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10 Faux-Pas you should avoid in the British labour market

By Adrienne Benassy
10/05/2013

So you have fallen head over heels with the dazzling charm of London and you would like to settle here quicker than you can say "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper" (a well-known English tongue-twister). But while the British job market is traditionally open to foreigners, it still has its own pecularities. As a French expatriate, you might want to know the do’s and the don’ts that could dampen your job prospects and career development. In order for you to start on the right foot, we have highlighted ten mistakes you must avoid making while applying for a job, keeping it, getting paid as expected and getting on with your colleagues.

“With a Master’s degree there’s no way I’m going to start so low”

You are intimately convinced you have studied so hard to get your Masters that you deserve a high position and, of course, a more than decent wage as soon as you step out of university. However, as soon as you step on British soil, you should better forget about all this. In your defence, you are not entirely to blame for being utterly wrong. Your business school probably told you to decline any offer under £30k per year because you have a Masters. “What so what?” would answer a British recruiter, adding “What can you do?”. Actually, there is every chance that you are in the UK right now because your high expectations worked against you. French firms have salary grids based on level of education, which sounds like good news, but also means you are more expensive, hence rarely hired. You might have to live cheaply in the UK, but at least your chances of getting a job are better. Here, a university degree does not necessarily avoid a low paid job. Of course, a top university degree (Oxford, Cambridge, Warwick, LSE) and a first or 2:1 might help you reach a higher level in the long run, but even with these prestigious degrees most of the jobs will start around £20k per year and sometimes in a pretty basic job (especially in the creative industries). The underlying idea is that graduate trainees climb up the ladder after they have showed what they are capable of doing. Also, you might have noticed that many English graduates start off directly after their Bachelors first degree, but that does not mean that a Masters ranks you higher. What really counts are grades and hands-on experience. So be prepared to start from scratch and what you learnt during your Master might make you good enough to get you faster promotion get a managerial position.

“It is out of the question for me to work at weekends”

Now, if you actually want to climb the ladder, the nine to five routine and Saturday lazing around are not to be considered. To get that managerial position, you have to act as if you were already in that position, no matter what. So, even if that afternoon in the sun (or probably in the rain) at London Fields is more appealing than focusing on your Blackberry, that is the price you will have to pay to be given higher responsibilities. The Brits will judge you on your motivation, your results, on your clientfacing skills, so if you want to take your career a step further, do not think that length of service (ancienneté) will take you anywhere.

“A secure job is essential”

Actually there might not be any length of service at all. Unlike the French (even though times have changed), the Brits do not aspire to life-long jobs. There is no dream of being a civil servant, and changing jobs many times is not only a must, it is seen as a positive thing. Greater mobility reflects an ability to adapt to new environments and to different challenges. In any event, you will not be able to find job security in London. Firing for economic reasons is far easier in the UK, which allows a higher level of turnover. So if you find a job faster here, you might lose it as quickly. So, draw a line under your all-mapped-out life and get ready for a bumpy ride.

“My school is ranked second in France, by rights that job is mine”

French applicants have a tendency to introduce their cover letters with pompous lines such as “Recent graduate from XX, prestigious school ranked 2nd in France and 13th worldwide”. Forget this right now. Not only does nobody know your school (and nobody actually cares), but you will put off your recruiter straightaway. In the UK, they look for competence, talent and motivation, not ranking. Of course, a top university degree and good academic record is a plus, but not of themselves. It is not because you are from Oxbridge (Oxford – Cambridge) or the LSE that you deserve the job, it is because their high expectations probably made you a sharper and more efficient worker. The Brits would not mention their university’s rank in their cover letter, because the name speaks for itself and is already mentioned in the CV. And remember that French schools are far from having Oxbridge’s worldwide reputation, so by stressing the greatness of your school, you might run the risk of sounding ridiculous. More importantly, put forward your work experience in the field, the reasons why this sector attracts you so much and why you are the perfect fit for the job. Be pragmatic (and this is a crucial piece of advice to embrace the British spirit), show where you at and what you can do, not where you are from. 

“With a literature degree, there is not much I can do”

The French might love to emphasise that they are “Grande Ecole” bred; however they have a tendency to look down on humanities as a degree. Unless you graduated from the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure (Jean-Paul Sartre’s school), a literature degree at French university is synonymous of sluggishness, an anti-capitalist left-leaning mind-set and an inadaptability to corporate culture. There is a very strong belief in France that if you study Humanities you will end up becoming a teacher and this is of course a blunt stereotype, but those who choose to join a firm usually undertake another course in the required field (Communications, Business and so on). Unlike the French, who broadly believe one should do all one’s studies before getting a job, the Britons consider one should learn-by-doing. For example a History of Art student will enter a graduate or trainee programme in the advertising industry, which lasts between one and two years. Also, a degree does not have the same significance in France and in the UK. The British consider it as a sign of intelligence, an ability to organise ideas, think straight and solve problems, which are transferable skills in the workplace. Consequently, studying Humanities will not stop you from entering a radically different industry. It is not uncommon to find a History graduate in finance or an English undergraduate working for Bloomberg. Whereas, in France, your CV has to be coherent, that is to say having matching education, work experience and aspirations. But, in the UK they will not look upon your application in the same way, so whatever your subject, the most important is to highlight transferrable skills.  

“What kind of photo should I put on my CV?"

Looking serious and employable on your CV photo is essential in France, but in the UK you should not put your photograph, or your date of birth and nationality. For anti-discrimination reasons, your CV must be as neutral as possible not putting forward either the age or your ethnicity. 

“Where’s my payslip?”

Payslips are a basic requirement to get retirement benefits in France, but taxes and National Insurance are deducted at source in the UK, so payslips have progressively been replaced by direct deposits to bank accounts. Nevertheless, as an employee you are entitled to receive an individual, detailed written pay statement if you wish to. However you do not have the right to receive a pay slip if you are not an employee (contractors, freelancers). If you have a problem with your payslip first try to deal with it informally with your employer, and if it does not work try to make an application to an Industrial Tribunal.

“How long can I take for lunch?”

While the Brits go and grab a sandwich and eat in front of their computer, the French still enjoy their one-hour or one-hour-and-a-half lunch break. Asking your employers about lunchbreaks will immediately seem typically French and maybe a bit lazy. Unless your job requires your presence over lunch, your employers will not really care how much time you take to eat so long as the job is done. But still, it might not be a good idea to spend hours everyday having a three course meal at the local Brasserie.  

“I see my colleagues all day at work, I do not want to see them in the evening too”

Private and public life are two different things in France, and after work, most French people do not want to spend more time with the people they see all day in the office. On the contrary, the Brits believe that people work better when they get to know each other, and hence should spend more quality time together over a pint. So do not moan when they ask you out for a beer or two and join the crowd to build healthy relationships with your colleagues.

“Mr President”

Hierarchy is a big deal in France. You will not say “Hi Robert” to the company’s CEO and you prefer an obsequious “Bonjour Monsieur le President”. Even though the Brits love their pomp and tradition, in the workplace they are not at all formal and will laugh if you refer to them by their titles. 

COMMENTS:

05/02/2016 - Deanejay said :

Chego4it, you must be doing something wrong somehow. Its not normal to have all that and still not find something. In London too. Have you asked for feedback about the interview or application?

14/05/2013 - chgo4it said :

Paralegal/Adviser five years experience in legal, speak French, English,and Spanish, hold strong references, law degree, another first degree, and a Masters and can not land a job in London. I even bought the Perfect Interview to help me with my CV and at interveiw but still not working. Although it may seem bleek it does not stop me from applying.

Does any one want to open a business, I can cook real Mexican and I am a hard worker by nature.

11/05/2013 - mmvogety said :

London is buzzing with energy, enthusiasm and entrepreneurial drive. It encourages a strong work ethic and talent. Attributes like sense of entitlement, laziness, pomposity are strictly abhorred. Good article outlining the cultural and work place differences in UK and France.

11/05/2013 - janedeflorez said :

Any French nationals with PA and Admin experience might be interested to know that EdF (based in Victoria) are always looking for new staff, both contract and permanent. I am not a native French speaker, but I have had a few interviews with them. They are tough interviews, but worth it, as they pay very well.

11/05/2013 - marksiclair said :

Excellent article! particularly liked the comments about the type of degree obtained......some students here (in UK) don't seem to understand the "ability to work intelligently" aspect of having a degree.

10/05/2013 - helenalive said :

There is one characteristic about the French which is very unappealing and that is critising how people look and laughing at people who they judge not to look as good as French people think they look!
English people generally speaking are more accepting of others.......

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