Recruiting for Executive Assistants in Paris (Frenchness in the Workplace)

Recruiting for Executive Assistants always includes an element of trying to find “a good fit” between candidate and client in terms of personality and company culture. It is often something that is hard to put into words by hiring managers, but it is where an experienced recruitment professional will earn his or her fee: matching not just skill-sets to jobs but people to companies.

In Paris, we have noticed an interesting trend when speaking to clients about what they think will be “a good fit” for their company. More and more clients are asking me to find them an Executive Assistant who is not typically French. Not necessarily not French, but definitely somebody un-French. “Probably an Anglo-Saxon, a German, someone from Holland – somebody like this would do well here”, I am told. These are French clients, French people working in Paris, who are keen to find somebody unrepresentative of their own native culture to work alongside them. I think it is worth exploring what the assumptions are behind it.

Is it to do with languages? Companies with a headquarters overseas often have quite understandable and specific needs regarding language skills. If you are a company whose administration is run from London or New York, it is a fair bet that decent English would be expected. Likewise, if you are working at a firm with predominantly Far-Eastern clients, Mandarin or Cantonese could be an advantage. At DJG Consulting we do regularly recruit people with very specific language skills. But I don’t think this is a phenomenon based purely on the need for people who can speak foreign languages. Although the French, like all native English speakers, have traditionally had a poor reputation as speakers of foreign languages, I would say that this reputation today is outdated and undeserved.

France is much more outward-looking now than it was even just 20 years ago, and there are far more working-age French people today with fluency in a foreign language than there were. Indeed, many of France’s Business Schools and Vocational Schools run courses that are entirely or partially taught in English. Compared to the British, whose universities are closing language departments at an unprecedented rate (and who still basically assume that the rest of the world can speak English if shouted at), the French are a nation of polyglots. In particular, as regards levels of English among Executive Assistants in Paris, a professionally operational level is becoming a basic skill, much like using Word, Powerpoint or Outlook. This should be a boon for French business and greatly facilitate contact with overseas markets.

In Paris, where only a small percentage of roles genuinely require mother-tongue standard English, almost without exception every Secretarial & Support position requires an extremely high level of spoken and written French. You would think, therefore, that being a native French speaker with operational English would be a huge advantage in the Paris job market. But it seems that this is not always the case.

If it’s not about languages, is it about education? In a nutshell: definitely not. Having worked in London as well as Paris recruiting Executive Assistants and Personal Assistants (mainly for the City), I am confident in saying that in France, an Executive Assistant is likely to be far better qualified on paper than their UK counterpart. A Paris EA will usually have studied to at least degree level, possibly Masters level, and will have also undertaken a vocational Executive Assistant course to equip themselves with all of the office and IT skills to do the job effectively from day one. And on top of that, they will speak a foreign language!

Being an Executive Assistant in France is seen as a good career and is planned for. This is almost unheard of in the UK, where most successful EAs will tell you that they found themselves working as an Executive Assistant almost by accident, and then learnt on the job.

So if it’s not about languages, and it’s not about education, it must be something else: attitude.

Adjectives used to describe the desired personality type (as opposed to the desired skill-set) in most job ads for high-level EA roles tend to be recurring. Such terms include proactive, dynamic, enthusiastic, a team-player, polyvalent, entrepreneurial, ambitious, with good communication skills, – these terms have become almost generic and will be familiar to anybody who has spent a few minutes browsing through online job descriptions. When I speak with Parisian clients about what they are looking for in an Executive Assistant, these are the qualities that are most regularly put forward as being ideal for their new hire to possess.

So if this is the blueprint for a client’s ideal personality type, and they are telling me to look for somebody “un-French”, can we assume that French hiring managers believe the opposite character traits are more prevalent among their compatriots? A list of such qualities could look like this: apathetic, morose, indifferent, selfish, mono-functional, blinkered, lazy and rude. This might describe an out-dated and vulgar stereotype of a surly Paris waiter, but surely not a typical French Executive Assistant in the 21st century? It would be extremely sad to think that French CEOs and HR managers believe these traits to be the backbone of the national character. They can’t do, can they?

My view on this is that there is indeed a negative self-assessment of national character taking place when French recruitment managers describe this “un-French” wish-list to me. However I think that they are confusing how they perceive the attitudes and skills of potential French employees with what they feel about the state of France’s economy and its competitiveness in the global market, which they think is dreadful.

Anybody in business in France today will tell you that the cost of employing somebody here is astronomical and puts them at a huge disadvantage in the international marketplace. Employment regulations guaranteed to stifle growth coupled with the exorbitant social charges levied on employers are having a very real and negative impact on France’s ability to compete in an open market. Its ability to retain the best entrepreneurial talent in the country is severely under threat as there only seem to be disincentives to creating growth, jobs and a culture of enterprise. There is huge frustration and anger amongst employers here in Paris that French businesses are forced to operate with such institutional disadvantages. Entrepreneurialism, dynamism, and ambition in the private sector in France are officially discouraged.

This, for me, explains why I am quite often asked to look specifically for people who are “un-French”. It is just too easy to believe that the dynamic qualities a company requires in order to compete are much more easily found abroad. It is a classic case of the grass being greener on the other side of the fence. And it’s really not true – there are plenty of highly motivated, highly skilled and ambitious French people who are just as keen to get on in life as their German, UK or Dutch counterparts.

What all this means from a recruitment perspective however, is this: managing client expectations as regards a “good fit” becomes an ever more complex and challenging part of the job.

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