The Girl's Guide to Surviving a Czech Office

How to navigate the workplace--daring dress codes, sexist jokes, and all

Elizabeth Zahradnicek-Haas

Written by Elizabeth Zahradnicek-Haas Published on 11.07.2011 15:22:32 (updated on 11.07.2011) Reading time: 4 minutes

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Laura* recently relocated from her international firm´s U.S. office to Prague, where she is employed as a research associate. The difference in work environment has been, for the most part, a pleasant change from the States. “There´s an extensive kitchen, an indoor mini-garden, we get meal tickets, and (hallelujah!) no cubicles,” she raves.

But there were a few things that took some getting used to. “The first week, I had lunch with the office director and he told me not to be offended if no one spoke to me for awhile.” Sure enough, Laura´s colleagues offered little more than perfunctory greetings at first, but a couple months later started dropping by her desk to chat. This perceived unfriendliness is certainly something that all newcomers to the Czech Republic experience. But women should be prepared for a few other cultural “quirks.”

Come-hither career girls
For Laura, one of the most noticeable differences has been some of her female co-worker´s sexy style of dress. “The dress code presented as ‘business casual´ on my first day was interpreted differently than in the U.S. office, at least for women,” she says. “Spaghetti-strap shirts and short skirts are completely acceptable here, as is some cleavage.” For women like Laura, who come from a corporate society that views inappropriate business dress as unprofessional, not to mention demeaning, such fashion choices can be puzzling.

In this situation, it’s useful to shift cultural perceptions. Feminist scholars agree that historically, Czechs come from a society that suppressed femininity in the labor force while the sexual objectification of women was more of an American feminist concern. “During the communist era, there was no discussion of the objectification of women because there was no woman’s movement. Simply put, it was not a hot topic,” says Lucie Biderová, project manager for Gender Studies, a non-profit group that educates the public about gender-relevant issues. No better evidence of these varying ideologies exists than the controversial 2011 calendar featuring prominent female politicians in sultry poses.

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Anna*, a poet and former English instructor at one of Prague´s top language schools, actually believes that her safe clothing choices worked against her. “I was wearing corduroy blazers and long skirts to teach business English and some of my students complained to the director who in turn questioned me about my ‘too independent´ style of dress,” she says. “Once the class was over I wasn´t asked to take that section again. The teacher who replaced me was blonde and wore low-cut tops. My students were all men.”

The final word on appropriate office dress? Andrea Fialova, a representative for Grafton Recruitment in Prague, tells us, “there can be some confusion, especially for women, over business casual and what it means on an international level. The trend we’re seeing right now is toward more formal office dress.” No matter where you work, she says, clothes should always be ironed and neat, as people in the Czech Republic tend to be fussy about these things. When in doubt, observe your superiors and follow their lead. (It´s also worth noting that scantily clad Czech colleagues may just be dressing for the weather. After three years in an office without central air, I´m now the first one to go sleeveless come July.)

Interoffice comedians
As Laura got to know her colleagues better, she was soon privy to one particular male co-worker´s occasional sexist jokes. “I’ve noticed that people are a bit less politically correct in the Czech Republic than they are in the States, in terms of sexism, racism, etc.,” she says. Indeed so-called “mild” instances of sexual harassment are still very much tolerated in the Czech Republic. According to 2005 research conducted by the Social Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences, in fields that are predominantly male, such as agriculture and manufacturing, nearly half of the women interviewed said that they´d either personally or indirectly experienced harassing behavior from male colleagues, almost always supervisors.

EU legislation, defining sexual harassment and outlining steps for fostering appropriate workplace behavior, has since been implemented, and the European Working Conditions Observatory (EWCO) reports that a number of companies have established a workplace code of ethics. Czech public officials, however, largely consider sexual harassment—in the form of degrading remarks toward one’s female co-workers—a non-issue.

Chances are if you´re a native English speaker in a primarily Czech-speaking office, you´ll inadvertently end up turning a deaf ear. Laura admits that she misses a lot due to her lack of proficiency in Czech, but adds that, “Even when I catch the odd joke, I´ve never felt like I was being treated like a lower being. I´m just aware that I´m dealing with a different culture.”

Attitudes have been ‘Czech’ed
Aside from the deluxe kitchen and other perks, another obvious difference between Laura’s new Czech office and the U.S. workplace has been her female colleague’s no-nonsense approach to conflict management.

“In my experience they just seem to be a tiny bit less two-faced than American women are,” she says, a fact that Laura has found incredibly refreshing. “For example, if they get annoyed about something, they show it more quickly instead of doing the routine of acting nice to the person´s face but then trash talking behind their back.”

Laura concludes that, if anything, it’s not really her gender but rather her status as a foreigner that has set her apart from her officemates. “If people treat me differently it’s because I’m the lone American in an all Czech office, not necessarily because I’m a woman.”

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

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