Guide to French work culture: What you need to know when moving to France

12th January 2018
Guide to French work culture: What you need to know when moving to France

Moving to any new country for work takes a lot of preparation and organisation. It’s important to have an understanding of business etiquette in your future workplace, to help with a seamless transition. Even for those with a lot of experience in the job role and their industry, the workplace culture can take some adapting to, especially when taking on a senior role and heading up a new team who will have certain expectations of leadership.

France is a popular destination for professional expatriates, with many European headquarters based in the major cities of Paris and Lyon. Like many European countries, France has its own distinct attitudes and values, which are prominent in day-to-day life. They also underpin the workplace culture and expectations in business. Many of these values are strongly embedded into both French and international companies alike.

Workplace etiquette

While company culture will vary from one company to another, it is worth noting that in general the French workplace is quite formal and conservative. Appointments are usually made for all business matters; dropping in unannounced to discuss a work matter can be frowned upon. Meetings are usually arranged well in advance, with plenty of forewarning for all parties; around two weeks’ notice is expected.

There is little time wasted in these meetings. There are rarely meetings held without a clear purpose and agenda. Creative discussion and planning happens within the job roles, and a meeting is planned to inform others of decisions and gain approval. They are not usually an open forum for ideas, and there is a level of respect for the more senior managers present. There may be discussions and debates, but ultimately the decisions are made by the senior members of staff and respected.

Usually, at a first meeting, the more formal Monsieur or Madame titles are used, and then introductions include full names. A handshake is usual between professionals, with the traditional French kiss on the cheek being reserved for longer-term colleagues, family or friends.

It is considered rude to be late to a scheduled appointment. Punctuality is well-regarded, though most companies will allow a small compensation of up to 10 minutes or so – as someone new to the company, however, it’s best not to rely on this unless there are exceptional circumstances. It does depend on the area of France you are working in too. Further in the south, business can feel a little more relaxed in general.

There is very much a ‘work hard’ ethos across businesses in France. The usual day is from about 9am to 6pm, with a long lunch of anything up to two hours. It’s not uncommon to work late into the evening when necessary to meet deadlines. However, there are favourable employment laws to restrict working hours, which is one of the reasons that France is considered a good place to work. There is a 35-hour working week by law, but there is flexibility in this to allow for legal overtime where needed. There are also five weeks of annual leave, as well as extra allowance for family events or bereavement.

There is little blurring of the boundaries between different job roles. Roles and seniority are usually distinctly defined, and there is less familiarity and socialising between colleagues than there might be in a UK company. After-work drinks, for example, are not frequent, though business lunches are more commonplace.

Communications

While English is often considered the international language of business, it can be easier to get accepted into the French workplace by speaking at least a little of the language. While at many international companies it is perfectly possible to get by with English alone, taking the time to learn the basics will be considered respectful.

After relocating to France, it is a good idea to continue learning the language to ensure that a level of fluency is built up. It will help with business negotiations, as well as day-to-day conversation. It also helps to be apologetic for a limited knowledge of the language and show a willingness to learn.

When applying for a job in France, although not as common for intercompany transfers, applicants may be asked for a handwritten cover letter. If this can be written in French, that will give a better first impression. If giving out a business card at networking events, consider having one side in French and one side in English.

Dress and appearance

France is well-known for its style credentials; it hosts one of the best-known Fashion Weeks in the world. It’s not surprising, then, that a country known for its high fashion has high expectations of clothing in the workplace.

Quality is considered important, as well as formality. It is best to go for well-fitting, high-specification tailored options for both men and women. Men generally wear suits, usually in a dark colour, and they keep their standards up at all times – ties stay in place, jackets on and sleeves rolled down. For business women, suits are also a good option, as is a smart, chic dress. The little touches are often noticed, so consider shoes and handbags as key elements when picking an outfit.

If your industry sector is less formal, or there are ‘dress down’ days in the office, be aware that this might not be as casual as in the UK. Check with fellow employees as to what is considered acceptable. It may be that smart, dark-coloured jeans are okay, with a formal jacket and shoes, or it might be even more relaxed. It’s always better to dress smart rather than casual, as you are less likely to get it wrong.

While some companies with a large number of international workers can feel more similar to companies in the UK, it is best to have an understanding of French work culture, as this will make it easier to work with, and do business with, local companies, as well as transition into your new role.

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