Corrine Maier, a civil servant in the French electric company,EDF, recently published a 117- page book about French Corporate Culture. Called, Hello Laziness, the book is getting a lot of attention.
Maier agreed to an email interview where she stressed that the intent of the book was to be humorous.“I write that the middle-management is full of morons very "français moyen" (average French), that companies hate culture, that only people who are forced to do so actually work, that working in big companies signify being stuck between red tape and brutality... It's (partly) a caricature!
I’m interested in understanding why you felt this book was important to publish?
I don't know if this book was important to publish! I write about subjects that seem important to me (I have already published 6 books about psychoanalysis, history and literature). If it is important for the others they read my books, if it is not, they don’t!
What are the three major changes you would like to see in French Corporations?
I don't know if it is possible to change things, I am very pessimistic. Of course, if people in France could change of jobs more easily, work would change, because there are things people would not accept any more. Nowadays, people shut up just because they are afraid of being fired. Once they have a job, they stick to it and they feel obliged to show the bosses that they are very happy to be there - it is compulsory to say that working is such a privilege, even if your job is boring and your colleagues are stupid... Besides, I think French companies are more or less like most big corporations in western countries.
What has been the reaction of workers in France?
Some people are shocked! An economist who criticizes work, they cannot accept that! But there are many people who laugh.
Are you surprised at the reaction the book is getting?
Yes, I am surprised at the reaction of my company, my bosses didn't understand it was humoristic - and they forgot we live in a free country, where people have the right to criticize the system. -I don’t feel allowed to give marks at big corporations. My book only deals with work, and all the questions relative to it: are we condemned to dress up as clowns all week and waste our lives in pointless meetings?
Monique Wells is an American living in France. She arrived there twelve years ago when the pharmaceutical company she worked for in the states merged with French company. While she has not read Maier’s book, she says that from what she’s been told, Maier has accurately described French corporate culture.
Wells stresses that not everything about French business culture is bad. " The French are not as time-obsessed as Americans. They don't feel compelled to start their work day at 8:00 or 8:30. It's much more common to see people arriving at work at 9,9:30 or even 10," explained Monique. And she added, " People do enjoy their lunch hour."
In fact that lunch hour is sacrosanct.
One thing you won’t see in a French corporation is people eating at their desks. “Even though the French are the most independent people that I know, when you go to work, you are part of a team. That means you go to lunch together,and you take breaks together. If you wanted to eat by yourself, it would be considered strange and you might be criticized and even penalized.”
However, its not the teamwork that is at the crux of French Corporate Culture. It's the policy of making it nearly impossible to ever fire anyone.
“The big thing in France is that you really can’t fire people.” I’ve known people who are rewarded for doing nothing. In the states, a person who would slough off on a job would get fired. Because the French can’t fire them, they move them, and if there isn’t a good lateral place to move them, they sometimes move them up.”
According to Wells, a couple of years ago, France implemented a 35- hour work week. It’s not working, But, she says, they’ll never change it. “The French just can’t admit when they are wrong. It’s part of their culture. If I ever heard a business person in France say they’ve made a mistake, I’d pass out in the street.”
Which could explain why no one gets fired. If its a cultural taboo to admit you are wrong, it would be impossible for a manager to admit she had hired the wrong person.
Wells is now an entrepreneur. She was able to start her own business because the French companies must give employees with a certain amount of tenure the opportunity to take a one or two year sabbatical to start a business. If the business fails, the company must rehire the failed entrepreneur at the same salary they left.
To start her business, Wells incorporated in the states, in part because the French don't make it easy to be an entrepreneur. If Wells had incorporated in France ,she as the business owner, would need to show the government that she had about assets of about ten thousand dollars (American). As one person working in France noted, entrepreneur may be a French word but its not French friendly.
She doesn’t have any expectations of growing the person beyond a consultancy. “I can’t afford to hire anyone because French law makes it almost impossible to fire them and I simply can’t afford to make that mistake.”
As for Maier, she’s scheduled for a disciplinary hearing in September. After all this is August and very little work gets done in August. The French do take their vacation time very seriously. In the meantime Maier says,
My status? I am still working for my company, Electricity of France (EDF). As I've got support from the unions, from the media, and from some of my colleagues, I keep cool. I don't know what will happen to me next - a sanction from my company? A best-selling book? Both ? Let's see...
Have a story? I want to hear it! The success of this column depends on people sharing their stories-- so whether its a boss, co-worker, corporate policy or just general corporate nonsense, let me hear from you --your identity and the identity of your place of employment will be protected. The goal is to tell the story, not get anyone fired.
Image added 8/09/07