Tag Archives: law

From Benefits to Brainstorming: Business ABC’s

Howdy, and welcome to the Thank-Goodness-It’s-Spring (on the calendar, anyway) edition  of Intercultural Reflections

I will continue A,B,C-ing my way through the American business landscape…today’s blog comes courtesy of the letter „B“, as in…

Benefits: Germans may be surprised to learn that some of the job benefits they take for granted—and are even codified in labor law—are not a requirement (and thus sometimes not on offer) for their American counterparts.

For example, paid maternity and sick leave are not mandated by federal law. Companies of over 50 employees are required to give their workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid family and medical leave provided the employee has worked for that company for 12 months and for at least 1,250 hours during that period.

Up until 2015, employers were not mandated to offer health insurance to employees. The Obama-era Affordable Care Act health legislation changed this; today companies with more than 50 employees face penalties for failing to provide health insurance. This mandate is being fought against in Congress.

Although companies wishing to attract the best and brightest employees are starting to offer paid vacation benefits, no federal law mandating such exists. That’s right…in the USA, there are zero days of paid vacation guaranteed to employees. According to a study by Ohio University, large businesses offer 86% of their employees paid vacation, whereas 69% of small businesses offer such. Also according to the study, full-time workers fare much better than part-time workers, at a rate of 91% and 35%, respectively, receiving paid vacation.

Believe it or not, Americans don’t clamor for mandated paid vacation as vigorously as you would expect. Read more about that here.

Bullying: Throwing this in here because the German term is the English-language-sounding „mobbing“. Though this term also exists with the same meaning in the American workplace, it is much less commonly used than „bullying“, so you might draw some blank stares if you try to use it with Americans.
In any case—bullying or mobbing–is bad, baaaaaad…don’t do it!

Board of Directors: Officially, the term for this category would be „Corporate Governance“. But that wouldn’t fit under „B“ then, would it?

This is a complicated topic that can be explained thoroughly in 70 short pages , but garsh, that would just overextend your and my attention span for this blog’s purposes, wouldn’t it?

Short version: German company boards are governed by a so-called two-tiered system: a management board and a separate supervisory board. This system is focused on maintaining the long-term health of a company and balancing the viewpoints and needs of all its stakeholders.

In the USA, the Board of Directors and the Supervisory Board are most often chaired by the CEO. The main focus of a company is on serving the interests of shareholders. Unlike in the German two-tiered system, there is no federal-level legislation specifically guiding the company’s structure.

Brainstorming: This term was first coined by US advertising executive Alex Osborne and refers to the free flow of ideas as a way to solve problems. The four essential elements of brainstorming are to: „generate as many ideas as possible; defer judgment on all ideas; generate wild ideas; build on each other’s ideas.“

While German employees also practice variations of brainstorming, it is safe to say that „generating wild ideas“ is not—as a rule—part of the German comfort zone. They prefer to look at what has worked in the past and systematically craft a solution from there. Their American counterparts, in contrast, have a less friendly relationship with solutions from bygone eras, even if they were not failures. Newer is better!

So, that’ll „B“ it for today’s post…have a restful weekend and I’ll „C“ you next time!

As always, if you need to zip through the alphabet of cultural differences at a speedier pace, book an intercultural training with yours truly!

Business ABC’s in the USA: At-Will Employment

Well, Howdy!

Welcome to the 2018 re-boot-aroo of your friendly neighborhood Intercultural Reflections Blog!

After some reflections of my own, I’ve decided to A-B-C- our way through the customs and peculiarities of doing business with Americans. And guess where I’m starting? Yep, with the letter “A”, as in, “At-Will Employment”. Enjoy!

At-Will Employment (or Employment-At-Will) is better known here in Europe as „hire and fire“. It is the principle that employees can be released from (or quit) their jobs at any time and for any reason—including for no reason. Good times.

In many states, employment-at-will also allows an employer to change the terms and conditions of an employment relationship–including wages– without prior notice to the employee. Exceptions to the right to fire at will are here . These exceptions notwithstanding, at-will employment is generally considered to be the overriding principle of employer-employee relations in the United States. The state of Montana is the only one which switches from at-will to a more German-style just-cause firing principle after a probationary employment period (no longer than six months) has been completed.

Why is this significant for movers and shakers in the German business world to know? For those working at any level of business cooperation with Americans, being aware of this key employment difference will help to shine a light on why Americans may operate as they do in a given business situation. If a U.S. counterpart seems to act in ways that are more immediately and concretely self-preserving than what seems to be in the overall, long-term and big-picture better interests of the company, the at-will employment doctrine is likely humming along in the background.

One example of this might be an employee’s reluctance to speak frankly and critically, especially to a superior. Another is a tendency to take actions before they have been meticulously planned out and discussed, since employees tend to be measured by short-term quantifiable results. A lack thereof puts an employee at risk of looking unproductive. And an unproductive employee is an easily replaceable one.

On a more concrete level, at-will employment means that employees can be let go and replaced if they are absent, including for short-term illness (self or family member). The Family and Medical Leave Act does provide some limited protections for longer-term illness, including that of family members.

Did you really think Americans *enjoy* going to work sick?

Ditto, by the way, for vacation time, even when a vacation allotment exists. Presence counts, and for many, the risk of being replaced is not worth the risk of enjoying some time off, no matter how well-deserved.

In contrast to Germany, American labor law is significantly more heavily skewed in favor of the employer/corporation, and Germans will need to account for this and all its implications on American work culture when doing business with the U.S.A.

German managers working Stateside will probably be surprised by the relative deference employees will show him/her, and may struggle to encourage open, critical and frank discussion from team members. Identifying, speaking out about and tackling problems with our superiors is not within our comfort zone. We would much rather highlight our achievements and „victories“ since our jobs so often depend on plentiful examples of such. German managers would do well to draw a line with employees about coming to work sick and will need to explicitly make it „safe“ for team members to take their allotted vacation time. An incentive or three to this end may even be necessary.

Regardless of what American labor law does or does not stipulate, the less at-will-y (my spell check is moving mountains to change that turn of phrase) you make your working relationships with Americans, the more likely you are to foster a sense of trust, loyalty and openness in your sphere of influence.

Is business cooperation with Americans on your company’s horizon? Speed through the ABC’s (and more) of business with the USA by booking an intercultural training today!

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.