Written by: Jodie Free
As a Briton who lives and works in the U.S., I know firsthand how challenging it can be to make sense of these cultural and legal distinctions. I love both countries, and as the world continues to shrink and talent mobility increases, I have learned how to recognize and adapt to the differences.
The United States and the United Kingdom may share a common language, but the two countries have many unique approaches to work, relationships and personal time. Here are a few issues to consider when working and collaborating with professionals across the Atlantic.
Britons Value Their Privacy
Britons are, more often than not, more private than Americans. They value personal space and discretion, which means that they may come across as guarded or aloof during a first meeting. However, they tend to be sincere when they give feedback or extend invitations.
As noted by Business Culture, “If a foreigner really wants to adapt to British culture and make some valuable connections, they need to be patient and realize that creating such friendships may take longer than anticipated.”
Britons—especially older generations—place a lot of importance on politeness, so do remember to say please and thank you.
Americans Are More Confident
Britons may seem apologetic or overly self-deprecating by American standards, but this is not usually a result of incompetence; British people don’t receive bragging favorably and appreciate those who demonstrate a sense of modesty.
However, the American culture of self-confidence means that professionals in the U.S. tend to be more comfortable when it comes to speaking up in a meeting, giving presentations and networking. I’ve learned a lot from my American superiors and colleagues about the importance of being bold, whether that means reaching out to more people on LinkedIn or having the confidence to take on more challenging projects. Don’t judge by outspokenness.
British Companies Take More Down Time
If you move from the U.K. to the U.S., you will likely be disappointed by the dramatic loss of paid time off. In the U.K., full time workers are entitled to 28 days off per year (part time workers are also allowed 28 days off, but it is pro-rated). In the U.S., there is no federal minimum for vacation days.
On average, Americans are allotted 16 days of paid leave, but according to Glassdoor, the average worker only takes half of what they are legally allowed. When asked why they do not take more time off, workers mainly cited a sense of fear that their work and/or professional relationships would suffer as a result. A recent Fortune article argues that the only way to remedy this is to start a culture shift from the top down: managers should lead by example and actually make use of their own vacation time.
Americans Really Are Workaholics
Career is front and center for many Americans. Even when I was an undergraduate student at UNC Chapel Hill, I was surprised by how many people chose to work late into the night rather than taking time to socialize or relax. While I applaud Americans for their work ethic, I have always been troubled by the lack of overtime pay for employees who exceed 40 hour work weeks.
As Nick Hanauer explained in Politico, “In 1975, more than 65 percent of salaried American workers earned time-and-a-half pay for every hour worked over 40 hours a week… By 2013, just 11 percent of salaried workers qualified for overtime pay, according to a report published by the Economic Policy Institute. And so business owners like me have been able to make the other 89 percent of you work unlimited overtime hours for no additional pay at all.”
But America truly has an entrepreneurial spirit and it is heartening to see some companies, such as the online technology school Treehouse, that are implementing policies to encourage a happier work/life balance for employees. Treehouse recently reduced employees to a 32 hour week (with no salary cuts) and reports an improved sense of productivity—and an increase in job applications from some of the best candidates around.
Britain Is More Hierarchical — But With Additional Employee Protections
Britons perhaps feel a greater sense of hierarchy than their American counterparts. A 2011 Gallup wellbeing poll found that 57.1 percent of Americans felt that they had a collaborative relationship with their boss, compared to 42.1 percent of Britons. In my experience, American supervisors do encourage creativity and initiative over deference.
However, it is worth noting that, “U.K. employment laws tend to favor the employee over the employer to a greater degree than in the U.S,” according to Radius. In practice, this means that British employers and employees must agree on contractual changes before they are finalized, and in the case of mass layoffs, employers are required to consult with trade unions. The U.K. is also further along when it comes to anti-discrimination laws; not all U.S. states have laws which prohibit discrimination against members of the LGBT community. Both countries, however, still have a ways to go when it comes to the gender pay gap.
These nuances may come as a surprise to someone looking to work for or with a company based across the Atlantic, but they also offer an opportunity to challenge our ideas and expectations for what it means to have a successful and happy working life.