Five Ways Your German Workplace Will Differ from Your American One

1. Colleagues may bring in baked goods to share on their birthday

Let’s start with the fun, fluffy stuff. Once, when I worked at a high school in the U.S.A., I was greeted in my office on my birthday with a beautiful home-baked birthday cake by my boss (I still remember, Pat!) Granted, this may have been over and above what many bosses do, however, it is generally the typical order of things in America for people bring treats to YOU, the birthday child (assuming, of course, people know it’s your birthday)

German American Office Birthday Party
Happy Birthday to ME! I give you, dear colleagues, the gift of a calorie bomb!

So, you can imagine my confusion after moving to Germany when office colleagues would bring in cake, muffins and the like, followed quickly by a round of collegial handshaking and wishes of „Alles gute zum Geburtstag!“ to the bearer of the treats. Wait, what? I have to bake for my own birthday? Not every adult continues to do this, but surprisingly many do (because cake). Fifteen years on, I have to admit to still being slow on the uptake when my day rolls around. Maybe when I turn 80 I will have finally caught on. Whether I will still be in condition to bake is another question.

2. „Hello, Ms. American Colleague“

Although this varies widely between and even within companies, the business etiquette default in Germany is still to use „Mr. or Ms. Lastname“ when addressing bosses, subordinates, and colleagues. Bottom line: an American working in a German office is always well advised to listen carefully to and adopt the formality level demonstrated, and to use the formal „Sie“ unless invited to do otherwise or unless the German counterpart starts off by using „Du“.

Likewise, Germans will need to go Zen with being on a first name basis with those up and down the chain of command. Though hierarchy definitely exisits in American offices, the use of first names is not a vehicle for displaying it.

3. You will get generous annual vacation allotment—and be expected to use it

German law mandates a minimum of twenty workdays (Monday-Friday) of vacation per year; many companies grant more time. On top of this, Germany has between 9-13 paid public holidays, varying from state to state. If vacation days go unused due to business reasons or sickness, they roll over into the next year till around March. After this point, they are forfeited.

Bottom Line: people take their vacations, and so should you.

In contrast, a 2013 study by Oxford Economics found that Americans forfeited about 169 million vacation days. With no federal mandate for paid vacations, managers have been slow to actively push their employees to take whatever allotment is granted by the company. Another legal aspect at play in America is At Will Employment, which allows both employer and employee to end a working relationship without notice and thus adds an element of job (or advancement) risk for those taking extended time off.

4. Coming to work sick is a no-go

Due again to federal laws governing paid sick leave, folks Do. Not. Come. To. Work. Sick. They do, however, need to obtain and present a valid physician’s note. For longer-term illnesses, an employee’s health insurance either helps pay some of the cost (for absences less than six weeks) or the whole cost (totalling 70% of an employee’s gross pay or 90% of the take-home pay for absences longer than six weeks).

The United States currently has no federal laws regarding paid leave due to illness.

Bottom Line: If you’re sick, visit your doctor, go home and take your herbal medicines.

5. You as an employee will have more involvement and influence in management matters.

Now to the heavier stuff, though this point brings us to a framework of laws too complicated to cover in detail in this post. Suffice it to say that the principle of co-determination (“Mittbestimmungsrecht“, say that ten times chewing gum while patting your head and rubbing your tummy) and the Works Constitution Act comprise the backbone of corporate law and the guiding principle behind industrial relations in Germany. Depending on the size of your company, your interests will be represented to management by a Works Council and / or by the presence of employee representatives at the supervisory and management board levels. Should you be elected by your colleagues as a representative on the Works Council, you will be receive regular trainings on the complexities of German Labor Law. Good times!

I am neither going to pretend that it is always smooth sailing between Works Councils and upper mangement, nor am I going to suggest that a 1:1 adoption of a similar structure would be feasible in an American corporate work environment. I will point to this interesting article that weighs the possibilities and pitfalls of doing so. For our purposes, it’s enough to say that in Germany co-determination is accepted, practiced and—for the most part—seems to work.

Adjusting to the German work environment (or an American one, if you’re from Germany) involves much more than operating in a new language. Before beginning your new assignment, book an intercultural training to get off on the right foot and to avoid unpleasant surprises.

 

A Vacation from Business

Last week for the Fall school holidays, we took our fifth cruise—and our fourth through the Mediterranean. We don’t lack imagination, this is mostly due to logistics—cruises with itineraries leaving from northern Italy involve the least amount of getting-to-port travel hassles.

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I don’t love everything about cruising, and we probably ought to consider at least expanding our geographical horizons the next time. But what makes them so generally addicting is the cultural and language smorgasbord the passengers and crew comprise on our cruise line of choice (MSC, no paid endorsements here). Though an Italian line, on board announcements are made in five languages (Italian, French, Spanish, German and English). The ship’s captain even plowed through a „welcome“ message in every passenger-represented language on the cruise, including Chinese, Slovenian and Russian.

On English-language cruise review forums, I often see this listed as a negative. What also seems to catch some travelers by unpleasant surprise are the differing rules for forming lines–something that comes to spectacular, chaotic light during buffet and shore excursion rush hours (amongst Italians, the rule is: there ain’t no rules). Multilingualism amongst wait- , reception- and cabin staff leads to the inevitable communication snafus and increases the likelihood of misunderstandings, another bugaboo amongst some forum posters.

Perhaps weirdly, it is exactly these situations that appeal to me. An MSC cruise is a great little microcosm of the world and international relations, and I personally find the company does a commendable job of bending over backward to accommodate everyone, from food and drink selection to staging evening shows that are song-, dance- and acrobatics heavy in order to bypass language barriers.

The few times I feel myself getting frustrated over communication challenges, I quickly remind myself that I am no more entitled than anyone else in this world—or on the ship—to understand or be understood 100%. And I am definitely over myself when I listen to the truly linguistically otherworldly cruise directors rattle off the show introduction flawlessly five times (this time around, it was Massimo; the man deserves a bigger stage than the one he currently has.

This time around, we had dinner table mates—a family of four from Slovenia. With their limited English and our non-existent Slovenian, our dinner conversations were pretty limited. I did, however, manage to inadvertently swat the mom in the cheek while napkin twirling on Italian Night (what’s this? Take a cruise and find out!) In a small spurt of sheepish post-apology conversation, we managed to establish that she had spent time living near the farming village my mother was born in. It’s a Small World After All.

On the final evening, we all managed to have a to-the-point-of-hyperventilation laugh over a mysterious and rather dubious looking dessert (heads up: it’s called a „canollo“. If you can figure out how to eat it gracefully, please contact me and enlighten).

MSC has a distinctly Italian flair, and Italians know how to be festive. MSC quite lovingly takes their joie de vivre and applies it to a palette of international traditions. On October 31, the ship was adorned with Halloween decorations, and the bars served ghoulish seasonal libations. The animation team were costumed and making sure passengers young and old were in the spirit, culminating in a Halloween party on the pool deck.

Interestingly, there was a generous representation of North Americans on board, and a particular group of three middle aged women traveling together (do I still get to call people „middle aged“ and make it clear that they are older than me? A topic for another post) turned out to be my favorite. On Halloween, they waltzed into the dining room in full witch regalia. In an amusing role reversal, the waitstaff were taking selfies with THEM. „This is how we look without makeup!“ one quipped loudly. They proceeded to „trick“ the good natured waiter repeatedly throughout dinner.

Vacation tends to bring out the best in people (unless you’re in a buffet or excursion line during rush hour), and it’s lovely to see the passengers and crew working and playing together in good spirits. In fact, I think the next summit of world leaders should take place on an MSC cruise, with the singular goal of cutting loose and par-TAYing their differences away.

You think they’ll be on board with the idea?