As I mentioned, I’m currently reading Thomas Geoghegan’s Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? Geoghegan’s day job is as a labor lawyer, so naturally there’s a good deal of discussion of German employment law practices and how they differ from America’s. At one point, for example, Geoghegan tries to explain the American system of employment at will to a group of German students:
I’d thought that, in the first class, I’d explain how, in the U.S., people could be fired for any reason at any time, or for no reason at all. “Here’s an example. I work for you for twenty-nine years, one year from retiring. One day I wear a yellow tie to work. You say, ‘I don’t like your tie. You’re fired.’ In the U.S., you can do that.”
The students are, understandably, incredulous, to the point that G is forced to backtrack a bit:
“Sure, we fire people for no reason, or for the color of their ties – yes, we do. But we don’t do it every day.”
It’s true that people don’t get fired every day for wearing a yellow tie. In fact, I’ve never heard of someone getting fired for wearing a yellow tie. The closest thing I can think of to the yellow tie story was a story from the 1990s in which a guy at a supermarket was fired for wearing a particular team jersey the day of the Superbowl (the owner was apparently a fan of the other team). That caused a decent sized stink; big enough that if something like the yellow tie incident were to occur, big as this country is, I think I would hear about it.
Legally, Geoghegan is right. If an employer wants to fire someone for wearing a yellow tie, he has the power to do so legally. But employers generally don’t do this, not simply because they are nice guys, but because while doing so isn’t illegal, it isn’t practical either. If a boss fired an employee for such an obviously arbitrary reason, he would find a few months down the line that all his employees were quitting on him. No one wants to work for someone who fires people because he doesn’t like their tie.
So Geoghegan’s example is purely hypothetical. On the other hand, Geoghegan does offer some real life examples of how German labor law works in practice that aren’t hypothetical. For example, earlier in the book Geoghegan meets with a German labor lawyer and goes with him to court to watch him in one of his cases:
He told me about his client, a bank teller, a forty-something woman who, a year or so ago, began to have aural hallucinations. She “heard” voices, and she began yelling back, even as she was dealing with customers. “So,” Eckhardt said, “the bank has put her in the back room, where she can’t shout at the customers.” She could just go on yelling by herself.
As a result, she had sued the bank for the transfer to the back room.
If yelling at the voices in your head in front of bank customers is not enough to harm your career prospects, you might wonder: what is?
The answer to that comes when Geoghegan is talking with a union representative about the power unions have over employment decisions:
“We must be consulted about everything.” He said this included the appointment of the supervisors. “I remember at our company, they wanted to promote a rightist. But we said no.”
“A what – what’s a rightist?”
“Political,” he said. “He was not politically correct.”
“And it was just because of his politics?”
He flicked an ash. “We could do it. Why not?”
I know that Geoghegan means his book to be pro-Europe, but quite frankly anecdotes like the above don’t really fill me with envy. I’d rather face the hypothetical prospect of being fired for wearing a yellow tie over the real prospect of not being promoted because I wasn’t politically correct.