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Oh Mon Dieu! English Invades French Workplace

Getting ahead these days in the land of Baudelaire and Balzac means mastering the language of Shakespeare – or at least, Zuckerberg. No longer just a plus, strong English is often required for both entry level and top manager slots. But it's brou

Is English invading the French workplace? (Guillaume Cattiaux/mcaretaker)
Is English invading the French workplace? (Guillaume Cattiaux/mcaretaker)
Laurance N’Kaoua

PARIS - Employment agency Manpower is advertising for an Accounts Manager: "English – fluent." Logica, a business and management consultancy, needs a support technician: "English – fluent." Health and Security services organization International SOS is recruiting a client support specialist: "English – bilingual." These advertisements, published by the Management Recruitment Agency (Apec), prove what everyone already knows: in business, speaking English is "un must!"

And with good reason: whether the company is trying to establish a foothold in local markets, collaborating with international researchers, selling its products outside of France or employing a foreign manager, English is the need-to-know language.

This is hardly brand new, of course, but the centrality of English in the work world is reaching a whole new level. At SGS, a multinational organization based in 140 countries, all communication from its Swiss headquarters is in English. At Alcatel-Lucent, "We work only in English. The meetings are all in English and when it comes to emails, I hesitate to write in French because they will undoubtedly have to be read by people outside the country as well. And yet, we're based in Paris!," says one of the managers at this multinational company where 100 different nationalities come together.

Even during the all-important annual review, the minutes of the meeting, as well as each employee's objectives, are immortalized in the language of Shakespeare.


Small and medium-sized businesses are no exception. "Our consultants frequently do business abroad with India, China or other foreign countries. Every other project is carried out in English," says Pierre de Rauglaudre, associate director at Acial, a computing company of 120 people specializing in quality-testing software. The same applies to the 500 collaborators at insurance broker Verlingue, which has bought a brokering house across the channel in Britain.

"For this Anglo-Saxon project, the majority of our 440 associates have had to improve their English in order to be able to follow meetings, attend videoconferences and exchange emails," says Stéphanie Guilbaud, human resource director at Verlingue. "If technical competence is equal, it is English that makes the difference at every level."

And this English-mania is affecting more and more people. In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, technicians from French energy company Areva had to quickly liaise with the Japanese. "It is not enough for a manager to be able to speak English with a client," says Marc Verger, CEO of the prodigious training provider Berlitz France. "The demand for English must be met at every level of the company, right down to the switchboard operator."

And whilst progress is being made, the overall level of English in France varies significantly from one employer to another. At the end of 2010, a mystery shopping survey carried out by GoFluent on the 120 companies registered on the French stock exchange highlighted the problems: grammatical errors, limited vocabulary, strong accents… so many failings that service providers are striving to resolve. In 2012, according to consulting company Place de la Formation, English remains the most popular training option paid for by employers with 12.8% of demand.

A source of stress

However, it remains to be said that results are not always forthcoming. Trade unions are sounding the alarm. In March, the CFE-CGC union organized a conference on All Things English in Business. "Some employees feel this imposition of English excludes them," says the union's boss Bernard Salengroof.

In 2009, almost 50% of managers admitted they were uncomfortable when faced with a foreign language at work. Stress, loss of confidence, lack of time for training, reduction in performance, concentration difficulties – these problems are widespread. "Working in a language that is not your mother tongue causes increased fatigue," adds Jean-Pierre Lamonnier, a representative at CFE-CGC. And then there is the fear of ridicule...

Not-for-profit health organization ASA Assistances, which helps people back to work after illness, has been looking into the problem. "We have discovered suffering and unsuspected consequences, like the fact that some internal candidates don't dare to apply for certain posts when faced with managers who overestimated their linguistic abilities," said Catherine Henaff, former Director of HR at ASA Assistances. Since then, she has put in place an internal commission of language observation, while her anti-stress measures also take into account language issues.

Respecting the law

Despite some positive action, problems prevail. "When cost-cutting starts to affect the training budget, some employees end up in no-man's land," says Jean-François Laborde, a CFE-CGC union officer at PSA Peugeot Citroën in Vélizy, on the outskirts of Paris. And yet he believes that the methods used to measure employees' abilities and evaluate the requirements for the position do not seem to be appropriate. "People on the ground don't need academic English; they understand each other thanks to the technology. But we need to be careful that academic English doesn't become the deciding factor for promotions, to the detriment of technical and managerial abilities."

But don't forget French! The Toubon law, introduced in 1994, was designed to regulate the use of French in France – and it is strict. Every official internal document (job contract, company rules and regulations, etc…) must be written in French, as well as all the documentation necessary for employees to carry out the task they have been assigned. The logic behind this requirement is that all employees should be able to fully understand the safety information and instructions in order to be able to properly weigh their rights and responsibilities.

A computing company discovered this the hard way last summer: furious at being fired for not having achieved the objectives he was given, a former top manager claimed that he couldn't be expected to achieve those objectives because they were presented to him in English. The Cour de Cassation, the highest court of appeal in France, upheld his claim. Zut alors!

Read the original article in French.

Photo - Guillaume Cattiaux/mcaretaker

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