Managing in the U.S.
Working in a Fast-Paced Culture
So, you've just been transferred to your company's new location in the United States. You'll be managing a team of American workers to start up the new office, but you have mixed emotions about going overseas.
Is America safe?
Will you be allowed enough vacation time to return home to visit family and friends?
Will you have to commute for hours just to get to the office?
Do you need to use a different management approach from the one you've been used to in other countries?
Working in the United States is very different from working in the United Kingdom or other Western countries. Learning how to navigate the American culture – and your new workplace and team – will be vital to a successful and productive transition.
In this article, we'll examine what it's like managing an American team, and we'll offer tips for succeeding in this culture. Whether you're moving to the country to work full time, returning after a long break, or simply managing a U.S. team from abroad, these tips will help you make a smooth transition.
Remember that this article is a general guide only. The United States, like many other countries, has a diverse workforce, and the approach that you will need to use will vary, depending on your industry, and the location that you’re working in.
You've probably heard that Americans work a lot, and this is mostly true. The U.S. workweek is commonly 40 hours or more, and you might be expected to work additional time on evenings and weekends, depending on your industry. If you're familiar with working 35-hour weeks, the long days could be hard to get used to.
The U.S. is a diverse country.
However, many American companies are beginning to be more progressive about flexible working hours and telecommuting.
Employment and labor laws in the U.S. are generally pro-business. This means that, unlike the U.K. and many countries in Europe, organizations have a lot of power. For example, in the U.S., a person can be dismissed at will for almost any reason.
However, there are laws prohibiting dismissal for the following reasons:
- Sexual orientation.
- Family leave.
For an in-depth guide on U.S. employment law, see the United States Department of Labor's Employment Law Guide.
U.S. companies give very little time off compared with the U.K. and other European countries. There are no government regulations for a minimum number of days off per year, and some American workers don't receive any paid vacation time at all. However, white-collar workers generally receive at least two weeks of paid vacation per year. The higher your status and seniority, the more time off you're likely to receive.
Most organizations will close and give paid vacation days for these holidays:
- New Year's Day – January 1.
- Memorial Day – May 27. (Last Monday in May.)
- Independence Day – July 4.
- Labor Day – September 2. (First Monday in September.)
- Thanksgiving Day – November 28. (Fourth Thursday in November, and often combined with the Friday after.)
- Christmas Day – December 25.
Depending on where you are, you might also have additional time off for a state holiday. For instance, the state of Louisiana commonly observes Mardi Gras, which is similar to Rome's Carnival celebration. Many organizations in that state close down on the days leading up to Ash Wednesday to allow people to celebrate. This is not done anywhere else in the country.
It's important to learn about your company's holidays so that you don't schedule appointments or deadlines for times when everyone will be away from the workplace.
Many foreigners imagine Americans to be friendly and very informal. This is largely true, which means you'll connect with your new team much faster if you behave this way. Americans appreciate honesty and hard work, and they respect those who can admit that they've made a mistake.
Americans are also very direct, which can make some foreigners uncomfortable. "Time is money" in America, so when you're communicating with your team, be straightforward and direct.
However, don't underestimate the importance of bonding and light social conversation. Although most meetings focus on the agenda rather than personal relationships, many Americans socialize at lunch or after work hours. As a manager, you may or may not be included with your team in these events, but you're likely to be invited out by other managers in the organization.
Foreigners are often confused by how often Americans smile. Smiling is a sign of friendliness and politeness. If you want to connect with team members, give them a genuine smile when you walk in the door every morning.
It's also important to realize that Americans generally view the management hierarchy differently from many Eastern countries. You may be the leader of your team, but they want and expect you to listen to their opinions. Americans are highly individualistic, and they want to know that they're contributing to projects and ideas.
Business dress varies widely in the US, depending on the type of business, the individual company, and the occasion. Industries such as financial services or consulting – where client contact is common – often have more formal dress. But many organizations have adopted "business casual" dress, and they may even have extra-casual "blue jean Fridays." Also, special meetings or business events may have guidelines that are different from day-to-day dress. It's important to learn about the dress code in your organization. When in doubt, conservative business dress (in gray, navy, or black) is usually best.
Punctuality is very important in the U.S. As we've already mentioned, "time is money," and people expect on-time arrival for meetings and appointments. Being late is considered by many to be disrespectful. People also expect you to be well-prepared for meetings.
Many American organizations conduct business over the phone or online – as opposed to companies in other countries, which might require more face-to-face meetings. This is quite common, so don't be surprised if you manage a person or team that you never actually get to meet.
More Tips on Living and Working in the U.S.
Here are a few more guidelines to follow:
- The U.S. uses a measurement system based on the English imperial units, not the metric system, which is used by most other countries. Distances are measured in miles instead of kilometers, liquids are measured in ounces and cups instead of liters, lengths are measured in inches and feet instead of meters, and so on. The exceptions are medicine and science, both of which use the metric system. (Use a conversion website if you're unsure about any measurements.)
- Many Europeans are not used to air conditioning. In the U.S., it's common in most buildings and is sometimes set very high. Even if it's extremely hot outside, keep a jacket or sweater with you, because the indoor temperature may be quite cold.
- The United States isn't as unsafe as many foreigners are led to believe. Far more people do carry guns (though this is a relatively small percentage of the population, and it may vary by state or even by city). However, you probably have a greater chance of getting mugged in a European city than you do in a U.S. city such as New York. As in any country, use your own best judgment when traveling.
- Cars are a way of life in America. Unless you live in a major city that provides public transportation, you'll need one. Many Americans live in the suburbs – that is, smaller communities outside of major cities. People may commute into the city or to another suburb. In cities like New York and Los Angeles, this may take an hour or more each way.
- Many Europeans kiss people on the cheek when they meet. This makes many Americans uncomfortable. A firm handshake with good eye contact is your best option.
- Most workplaces in the U.S. have banned smoking, and many cities have a city-wide smoking ban, which means you can't smoke in any building or restaurant.
- Don't discuss controversial topics in business or casual conversations with colleagues. Off-limit topics include religion, politics, or sensitive social issues such as abortion. It's also considered rude to talk about personal income.
Working in the United States can be an exciting, yet often confusing, experience for people from other countries. But knowing the culture and expectations will help ease the transition.
Life is generally fast-paced in the U.S., so make sure that you're on time for appointments and meetings – and come prepared. Be direct in your communications, but don't underestimate the importance of bonding with your team. Be honest and work hard, and you'll be respected by your peers.