The grass is really greener

Many things draw Americans to Europe: family roots, the beauty, new perspectives, and of course romance. For me, this time, it was a career opportunity.

But like many expats, I sometimes pushed it too far, taking on Europe’s better qualities as my own, seeing myself not as a better American, but better than Americans, more worldly, perhaps, and more wise.  The now-me looks back with embarrassment on the then-me, boring cornered listeners by recounting the European virtues I experienced during a semester abroad in Salzburg, where I could drink beer on the street at 16!

Over the years, life shuttled me back and forth across the Atlantic and I gradually began to love America and Europe equally, but differently, like two good parents. I love America’s adventurous spirit and personal generosity, along with the politeness in the checkout line!  In Austria, though, above all, it’s how I’m treated in the workplace.

Cards on the Table

Ever thought: “It’d be nice to know what my boss, coworkers, and clients were really thinking”? Move to Austria and wonder no more! Here, you tend to get frank appraisals of your performance – often without asking.

As an American, you get your share of passive aggression, veiled with too-big-to-be-true smiles and an ultra-positive gush of word. Austrians will tell you frankly and without a feel-good preamble when, why, and how your work fails to meet expectations. When it is satisfactory, you will most likely receive silence. Lavish praise, like “I found very few mistakes,” tells you you are doing very well.

Such frank critique may be jarring and provide more insight into yourself than you wanted, but you’ll have a reliable benchmark, with no emotional blackmail.

Leadership by example

There is a basic ethos here that is rare in America, illustrated with: “See the guy cleaning the break room refrigerator? He’s the CEO.” Austrian leadership relies more on deeds than words. Their example of hard work sets the tone.

Confidence also comes from a fairer sharing of profits, where the surreal discrepancies in earnings simply don’t exist. For top US firms, the pay ratio between top executives and average workers is 350 to 950:1 – in Austria it’s 60:1.

If you’re making €40,000 a year in Austria, then your CEO makes €2,400,000. While his financial worries are undoubtedly fewer, his life is still imaginable, and your paths often cross on a ski slope or on the streets of Vienna. Because you inhabit the same world.

Fair Compensation for Fair Work

In Austria, workers are human beings, an idea woven into the cultural fabric. The disastrous labor wars of the early 20th century had far better outcomes here.

While middle management salaries are about 5% –10% lower in Austria, five weeks of vacation are standard, plus an additional 14 paid national holidays.  So everyone gets a day short of eight weeks vacation a year. In America, three weeks are the norm (10 days vacation, 6 paid holidays). Austrians are trading a lower wage for free time.

Stressed about money for Christmas or a summer vacation? Why not use your 13th and 14th month salary! Expecting children? Just take maternity or paternity leave that all employers must offer. Working a lot of overtime? Those hours don’t vanish into a black hole; every hour is accounted for and compensated either with overtime pay or additional time off.

The myth of higher taxes

“Yeah, but all their money goes to taxes.” Well, not really. In actuality, 36% of my wage goes to taxes – all taxes. In America, 28% of my wage went to federal taxes. After subtracting state and city, I’m out 30% – 32%. That’s only 4% less.

Now let’s compare what Austrians get in return: national healthcare, free university education, non-income-based child support, well-maintained infrastructure; and efficient, clean, environmentally friendly public transportation to get you to work. The list goes on.

Then there’s the wry humor and quiet generosity one encounters on the job here, part of a set of attitudes very different from a U.S. office. And sustainability: Legislators and trade associations realize that people cannot – physically and mentally – keep pace with technological evolution and look for new safety standards in a digital environment.

It all rests on a common supposition: Most people are motivated by more than salary alone.