Teaching business English in Germany – where it’s not just verb tenses that are progressive

Teaching business-oriented English to German professionals, I naturally couch most of my lessons in corporate scenarios. I try to keep my lessons focused on my students’ specific companies or industries, since that’s where they’ll likely need their English. I introduce business terminology with questions like, “What is your company’s core business?” “Who are your company’s key employees and main competitors?” and “Is your company publicly traded or privately held?” Our vocabulary lists routinely include words that can send a shudder down the spines of American employees in a variety of industries: pay-cut, downsize, demoted, targeted, and lay-offs. Inevitably, however, the discussions that emerge from these lessons surprise me.

One group of employees I teach has been through five reorganizations at their company in the past decade. The company has been acquired, merged, sold off, repeatedly renamed and reorganized under new leadership, with shareholders demanding the replacement of a CEO at one point. I thought our lesson about emotional terms would have plenty of fuel.

“Think about the reorganizations you’ve been through,” I began. “Were you and your co-workers worried?” Not really, they said. I thought they weren’t clear on the word and I presented the word again in a way that I was certain they would understand. They had understood perfectly the first time and I was a little stumped.

“Why weren’t you worried about your jobs?” I asked.

“We have strong … what is the word … Gewerkschaften …,” one engineer said.

“Unions,” one of the others offered.

“Yes, labor unions,” the engineer said.

“And Arbeitgesetze … employment laws,” said another.

Emotions, it turned out, played a fairly small role in their reorganizations. We talked about emotions in personal situations before moving to the next section of the lesson: the Unclear Conditional tense.

Our book gave us as a basis for our lesson an example of a company trying to resolve disappointing quarterly earnings. It included the fictional CEO’s suggested remedy to the situation, a reduction in personnel, and grammatical sample phrases such as, “If we were to layoff employees …”

My class used the grammar perfectly while disputing the wisdom of the CEO’s proposal:

“If he were to layoff employees, he would lose their knowledge and skills.”

“If he were to downsize, he would not be in a good position when the company recovered and he needed trained employees.”

“If he were to target new hires, he could lose a source for new ideas.”

I asked them what they would do if shareholders were demanding action over weak earnings.

“About five years ago,” one of my students said, “Our entire company took a ten percent pay cut for two years. It was okay because everyone, including the CEO, had to do it and we knew it was only going to be for two years. At the end of two years our pay returned to normal and our profits were stronger.” The others nodded. Each of them had been at the company for over 10 years.

“If you were to have layoffs, would you start with the new hires like the CEO in our example?” I asked, needing them to give me more conditional sentences. My student who works in human resources offered the first sentence.

“If we were to have layoffs, we could not … we would first see which employees were protected.” The others nodded again.

Protected? I wasn’t sure she had chosen the right word and I asked her to explain. She said that in Germany, an employee couldn’t be laid off if they provided the sole source of income in their household or if they are 55 or older or otherwise disadvantaged in the job market, and if a married couple works at the same company, only one of them is eligible to be laid off. The group rattled off other criteria and conditions that protected employees, which, I realized, simultaneously protected Germany’s generous social safety net. Companies were essentially forced to retain employees and find creative solutions for problems, beyond reducing headcount. Protected had been exactly the right word.

Germany ranks 11th out of 149 countries on the Legatum Prosperity Index, six spots above the United States. It’s a bit smaller than Montana with a population of just over 80 million – about one-fourth that of the U.S. It has the largest economy in Europe and the fourth largest nominal GDP in the world. The German government pays for the unemployed (and sometimes the underemployed) to learn new skills, mandates up to 14 months of maternity leave (requires new mothers to take a minimum of eight weeks of leave) and five weeks of paid vacations for full-time employees, pays a small monthly stipend to all parents to cover children’s basic needs, has an individual mandate for health insurance as well as health care that’s affordable even without insurance.

Draw your own conclusions, of course, but it doesn’t look to me as though unions or Germany’s strong employee protections and benefits have harmed Germany’s economy or competitiveness.

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