Emily Levin

Managing a Cross Cultural Team: France

by Emily Levin
August 2019

France is the sixth-largest economy in the world, with the sixth highest productivity rate, and the fourth highest population in the European Union. This makes it a popular destination for companies expanding their operations to Europe and makes it highly likely that you might have a French employee on your global team.

France has a large, modern economy with a lot of disposable income and high levels of educational in its workforce—especially among younger workers. This makes it attractive for companies hiring teams across Europe.

That said, France also has a reputation as a country where it can be difficult to do business. Labor-friendly laws and practices can be burdensome on both companies and foreign managers. France is, after all, the country that originated the term “boss-napping”— derived from kidnapping and coined from instances where employees in labor disputes refused to release management without a deal. France is also known for its sometimes violent “us against management” or contre les patrons labor protests.

French business culture can be full of contradictions. On the one hand, French employees are known to be productive, autonomous, creative, and strategic. But French organizations are also often described as negative, disorganized, indecisive, overly hierarchical, and/or excessively concerned with formal etiquette.

So, where does the truth lie?  And, more importantly, how can you best work with, coach, and motivate the French members of your own team?

As part of an ongoing blog series, we will explore the business culture of different parts of the world: unpacking the challenges and benefits of working across borders, examining what makes each culture unique, and offering advice for integrating employees from different countries successfully into your global team culture.

France: By the Numbers

  • Population: 66 million people
  • Time Zone: Central European time zone
  • Language:  French. Regional dialects include Alsatian, Basque, Breton, Catalan, Corsican, Flemish and Provençal (but are rarely used in business)
  • Currency: Euro
  • Office hours: 8:30/9:00am till 6:00pm Monday to Friday, with a long lunch break between 12:30 and 2:30.
  • Appointments: Are necessary and should be made at least 2 weeks in advance
  • Scheduling: Experts recommend scheduling appointments during late morning or early  afternoon  and suggest avoid scheduling important meetings or projects in August, when most of the country is away on holiday (vacation).

French Management Style

When French employees join your team, what will they be expecting from you as a manager? Probably something very different than your American team members.  Likewise, French managers on your team may adopt a style that can be puzzling to their reports from the U.K. or U.S.

French management style is hierarchical. French managers are also trained to approach business problems as intellectual challenges— which should be put through rigorous and detailed theoretical analysis, and only eventually followed by a practical application of decisions. According to experts, the French “start by outlining their principle, building up their argument, and only then discussing its applications.”

There’s an old epigram attributed to a mythical French manager that sums this up: “That idea seems alright in practice, but will it work in theory?”

Here are some more expectations French employees might have from you as a manager, or how you can expect French managers to conduct themselves:

  • Formal etiquette: In France, how you say something matters as much as what you say.  Particularly in written communication, it is important to be articulate and proofread your work, in order to maintain the respect of your French employees.
  • Social graces: In part because of the hierarchical structure of business, French employees have high expectations around small talk. Employees expect managers to be sociable before getting down to business, and to have the ability to exchange pleasantries on topics not related to the job. In one survey, 52% of French employees said they find it unacceptable if a manager forgets to say good morning. Compare this to only 19 % of American employees, who said the same.
  • Patience: On French teams, strategies are usually developed on a long-term basis. “The French do not organize meetings to reach a decision,” says one expert,  “they meet to exchange information, then the person in charge takes the decision.”
  • Privacy: French employees prefer not to be asked personal questions about their private lives. Open plan offices are not popular in France, and the French tend to keep office doors closed.
  • Communications: French managers like to communicate in writing, and in fact, don’t feel as bound by verbal agreements as they do by written communications.

What To Expect from Your French Employees

What should you be expecting from your team members in France? Here are some of the common attitudes, behaviors and beliefs you might encounter from your French employees:

  • A definitive NO: Unlike some cultures, the French are raised to say “no” when they mean “no.”  You can expect definitive determinations from your team—sometimes whether you ask for them or not!
  • Questions: French employees will not consider it bad form to stop you and ask for your underlying methodology or question your fundamental assumptions. In fact, in a meeting format, the French see debate as important. This can take a negative tone on occasion, but it’s important to understand that establishing these baselines is important to the French process of assessing and testing ideas.
  • Individuality trumping teamwork: When surveyed, French employees were 6 times more likely than Americans to believe their companies expect autonomy from them, above everything else. American employees are almost 2 times as likely as French employees to believe their companies expect team spirit first and foremost.
  • Freeform meetings: In French meetings, it is common for employees to interrupt the speaker or bring up topics that are not on the agenda. In fact, agendas are not common. Meetings are intended for exchanging ideas and being creative—not making decisions. Beginning a meeting 15 minutes late is common (locals may refer to this as “quart d’heure marseillais” or “parisien” or a similar moniker).
  • Zero sum stakes: The French tend to believe in zero-sum outcomes, where there must be winners and losers. A consensus or win-win is not seen as possible, so you should expect French team member to fight hard for their ideas. They may not trust a compromise solution, or be looking for a catch, needing reassurances.
  • Reluctance to report: Because of the high-power distance, French employees are often more reluctant to report issues or problems to their bosses—fearing it could lead to blame.
  • Sociability—but not too social: French employees expect social niceties from coworkers—including small talk and a glass of wine over lunch. But they do not like to mix business and personal life. So do not expect to be invited to their homes.
  • Loyalty to the company: The French do not attain promotions by jumping from company to company, and the complexities of labor law mean they are much less likely to job swap than Americans. This makes the French more attached and emotional about their companies, and less likely to leave even if disillusioned.
  • Standoffishness: According to an interview with culture expert Erin Meyer:  the French are “very formal with people that they haven’t built a relationship with, and they’re unlikely to smile a lot or do a lot of personal talk with people that they don’t know well.” Americans are often forthcoming at first but only share so much. “[This] disparity can lead to stereotypes about French people being standoffish and Americans being superficial.”
  • Distrust of praise: The French are sometimes uncomfortable with American-style recognition and superlative praise. They tend not to be as quick at expressing positive feelings to others—though much quicker at expressing more negative feelings.
  • Sensitivity to status or inclusion: We spoke earlier about the strong hierarchy in French business, and the need to respect that etiquette. Employees who believe they are being cut out of decision-making may also believe you are putting them in le placard (the closet). Because French employees often have permanent contracts that make it very hard to fire them, some companies looking to (illegally) rid themselves of an employee might cut the employee off and try to make them miserable enough to quit. If your employees feel they are being benched, they may worry about this.

For a thorough overview of hiring employees in France, please visit our Globalpedia page.

Looking for more advice on finding, hiring and managing your global team? Globalization Partners can help.

Globalization Partners’ Global Expansion Platform™ enables you to hire in more than 170 countries within days, and without the need to set up costly international subsidiaries. You identify great talent anywhere in the world, and we put them on our fully compliant global payroll—lifting the burden of global corporate tax, legal, and HR matters from your shoulders to ours.

Globalization Partners: we make global expansion fast and easy.

Get in touch with us today to see how we can help you expand your team in France or around the world.

Emily Levin

Emily Levin

Communications Manager, Globalization Partners

Emily Levin joined Globalization Partners in July 2018 as Communications Manager. Emily has extensive experience in external and internal communications, content creation, and social media management.