TOC July 4th, le 14 juillet: must we choose? Your Turn

Independence Day and Bastille Day have just confirmed Summer is upon us. Since we have boldly claimed to be heir to the revolutions they celebrate (see our fillips of 5/23/06 and 5/30/06), it is fitting to pause and consider the rivalry which has ever since pitted French against Americans. As they discuss the potential benefits of an alliance, we wish Messrs. Ghosn and Wagoner (1) good luck in putting aside all preconceived ideas about cultural superiority. The business issues alone are complex enough.

Truth be said, every sports reporter knows that a rivalry is a good thing for the sport concerned. Especially if thoughtful comments enlighten the spectators on the likely differences in style and the hidden meaning of deceptively simple moves. I wish today to introduce one such commentator to those who have not yet heard about his work, especially on the American side. His name is Philippe d'Iribarne (*) (2).

A business ethnography expert, d'Iribarne has modelled French and American approaches to management around two concepts: honor and contracts. To understand d'Iribarne's contribution, there is no better way than to go back to this most famous of investigative reporters, Alexis de Tocqueville, and more precisely to part III, chapter 5 of his masterpiece, Democracy in America: How democracy affects the relations between master and servant.

According to Tocqueville, aristocratic societies achieve order by providing everyone with a well defined rank for life, within which individuals are free to excel. As everyone enjoys the same rank in a democratic society, order is instead based on contracts, freely entered into with the knowledge they confer rights and duties upon their parties but for their duration. D'Iribarne observes that, despite having now lived in a democracy since 1870, French behave as if Tocqueville's aristocratic model still applied. French workers are more interested in receiving the recognition due to some life role than the temporary benefits defined by contractual agreements. In exchange the same workers feel honor bound to deliver higher than average productivity, as long as management leaves them enough initiative.

For d'Iribarne any attempt to mix American minded managers with French workers or French minded managers with American workers is a recipe for disastrous internal conflicts unless one applies the utmost care in planning and implementation (3). Worse, the same misunderstandings which plague the management of a company manifest themselves as France tries to respond to the pressures of globalisation, this time at the scale of a whole society (4). Witness the recent failure by the French Government to enforce a law whose goal was to help French youths to find jobs (5) (6).

Nothing would be more dangerous to use d'Iribarne's astute analyses as excuses to focus on one's own national culture to the point of forgetting economic issues remain very much international. US workers might not share the French penchant for honor and glory, yet they are just as affected by the progressive disappearance of good paying, blue collar jobs once provided for life in abundance by the US auto industry. Mr Wagoner must justify his compensation package as the market reward of his abilities rather than what is due his rank in society. Yet many a CEO at legacy companies now spends his or her time staving off bankruptcy by breaking free of onerous contractual obligations on worker's health and pension benefits, while negotiating stock option plans fit for a duke.

Worse would be to overlook the meaning of what could be dismissed as the fashion of the day among middle managers, i.e. networking. If I cannot buy or build my own practice or business, if I can no longer count on being hired by a company for life, I can at least network. So doing I become more visible to future employers and conversely. I behave as if I were both the owner and the sole human resource of a temporary employment agency.

Bearing this context in mind, we can go back to cultural issues. Following d'Iribarne's analysis, we understand job markets appear to Frenchmen as putting a price on human labor as if it were some perishable good for sale, stripping employees of all dignity. What would be necessary to transform this perception into what d'Iribarne himself implies would make a far more satisfactory model: the search for clients by the owner of a business or a practice, whether a farmer, a plumber, a lawyer, a business consultant or, as I suggested, the owner of one's own employment agency? From the American perspective, let us ask how is it that some contracts appear as more equal than others, as George Orwell would say.

Picture a small farmers' market, in an old French village perhaps or maybe in Amish country. Who would deny that such an idyllic case both honors the station in life of all participants and supports speedy transactions at the best price? Yet is it what we have in mind when we hear or read about job markets? I venture to answer in the negative. Paraphrasing Confucius (see last week's fillip), if language is not correct, then what is understood is not what is said. The crux of the matter is there are no real job markets. To create one would require to meet three unfulfilled conditions:

  • real job markets need be specific:
    professional diplomas, e.g. for doctors and nurses, imply both the existence and the need for codified qualifications. More often job descriptions are fluff pieces subject to the reader's hopeful interpretations, and resumes mere exercises in name dropping and keyword stuffing. Without a shared, objective description of both positions and candidates, it is easy to confuse apples with oranges.
  • real job markets need be local:
    global peace, the advent of containers and the Internet have caused transportation costs to implode and global markets in goods and services to explode. Meanwhile, Klinsmann's recent success in training the German soccer team from his home in California notwithstanding, language barriers, immigration policies, anti-terrorism measures and the mounting costs of commuting conspire with the ever rising demand for personal services (e.g. health, schools, food, home repairs and improvements...) to reinforce the local nature of jobs markets.
  • real job markets need be symmetric:
    on a small farmers' market, buyers and sellers alike can quickly gather the information they need on products, price and competition. Job candidates, even those who are highly desirable (7), are normally told to submit their resume and salary expectations at the mercy of HR departments. Whether this occurs directly, via a resume database service or even a recruiting agency, the result is the same: recruiters have more information than candidates and are better able to negotiate.
To the French Governement, I modestly suggest that as long as what passes for a job market strips away the dignity of most candidates in the process, no reform will appear palatable, even if it aims at increasing the chances of those who need help the most. The vocabulary itself conveys this market asymmetry. Whereas American employers "want help", French candidates must "ask for a job" even when the French employer in fact begs for candidates. The positive feedback ePrio received from candidates during the field tests of its confidential, mutual matching platform in the Paris restaurant industry (8) proves solutions can be found to restore dignity.

To interested US entrepreneurs, I strongly advise to put faith in the power of real markets and create new recruitment services on ePrio's platform to deliver unheard of efficiency. In particular combining true confidentiality and verifiable recommendations brings industrial strength to personal networking without the risks involved with entrusting confidential data to third parties.

Both the American and French workforce then should benefit from the creation of real job markets. But while both Messrs. Ghosn and Wagoner should consider reading on Philippe d'Iribarne's insights, I am afraid they still have much to discuss. Isn't it in their own job contracts?

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*).. please turn to the French version for a Wikipedia entry on Philippe d'Iribarne
    • (1) Carmakers Plan a Study of a 3-Way Alliance, by Micheline Maynard (New York Times) - July, 2006
    • (2) In the spirit of full disclosure, I happen to be an alumnus of the same school and of the same branch of the French civil service.
    • (3) La logique de l'honneur, Philippe d'Iribarne, Editions du Seuil (1989)
    • (4) L'ÚtrangetÚ franšaise, Philippe d'Iribarne, Editions du Seuil (2006)
    • (5) France to replace youth job law, (BBC News) - April, 2006
    • (6) L'aventure du CPE, by Philippe d'Iribarne (La Jaune et la Rouge) - June-July, 2006
    • (7) excepted of course for CEO's of large public companies
    • (8) for more informations, please contact the Mission Locale Intercommunale de Montreuil
July 2006
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