Hierarchy at work in France

Have you ever felt that the way French employees were behaving with their boss a bit different than you have experience in your country? You might still be trying to figure out how to behave and don’t really understand how professional relations work in terms of hierarchy in France.

I have myself worked in the UK, in Barcelona and in France. I actually started my career as a young graduate in London where I stayed for 3 years. Then I moved to Barcelona and worked for an American company.


My reverse cultural shock

So when I moved back to France, I experienced a strong reverse cultural shock. Beside student jobs, I had never really worked in France! My problem was, that being French, people would not expect my misunderstanding of what was happing or the way things were happening! I didn’t have the «foreigner excuse» anymore that can always help in case of misunderstanding… Of course, this is my personal perception based on my experiences. This is not a general rule about working in France, but I hope it can still help you to find some answers.

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I know now that the Anglo-Saxon way of working has shaped me, and I feel more comfortable in such work environment, but I still had to adapt to my own culture! 

I was struggling a bit, but I couldn’t really work out why until I read more about culture shock and work culture.


Scales of hierarchy

According to Geert Hofstede in Cultures and Organizations, Software of the Mind, “with a score of 68 (over 120), France scores high on the scale of the Power Distance Index (PDI)”. It is, therefore, a society in which inequalities are accepted. Hierarchy is needed if not existential; the superiors may have privileges and are often inaccessible.
The power is highly centralized in France, as well as Paris centralizes administrations, transports, etc.
In management, the attitude towards managers is more formal, the information flow is hierarchical. The way information is controlled is even associated with power, therefore unequally distributed.

Just as a reference, the UK has a PDI of 35 or the USA 40. If you are wondering what is your country’s PDI, you will find useful information on this website.

Mainly countries such as China, Japan, France, Spain, Italy, South America or Arabic country have a high power distance.
High power distance countries have a pyramidal organisation with the Board of director distant from the base, and outward sign of power (Boss culture, having a company car, a specific parking slot, specific perks…) are common and accepted.


Photo by Yan Berthemy


Hierarchy at work in France

French people give very high importance of what the boss says or think and will try to make sure they are appreciated. Don’t get me wrong, French will definitely say it when they don’t agree and won’t hesitate to get into a debate with their boss. This is totally fine in France as long as it is done with respect of the other person’s opinion.

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One example of behaviour that shocked me and that I still do not understand is the presenteeism, or the tendency to stay late at work to please the boss when your work is done. 
Depending on the company culture, this can happen lot. The workload along the year may not always be at its pick. And when it is low, it often is not socially acceptable to go home earlier when your main work tasks are done and you will be more efficient the next day.
Your colleague may even look at its watch and ask « have you taken your afternoon off? » when you are living work at 16h30!

The French and hierarchy at work
Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi




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Socializing with the boss

In Anglo-Saxon work culture, at least based on my personal experience, I felt that your work, your results and working as a team player are the main criteria for professional appreciation.

In France, it is also important to get on well with your boss and to seem involved and dedicated to your work (and your boss). As a consequence, the informal conversation around the coffee break or cigarette breaks is often the opportunity to get to know your colleagues and/or your boss in a different context. Many opportunities and projects are also discussed in these contexts. It is therefore important to go even though you could sometimes feel like an outsider, especially if the language barrier is still present. With some time and effort, it will pay off! 
This is exactly how I felt at the Friday after-work drinks at the pub with my British colleagues at the beginning! I couldn’t understand much in the noise atmosphere and the cultural jokes, but it still helps me to be part of the team.

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I was so surprised in the UK to see the boss coming to these after-work drinks, and even sometimes see my colleagues get drunks with the boss present! I could never totally let my guards down the way British people could do. This is very unlikely to happen in France. Which makes sense when you relate it to the high power distance culture. 

Have you had such cultural shock regarding the difference in the hierarchy system between France and your country? Share your anecdotes in the comments, I would be happy to know more.

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