How to Fire in France
Back in 2001, when it was fully dawning on me that starting a business is France was about the stupidest way to position oneself for living in this beautiful country, I stumbled onto that pure French moment that all entrepreneurs dread, the Firing Ritual.
Four months earlier, my system administrator had had a stroke while we were in the middle of an office conversation. It took me a few moments to realize that his glazed look and low droning noises were not his typical ones and, fortunately, I had the wits to bundle him into my car and drive the four minutes to the emergency room where he was immediately taken in and cared for.
(I was told subsequently that frenchpersonnes don’t drive ill employees to emergency rooms, but call the emergency service, the SAMU, to come and get them. I was also told that if I had indeed done that, the 15 extra minutes before he got to the ER would probably have put him in a vegetative state for life. In the context of Life in France, I did the “wrong” thing, but I’m glad I did.)
This left me, CEO of an early early days (founded 1995) Internet Service Provider company in the south of France, with no one to look after our servers. Fortunately, I had recently lent part of my office area to a young internet startup (my son & co.) who happily replied “OUI!” when asked if they could do server administration. They plunged eagerly into the challenge and I’m happy to say that my operations problem was quickly solved.
Which just left the other problem.
Four months later it was clear that that employee would not ever come back to work for me. To the doctors, it wasn’t clear whether he would ever work again in front of a computer screen. After quickly leafing through the 17,000 pages of the French Code du Travail (Work Laws), I realized that I would have to officially “fire” him, or else, at any point in the next 40 years, he could reappear, ask for his job back and I would have no choice but to accommodate.
This may seem like a picky detail for those of you who have never been there, but one hears the stories of employees who come back after 12-month’s sick-leave on a beach in Thailand and WANT THEIR JOB BACK. In fact, pages 14,166-14,480 of The Code clearly explain all the various combinations and permutations in play here, but to simplify, you (the Boss) either give him his old job back or you give him your kid’s college fund and half the office furniture. Even more interesting, if in the months gone by, you went and hired Someone Else to do the job, you are obliged to maintain both employees, even if there is only one job opening. One is expected to create jobs, not wealth.
In France, you don’t just say, “Sorry Mate, you’re fired.” There were long consultations with my accountant, my lawyer, and the local Chamber of Commerce (who have many experts on payroll who have never hired or fired anyone in their long, illustrious career of explaining to people like me how to do it), and only after there was consensus on how to go about it, did I feel comfortable starting The Firing Process. This is a multi-step task, even for a very, very small business with 1 or 2 employees (like I was).
Step 1: Carefully choose the nominal reason for firing. Mine was obvious: it was for economic reasons. The Internet Bubble had burst and things were going downhill fast.
Step 2: Send a certified letter to the employee inviting him to a “Firing Interview”. He must receive this letter no less than 5 days, no more that 10 days, before the date of interview. The post office is on strike? See pages 16,121-147 of The Code for supplemental steps that you must take. Briefly, you start over.
Step 3: The Firing Interview. The employee has the right to be accompanied by a representative of The Union. You, the Boss, must be alone.
Why? (Really dumb question!)
The employee is an exploited member of the slaving underclass. He needs professional, trained counsel to protect him from…
Me, the Boss, dirty bourgeois pig who eats babies for breakfast.
Step 3bis: I read from a prepared script. “Sorry, my friend, thing’s are going badly, revenues down 45%, profits even more, I am obliged to work as a baby-sitter on weekends to make ends meet, etcetc”. Employee looks at Union man, who looks around, sees that there is no good office furniture to be had, says to me, “OK, just give him the Retraining Agreement” and I say “Huh?” and he says, “That’s OK, I guess, let’s go”, and they do. Firing Interview over.
Step 4: I call my lawyer frantically, asking, “What’s a Retraining Agreement?”
She says, “Merde! Did we forget the Retraining Agreement?”
“Hmm”. And then, “Better start all over. Re-invite him to a Firing Interview. Order a Retraining Agreement form from the Retraining Administration. That way, you’re covered if he decides to attack you for faulty firing procedure”.
Step 5: I send off another certified letter fixing a date for Firing Interview 2. I order a Retraining Agreement from the correct Administration. This could only be done through the Minitel, that interesting bit of 1970’s technology that the French telephone monopoly imposed on the French people until the floodgates of the Internet opened too wide, ie, about 5 years after every other developed countries embraced the Internet. With all due credit to French bureaucracy, the document, all 26 pages of it, arrived rapidly.
Its instructions were emblematic of the french approach to supporting business and businesspersonnes: “Pages 3,6, 19 are to be given to the fired employee to be returned to us by him within 30 days of the firing interview. Pages 11-15 are to be kept for your records for 7 years. Pages 1,2,4,6,10, and 22 must be signed by you and returned to us in the enclosed envelope #1 within 3 days. Pages 5,7,8,9 are to be completed and signed by you AND the fired employee and returned to the tax services in the enclosed envelope #2 before the end of the present quarter.”
Step 6: Another firing interview. A different union man accompanies my employee. I repeat the litany of woe. Everyone nods heads thoughtfully. I pass over the Retraining Agreement (well, pages 5,7,8,9, anyway). They are signed and enveloped. I give a severance check equal to what I paid myself for the 24 previous months to the employee.
He looks at me thoughtfully, as though to say, “If you hadn’t saved my life, I probably would have gone for the deed to your house, too.”
I smile, realizing that the reason most small businesses in France fail quickly is because the alternative would be to succeed, and success might mean hiring. Few people who hire once in France, hire twice.