may never get beyond surname status.
– Use the courtesy terms ‘Madame’ and ‘Monsieur’ even to your hierarchic equals and don’t bother with the archaic-sounding Mademoiselle, unless you’re addressing a six-year-old.
– Remember that vous takes precedence over tu, unless a tu is addressed to you. Like an 18th century lady doing the waltz, don’t try to impose your own rules; let yourself be guided by your speaking partner. But remember: when in doubt it’s always safer to plump for a formal vous.

To kiss, or not?

Many a Brit has turned bright scarlet as he/she struggles with the snogging quandary which France imposes on us inhibited non-Latin’s.
“it’s so embarrassing. When I greet my father-in-law I nearly always bump with his nose because I never know which cheek to offer first” laughs Laura, married to a Parisian.

Women do kiss more easily than men, but as a general rule the French rarely kiss the cheeks of work colleagues they see everyday, whereas they will treat even the most distant relative to these effusions.

Men will be relieved to learn that beard-rubbing embraces tend to remain a family affair and handshakes – a light grip and a single shake – are more customary, in both a social and a work context, between males of the same species.

And remember: Brits might say it’s rude, but the French do love to stare, so whether it’s business, or pleasure, you will get off to a better start if you maintain eye contact at all times.

Long liquid lunches and other myths dispelled

« When I first started work 15 years ago the long, liquid lunch was the norm. That’s not so now.» comments a manager for the French company Leroy Merlin.

Believe it, or not, after years of nurturing the bon vivant, everything-stops-for-lunch-when- important-contracts-are-signed-in -a-haze-of-nicotine-on-the-edge-of-a-wine-stained-table, myth, the French are changing their feeding habits. If southerners still see the midday meal as a lengthy period of relaxation rather than a pit stop between two dossiers, faced with a rapidly changing business world the French as a whole are catching up with their ulcer-boasting European colleagues and gobbling sandwiches ‘on the hoof’, instead of sitting down to sup.

The number of business meals taken in small or medium-sized restaurants has reduced drastically over the last decade. Restaurants have blamed the advent of hamburger bars on the streets of even the smallest French towns, stricter drink-driving laws and changing attitudes to business. “It’s all Europe’s fault. Business is increasingly competitive now that France has lost the monopoly on so many markets,” one restaurant owner says.

Causing food providers owners more concern, statistics also show that, when they do go out for lunch, businessmen are spending at least 20% less on their meals and they are no longer ordering the ubiquitous aperitifs and liquors.

Hours and overtime

French working hours are generally from 8:30 or 9:00 am, to 6:30 or 7:00 p.m and generally include one, or two, hours off for lunch. You should avoid scheduling appointments in July and August since most of the country grinds to a halt during the aestival season. As for the 35 hour week, after a lot of political backbiting it has finally become a French fact of life, although for employees this work amendment tends to translate as longer holidays, rather than shorter working weeks.

What about equal opportunities?

If the myth of long liquid lunches is slowly being erased from the French workplace, arcane realities, such as sexual harassment, are taking longer to dispel. Whether, flattering and unequivocal, or derogatory and distinctly dodgy, women on the job are constantly subjected to remarks from their male colleagues.

“The notion of sexual harassment just doesn’t seem to exist in this country,” complains Carla, an American student who worked for a French company based in Lyon.

Carla is not alone in voicing this opinion. “What’s meant to be a kind of ‘sexual openness’ is actually a way of not seeing the woman as an equal and it definitely hinders her advancement in a company,” comments one of Carla’s female workmates.

According to recent statistics women hold just 2 percent of the executive management positions in larger French companies, as opposed to 3.6 percent in the U.K.

Speak to a French woman, however, and she’ll tell you it’s just another way of doing things – and a way which can have definite advantages. “Just because a man holds the door open for you, or says your dress is nice, it doesn’t mean he’s hassling you, says Marie-Jo who works as a P.A. for a Parisian textiles firm. “It’s just a kind of harmless flirting and 9-out-of-10 times I can use it to get what I want,” she adds.

But Carla complains: “In France it’s generally assumed that a woman who answers the phone will be the secretary,” and she suggests that someone contacting a company by letter, or email, should sign with just an initial instead of that telling first name. “That way they don’t know if you’re a man, or a woman and you’ll probably be taken more seriously,” she says.

Frenchentrée’s top tips for successfully integrating the French workplace

-Don’t forget to say ‘hello’. The French attach immense importance to greetings. So whether you’re arriving at your office in the morning or quitting your job after a hard day’s work, don’t forget to say a l ‘bonjour” – shaking hands when appropriate – or call a cheery ‘bonsoir’ as you leave.

-Do remember which name is which. The French tend to introduce themselves by a surname followed by a first name. So unless you want egg on your face the next time someone introduces themselves as ‘Jean, Paul’, remember that’s likely to be Monsieur Jean rather than Monsieur Paul.

-Don’t talk about politics on your first meeting. Unless you know the political persuasion of your interlocutor and adhere to it, it’s best to avoid politics as a topic of conversation in France. Such discussions – as messrs Chirac and Holland can tell you – tend to become very heated on this side of the channel.

-Do remember to ‘know your place’ Despite their vaguely bohemian reputation, the French are generally very formal in the workplace.

•With thanks to Heidi Fuller-Love

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