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France vs. US: Which work culture is more sustainable?

<p>Forget all the stereotypes about French workers: The work culture differences between France and the U.S. are subtler than you might think -- and they affect the perception of sustainability.</p>

When we talk about work-life balance, we often point to the European work culture, with its short work weeks and lengthy vacations. But do we also -- at the same time -- think “less productive”?

To get a deeper look, Weinreb Group talked to Laura Clise, who leads the sustainable development department for Areva North America. A graduate of the Thunderbird School of Global Management, she's a sustainability professional with copious international work experience.

Areva is a French company, but Clise is based in the United States. That puts her in a good position to observe the similarities and differences between the two work cultures. During our conversation, she acknowledged several myths about the famous European workweek, but also emphasized that there are indeed some clear differences between U.S. and French work cultures.

Here are six of those differences:

1. Deliberation vs. Execution

Clise sees a fundamental difference between U.S. and French decision-making: Americans tend to focus on execution, whereas the French are more likely to emphasize the deliberative process, she says.

While Americans can be frustrated by the amount of research required to inform an ultimate decision, the French frequently see the U.S. method as hurried and incomplete.

For example, when she partnered with her French colleagues on a recent report, Clise remembered, her colleagues' document was extremely thorough, consisting of more than 50 pages, while her version was designed to communicate the minimum necessary information for its intended audience.

2. Governance

Although it involves a lot of input, French decision-making often occurs at the highest levels of an organization. French corporations typically have a more hierarchical power structure than their U.S. counterparts, which -- while bureaucratic -- tend to have a culture of execution throughout the ranks.

As Clise put it: “Decisions usually cascade down the levels, which presented an initial challenge for our regional sustainability program, as it hadn’t been contextualized for the North American market.”

A one-way governance system can create a gap between ranks that may reflect class disparities. While this is also a challenge in the U.S., Clise said it appears to be even more of one in France.

3. Mobility

In France, employees' upward mobility appears to be highly correlated with the university they attended. And the Grandes Ecoles tend to dominate public- and private-sector leadership. The French higher-education system is highly competitive, and the top Grandes Ecoles accept relatively few students even when compared to the most elite universities in U.S.

While the Ivy League functions similarly, those who don’t attend one still have great career options. This, emphasizes Clise, reflects the American ethos of opportunity and meritocracy, or “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.”

4. Profit

Does profit have a place in the discussion about sustainability? The answer might depend on where you are.

While Areva defines its 10 Sustainable Development commitments consistently around the world, it communicates the sustainability strategies that it is using to meet those commitments differently in different places. That makes being versed in cultural differences a valuable skill for Clise.

“In the U.S., the business case for sustainable development leads with impact on profitability and competitive advantage, while in France, the initial discussion is often societal impact,” she explains.

“In America, we talk about sustainability as being about people, planet and profit. In France, the emphasis is on corporate responsibility, not profit. Profit is implied, but they wouldn’t necessarily say so quite as explicitly. Americans have less hesitation talking directly about profitability as a component of sustainability.”

5. Workaholics

With plenty of attention on France's 35-hour work week -- which effectively ended in 2008 for many companies, although it's still remains the nominal baseline -- many Americans assume that the French work less, Clise remarked. She calls it a sore misperception: “It’s not that they work fewer hours; they just work different ones.”

At least in her personal experience, U.S. offices are often up and running by 8 a.m., while many of her French colleagues tend to start and end their work days later. While Clise acknowledged that her experience is limited to the private sector, she said she has "yet to meet a French colleague who works 35 hours a week.”

6. Attitude

Even if French and American work days do consist of the same number of hours, Clise has seen a clear difference in attitude when it comes to vacation. 

“French offices practically shut down in August,” she says. It's a change from a U.S. culture in which workers often brag about how many hours they spend at the office. “I know Europeans who work too hard, but culturally, it’s not a badge of honor,” Clise adds.

Which System is Better?

It’s hard to say which system is more productive. For one thing, it's hard to define productivity, especially for a sustainable business that factors in several different measures of success – all of which culture plays an important role in defining.

There are advantages to both cultures, and no clear winner. And, of course, there are plenty of individual variations within every country and culture. Ultimately, your career will be driven by your own definitions of sustainability, balance and happiness, regardless of where you live.

Photo by rolfik via Shutterstock.

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