How I made a difference: European v US law

I became European HR director at BearingPoint in July 2004. I had a succession of global HR leaders as my bosses, all of whom were American, and none of whom had ever been to Europe. Nor did they understand anything about European laws and their impact on HR processes.

There was a huge gap caused by resentment of their lack of understanding of, or interest in, European HR issues. I decided that rather than make this gap any bigger, I would try to raise the level of the US executives’ understanding through education. I described it as needing to ‘build a bridge across the Atlantic’.

The first step was for the US bosses to get on a plane and fly to Europe. They then met with our leadership, most of whom were based in Germany and France, and with representatives of the workers’ council there, so that we could begin to get them to see the situation from both a leadership and an employee perspective.

When the global HR leader met the head of the workers’ council for Germany, he showed huge surprise at the impact of the laws, and asked: “Who invented these goddamn laws in the first place?” To which the council representative replied: “They were implemented in 1946, when the US, Russia and Britain occupied Germany – so the only people not responsible were the Germans.”

It took a lot of hard work, education and repeated messages, to get US colleagues to realise that redundancy processes differed to those in the US, where it’s ’employment at will’ – you can literally call a partner into your office and say: “Sorry, we need you to leave today.” Try to do that sort of thing in Germany or France, unless you can come to a compromise agreement, and you’re potentially looking at a three-year legal battle. A compromise agreement might cost you two to three years’ remuneration.

The gap between what you can do in the US and what you can’t do here is huge. When we had a redundancy programme in France and Germany, I asked my global HR leader to second one of his US team over here to work with me so that they could see what was happening on a day-to-day basis.

Without having understood the laws and their impact, they saw us as barriers to change, whereas we were actually trying to implement it while upholding the law.

by Charlie Keeling, HR director, Field Fisher Waterhouse

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