When visitors from Germany's Thyssen AG first arrived at Giddings & Lewis Inc., a Wisconsin automotive supplier it bought last year, they found casual Fridays disconcerting, said Marvin Isles, chairman of G&L.
The Germans' idea of casual was to take off their suit jackets, he said.
Employees at Chrysler Corp. and Daimler-Benz AG will be lucky if that is the only culture clash they have to deal with once the two automakers merge.
Bringing together 421,000 employees is a daunting task no matter what nationalities are involved. Merging two different national and corporate cultures will compound the problem.
Although globalization has forced corporations to be more flexible, 'cultures don't change much,' said Richard Lewis, a London-based business consultant and author of When Cultures Collide. Germans are still Germans, and Americans are still Americans, he said.
RIGID AND FORMAL
Where Americans tend to be individualistic, informal and rushed, Germans are often rigid, formal and diligent, said Lewis. Americans will try to insert humor into a meeting, while Germans remain serious and will criticize others openly.
Americans emphasize entrepreneurship, but Germans want 'people who will absorb and assimilate,' Lewis said. 'They don't have a lot of time for whiz kids,' he said.
'It's a very high risk for an American employee to tell a German executive something that he needs to know but doesn't know,' said Edward Kissel, formerly of German-owned Continental General Tire Inc.
Kissel came in as executive vice president of the company after it was taken over by German tire maker Continental AG in 1987. Even though he was brought in along with other Americans to rejuvenate the Akron, Ohio, company, the Germans bosses would not listen to their advice, Kissel said.
On the other hand, Isles' experience at Giddings & Lewis ran counter to the stereotype.
Being referred to constantly as 'Herr Isles' in Germany took some getting used to, Isles said. But in the United States, the Germans are happily using first names and enjoying casual Fridays.
Although author Lewis said employees in Germany rarely interrupt their superiors during meetings, Isles said he witnessed a German CEO being respectfully challenged by several subordinates.
'It went beyond what CEOs in the U.S. might expect,' from their employees, he said.
'There is a wide variety of people in any culture,' said Ray Labuta, who was director of passenger-car and light-truck tire development at General Tire when it was taken over by Continental. Some you enjoy working with, others you don't, he said.
'I think there were some people (at Continental) who were stereotypical in management style and others who weren't,' said Labuta, now vice president of tire technology for Hankook Tire America Corp., a Korean-owned company based in Hackensack, N.J.
US VS. THEM
Overall, the Germans were more bureaucratic and structured, although not as structured as his current Korean bosses, Labuta said.
The Germans were particularly keen on technology. 'I sensed there was a real eagerness to use technology to help drive the product as opposed to pure marketing,' he said.
'If you start at the executive floors, those guys are worldly enough that they probably share the same values' as executives in other countries, he said.
At the lower levels, there might be more of an 'us vs. them' attitude, according to Labuta.
But Kissel is more bitter when it comes to his former German bosses at Continental General Tire.
'The one country that has abdicated its responsibility to the organizational and the people side of the business is Germany,' Kissel said.
The Germans had trouble dealing with American culture at General's Akron headquarters, according to Kissel. 'So they decided to blow it up and start over again in Charlotte (N.C.),' he said.
Kissel quit, and Continental moved General's headquarters to Charlotte in 1995.