FRAL - Franco-allemand en sciences humaines et sociales

Professionnal development and workers' capabilities in French and German companies. An approach through multinational corporations – DEVENT

Work and workers’s capabilities in multinational companies: A franco-german comparison

While individual action is today celebrated as an element in the redefinition of work in close association with the ideas of freedom, responsibility, individual aspirations and personal development, this project puts companies’ human-resources policies to the test of an inquiry assessing employees effective capabilities to act.

Work and capabilities

Therefore we have chosen three spheres of inquiry: 1) employees’ capability as regards quality of work – in terms of both the quality of work performed and the quality blanav conditions pertaining to that work; 2) employees’ capability in the field of professional development; and 3) employees’ capability for work life balance. A more cross-cutting question regards the way in which employees’ capability or incapability dovetails with those mechanisms generating trust or mistrust within a company. <br />From a conceptual standpoint we are utilizing the notion of “capability,” as defined by A. Sen, with respect to the following three dimensions: freedom to choose, freedom to act, and collective responsibility (Sen, 2000), so as to redeploy the term in a sociological analytic grid. <br />To access the field we chose multinational groups installed in France and Germany. The objective was on the one hand to study how the policies of human resources as defined at the level of multinational groups were concretely translated into the activities of work, professional relations, and the careers and professional development of employees; on the other hand the goal was to conjointly question the impact of these multinational policies and national institutions of work on employees’ capabilities. In doing so, another aim was to revisite and questiong the topicality of “the societal effect” as brought to light in the late 1970s by M. Maurice, F. Sellier and J. J. Silvestre (1985).

Employee’s capability depends not only on his individual qualities but on his environment in the larger sense, so that both its organizational and institutional conditions must be explored. To this end we have opted for a multi-level analysis of various factors – institutional, organizational, biographical – which can contribute to employees’ capability or incapability in the workplace; going beyond a simple examination of these factors, our analysis focused on the way in which they interact with one another in given situations.
We combined this multi-level approach with a multi-sited investigation (Marcus, 1995) through case-studies with six multinationals in the sectors of chemistry and metallurgy as well as two of their sites, one in France and the other in Germany, these selected for the similar character of their activities. Proceeding in such a fashion, we have completed twelve site-monographs and more than three hundred biographical interviews.

Enhancing Employees’ autonomy and responsibility

Our findings show that employees’ capability result from a co-construction between them and their environment. This co-construction is not necessarily characterized by features which might be termed “French” or “German,” nor determined in the first instance by the multinational group’s policy; rather, our results ascertain configurations which are specific to each of the studied sites. Our analysis has yet to be completed on this point. After having studied those institutional and organizational factors which contribute to fashion each of these configurations, we now need to take a closer case-by-case look at the potential recurrence of those logics which preside over the linkage and articulation of these various factors.

Notwithstanding the historical weight of educational and labor institutions, today French and German paths cross with respect to promoting employees’ autonomy and responsibility at the workplace. This intersection of paths could mean a merging as well as a distancing in the future. It could be an opportunity to rethink the shared foundations of a social Europe of work. But it is also about the political voluntarism of our leaders as well as the mobilization of workers and companies to seize this moment of reassessing inherited certitudes in order to construct a common future.


• B. Zimmermann et L. Renard, forthcoming 2019, « Close comparison in a global world. Categorizing quality of work in France and Germany », in O. Giraud, M. Lallement (eds), Decentering Comparative Analysis in a Globalizing World, Leiden, Brill.
• B. Zimmermann, forthcoming 2018, « La formation continue et ses réformes : talon d’Achille du système allemand de formation professionnelle », Droit Social, décembre (article écrit et accepté).
• A. Pohn-Weidinger et M. Weissmann, 2017, « L’ouvrier, l’entretien et l’évolution : l’appropriation de la Loi 2014 dans une usine automobile », Sociologies Pratiques, n° 35, 95-104.
• B. Zimmermann, forthcoming 2019, « Sécuriser les parcours par le compte. Formation continue, droits subjectifs et politiques de la singularité », in M. Bessin, S. Cavalli et C. Negroni (eds), Le parcours en question, Lille, Presses Universitaires du Septentrion (article écrit et accepté).

• A. Pohn-Weidinger et B. Zimmermann, Les ressorts de la confiance en entreprise. Une comparaison franco-allemande, Rapport de recherche du projet DEVENT, 2018, 77 p.

On the background of economic globalization and its demand for flexibility both for companies and employees, the project addresses the interactions between corporate policies and employees’ capabilities to steer their professional development in France and in Germany. It examines HRM policies and their interplay with external structural factors, institutional but also economic and social ones. From a conceptual point of view, the project will refer to the notion of capability such as it has been defined by Amartya Sen in relation with freedom to choose, empowerment and social responsibility.
A qualitative empirical survey will address employees’ capabilities in connection with three themes, which are discussed as well in France and in Germany, but from different angles:
1) Professional development
2) Quality of the work
3) Work-life balance.
German and French configurations of social action will be related to each other in two perspectives: (1) a comparative and contrasting perspective that focuses on the explanation of differences in dealing with similar problems and/or the diverging perceptions of superficially similar problems; (2) a perspective of reciprocal reference that is oriented towards the mutual influence with regard to scientific interpretations or practically oriented economic and political discourses.
The aim of the project is to contribute to an interrelated approach (approche croisée) of work in Germany and France. It will show how workers and businesses in both countries address the same requirements and problems, either in a different or similar way. The social and historical embeddedness of the interpretations and categories of action social actors refer to play here a central role. With regard to methodology, three perspectives will be connected with each other: (1) the institutional perspective on the framing of work, (2) the organizational perspective on companies and (3) the individual-biographical perspective.

Project coordination

Bénédicte ZIMMERMANN (Centre Georg Simmel. Recherches franco-allemandes en sciences sociales (UMR EHESS/CNRS 8131))

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


Centre Simmel Centre Georg Simmel. Recherches franco-allemandes en sciences sociales (UMR EHESS/CNRS 8131)
SOFI Soziologisches forschungsinstitut

Help of the ANR 136,682 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: March 2014 - 36 Months

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