However, I have learned much from my British husband and my visits across the “pond.” Whereas most probably dote on visiting castles and historical landmarks, I find myself—HR gal that I am—watching people work in Great Britain. Not only do I watch them, I ask them questions. Since they’re not used to such questions, in response I often get a sneer and scoff. I can’t blame them, as my American openness must be startling. Heck, I’ll even tell you my salary if you ask. But no one ever asks when I’m in England. And I wouldn’t dare ask anyone over there what their wages were—well, not again, at least, as I tried that once and with the reaction I received, you’d think I’d asked them if they’d ever had an abortion or tried cocaine.
All that said, I have done quite a lot of observing, reading and chatting with my in-laws and husband. That said, if we ever move over there—which we might someday—I’ll be re-writing this with actual experiences, having worked in both countries.
Taking into consideration that these are generalities, I find these are the biggest differences the two countries have in the workplace:
- Americans live to work; Brits work to live. It’s as simple and as complicated as that. And the higher you are on the “chain of command” in America, the more you work. I sleep with my cell phone by my bed. When work calls, I’m there. Not only that, we define ourselves by our work. Our first question to each other upon meeting is, “What do you do?” When my grown sons tell me about their girlfriends, I not only ask what the girlfriend does; I also ask what the parents do. And I don’t even care, really. It’s not like I’m judging them. I just want to know who this woman is because, in America, occupations determine identity. The Brits I’ve met and observed don’t discuss such things. And they really seem to enjoy their lives outside of work a lot more than Americans, as Americans tend to use their days off to work. It’s not even as simple as a work / life balance. It’s life that seems to matter in England. Full stop. Sure, you need wages to pay for that life, but it’s all for the life. They get loads more vacation time than we do. Even if we’re granted vacation, we are loath to take it. And when we do, it’s not like work is forgotten. For example, I’ve had the last two weeks off, the only two I’ll get this year. And I’ve spent a fair amount of time considering all the projects at work and planning how I’ll accomplish all my goals for the coming months.
- Brits don’t see ambition as a virtue; Americans do. I didn’t even know how ambitious I was until I married my husband. But that’s the way it is here. It’s not enough to be doing something now in America, we have to ask: “What’s next for you?” And it’s never ending. And a lot of our work decisions and work relationships hinge on our ambitions. If I get in good with so and so, I’ll move “up the ladder.” It seems perfectly okay to the Brits I know to do what they do and do it well, no matter the prestige. It also seems fine to stay home and take care of the children. In America, parents who choose to stay home and raise children have to defend themselves by saying, “I have the hardest job of all!” Why do we have to make everything a job? The Brits don’t have to defend anything, and plodding along in simple jobs with okay wages isn’t frowned upon. Think about the way we speak. If someone’s cooked you a tasty meal in America, we say, “Good job!” We say, “Good job” to just about anything—including bearing children or making it safely across a street. The British say, “Well done.” To them, life isn’t a “job.”
- Labor / Labour laws favor the employee in England; in America, at-will employees could potentially be fired on a whim. Let’s face it, I’m well aware in my position that Americans have less security in their jobs, as one of my primary responsibilities is being in charge of terminations. At some companies in America, workers live under the threat of being sacked, which has only ballooned after our great recession. But I wouldn’t say our labor laws are draconian. For the most part, I do think they favor the employee over the employer, especially in California (the states abide by their own labor laws in addition to federal labor laws). In England, however, labour laws favor the employee entirely. In fact, most employees work under a contract with clear specifies about when and how they can be terminated. And the reasons for termination must be egregious. In America, you can sack someone for being late three times in a week, even if it was due to illness. If you have a written policy specifying this, you can legally support the termination. From an employer’s vantage point, it’s a boon in America to be able to separate a poor performer, bad boss or bad cultural fit. I’m sure some employers in England would love to have this ability. However, having this ability assumes that leaders are entirely ethical and fair, which isn’t always to the case.
- Americans prefer a positive working environment with lots of cheer; the English would probably be annoyed by this. Again this is a generality, but good cheer in England seems to be reserved for the pub. Americans, on the other hand, try to have fun at work. They’re encouraging to the point of rah rah—or at least pretend to be. Not liking a co-worker is frowned upon. And I’ve written plenty of blogs about this. I’ve talked to my British family and some British workers who don’t expect to like their co-workers or have a lot of “jollies” at work—as these are reserved for the pub. In England, rarely is there a celebration for an “individual” job well done; rather, the person who did the job well is poked fun at, and he or she is loath to toot his or her own horn and risk being labeled a “wanker.” In England, it’s always the group who gets credit, rather than the individual worker. In America, the workplace is a microcosm of its society. We speak all day about “teamwork,” but it’s really about individual successes and touting one’s own value and talent. I remember a boss I had in America writing on my evaluation that I needed to take compliments better, as I’m actually embarrassed receiving praise or recognition for work I’ve done. She said I needed to say “thank you,” rather than “it wasn’t a big deal. I was just doing my job.” Also I tend to give credit to others. This isn’t the American way at work. In England, according to the Brits I know, taking credit and relishing praise would be seen as conceited and boastful. In America, there are whole leadership workshops on the value of employee praise and recognition.
- Basic Communication. Because this is a social construct we can only learn growing up in a certain society, this is one of the biggest gaps the two countries have. In America, we are direct and firm. A decisive leader who doesn’t have time for niceties or egalitarian consensus can do very well over here. Also, we tend to overstate things, whereas the English understate matters. So, let’s say there’s a medium-sized problem with an ongoing project. The American boss would say that “all hell was breaking loose,” gather everyone working on it in a room, shout some directives, and solve it immediately. Seriously. The Brit would say, “We are having a bit of a problem, here. Perhaps we should all meet, yes? Right then…” In America, many workers have a sense of “now.” Emails can be short and void of any pleasantries. Our “fix the problem ASAP” is their paragraph-long polite request. In fact, in NYC, they don’t say, “Please mind the gap,” as people step off trains and subways. They say, “Watch the gap.” No please is offered. Internal communications is similar, as England has a greater tolerance for longer written material. In America, we have a terrible saying: Keep it Simple Stupid (KISS). We like extremely short and targeted emails at work. We prefer texts, actually. We love our bullet points and concise memos. In England, this isn’t as true. They are indirect and side-wind around subject matter. Americans proudly “tell it like it is,” saying they have no time to waste. We actually do have the time to waste, but we like to make sure everyone always knows how busy and burdened we are, as being overworked is a virtue.
I want to reiterate that these are generalities, as citizens of both countries are varied in their individual behaviors. This is simply a cultural overview of comparisons—and I am certain many will agree or disagree. Either way, it must be said that even though we share a language and lineage, we are still different cultures—and our disparate cultural constructs are sometimes most apparently revealed in workplace settings.