Category Archives: Work in Spain

Another Saudi Arabian law change

I’m starting to wonder if it’s because I’m more aware of this and noticing things more since my recent trip to Riyadh or really because Arabia is making headway and news headlines recently (I think it’s the latter).

Here’s another change moving toward modernity:

https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/saudi-arabia-unmarried-couples-female-travelers/index.html

Although this specific news won’t affect my next trip to the kingdom (likely in a few months), it will still be interesting to see if I notice any changes vs. the last trip (See more about my trip to Saudi Arabia here: My experience as a female traveling to Saudi Arabia for work)

 

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Saudi Arabia just changed its formal dress code for international female visitors

 

How interesting that only a couple weeks after I visited Riyadh they have just made a public announcement of a huge change in the way the country will receive, perceive and welcome foreign female visitors. Now women will be able to enter with conservative clothing but not the formal abaya and hijab like I donned during my visit.

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-09-26/saudi-arabia-opens-to-foreign-tourists-and-their-foreign-ways

I remember speaking with an executive from the General Entertainment Authority, a fairly new organization dedicated to opening KSA up to international tourism and also promoting national leisure activities, modernization, etc. a few months ago while he was at IESE for a leadership program. He was telling me all about the changes going on in the kingdom and how there is now this big push for international tourism, all in line with the 2030 Strategy. He mentioned things like tourist visas upon arrivals and the idea of KSA as a top international tourist destination. I wasn’t sure to what point this was really going to happen, but it definitely seems now that things are moving in that direction…

I have to say I’m happy that I had the opportunity to visit Riyadh when I did, in this “older” state, as it will be interesting to observe the changes and difference over time as I go back for future trips.

(you can read about my past experience in Riyadh here: My experience as a female traveling to Saudi Arabia for work)

 

 

 

My experience as a female traveling to Saudi Arabia for work

Since the start of my blog I’ve talked about cultural differences between the US and Spain, from my point of view as an American living for a third of my life in this country. As I travel quite frequently for work, for example to Germany, the US, Hong Kong, Nigeria, I have seen many cultural differences vs the US with these travels. However, nothing has been as interesting as my recent trip to Riyadh. So, for this blog, I’m going to talk about my perception as a Spanishized American traveling to Saudi Arabia.

To give a little background, in my work I talk with a variety of potential clients from all over the world. In the past year and a half the number of requests from companies within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) has increased significantly. I see this as a result of two factors: 1. Strategy 2030 within KSA – a move to become more international and modern, a top international tourist destination, etc. and 2. IESE’s FT rankings as the #1 Executive Education institute in the world. They’re tied together: as KSA is looking to gain more international exposure they’re looking to top educational institutes to grow. I have had many phone calls, proposals, etc. with a number of companies, but nothing was ever really moving forward or the conversations were difficult. Finally, however, one did move forward and after a year of conversations, proposals and negotiations I finally found myself on a plane traveling to Riyadh for a full day of meetings with the company CEO and VPs.

I didn’t travel alone. After my not so great experience last year traveling to Lagos, Nigeria, I decided that I wouldn’t travel alone, and in this case I needed to go with a male. I may not completely agree with the cultural norms in KSA, but my feeling is that if I’m going to travel and enter into a foreign country I should be respectful of the norms there  – if not, it wouldn’t make sense to go.

First off the visa process is a bit complicated. If you have to go make sure you have plenty of time. In my case as the trip was pretty much right after summer vacation there wasn’t a lot of time to get everything together. There are a number of different forms and papers to gather including an invitation letter from the KSA company, which, as one would assume, comes in Arabic. This ended up slowing down the process as the job title they had put in their letter didn’t match the one I had put on my form. Note to self – learn Arabic beforehand next time.

Before traveling I did quite a bit of research online and spoke to a female who travels there frequently for work. The main things I learned were that I shouldn’t worry too much about saying or doing anything wrong; it would probably just be best to follow what others were doing. And I definitely needed to buy some appropriate clothing (=hijab and long shirt/very loose clothing, preferably black, that covers your entire body). By the way, thank goodness for youtube with the Hijab or I wouldn’t have had much of an idea of how to tie that thing together. Apparently 1.6M other viewers also feel the same: search for “youtube how to wear a hijab”; that’s all you need.

So with a bit of preparation and hijab in hand I headed off to Riyadh. Originally we were flying with British Airways, but due to a pilots’ strike we ended up flying out with Saudia. I had never flown or heard of this airway before although my past experience with Asian or MEA airlines has been that they tend to be more luxurious than US/UK Western airlines. I was right. The plane was nice, and the business class Furla present was a pleasant surprise.

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Saudia Airlines Business Class swag – not too shabby

The only thing that was a bit strange was the prayer that was played over the loud speaker and accompanied by video and captions before takeoff, but I did recognize that I wasn’t going to California…

The trip started ok, but we ended up landing in Riyadh 9 hours later than originally planned… Thank god (Allah) I wasn’t traveling alone. To make a long story short, the plane had technical problems. We took off about 3 hours late from Madrid. Then the planned 45 minute layover in Jeddah where we shouldn’t have gotten off the plane turned into a 2 hour excursion into the airport while we waited for a new plane.

Unexpected stopover @ Jeddah airport

Trying to figure out a plan – @ Jeddah airport with plane technical problems

Once on the new plane and about to take off we received a message that there were new technical issues and we had to go back to the airport and back to the lounge. At that point I wasn’t even sure if we would make it to Riyadh for the meetings I’d been working on for so long. To top things off my companion had his Apple watch stolen (I still find it hard to believe that this happened in a place where you could get your hand cut off for a crime like that), but in any case it disappeared in the security line when they made him take it off and put it in one of the trays. The only thing I can think of is that either it (a) fell down somewhere and got lost in the moment or (b) was stolen by another passenger behind him. What didn’t help is that I was in a different security line as a female so I didn’t see a thing.

 

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Getting off the plane in KSA. As soon as the plane landed everyone put on their formal outfits and covered up

What was interesting to see was a number of women more relaxed with their clothing on the flight from Spain. As soon as the plane landed in KSA, however, they immediately covered themselves up.

There were many women working in the airport, mostly in the security lines and in the passport immigration section, all completely covered except for their eyes. I had seen this type of clothing in pictures but it was quite shocking to see so many women walking around only with a small slit to see through, especially as an “uncovered” woman watching the scenes play out.

Fast forward – we finally made it to our hotel at 9.30 in the morning, over 9 hours later than originally planned. As we had all important meetings planned for that day sleep wasn’t an option. A quick shower and a hijab/loose clothes change later we headed out to our meetings.

Everyone has asked me since the trip and since seeing pictures if I had to wear the hijab. The short answer is no. No one was there forcing me to put it on or watching over my shoulder (probably two years ago when women weren’t even allowed to be out on their own this would have been the case), but, in all honesty, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable without it seeing that all other women that I saw around the city had their heads covered. To me it was showing respect to my colleagues as well. As I was making a presentation in front of 50 (almost all) men I didn’t think now was the time to be making statements. In my opinion it was already quite modern and a statement to be having a female in this role.

Overall I was treated very respectfully and felt comfortable speaking during the meetings and presenting in front of the group. Probably the most uncomfortable part was having my hijab falling off during the presentation and awkwardly trying to fix it with one hand as I was holding onto a microphone at the same time with the other…

 

Business meeting in Riyadh

That’s me with my black hijab and my colleague in his black suit. Apparently, no one told us about the dress code…

As for the office setting, overall it was very formal. Despite all the changes and modernity that the country may be going through there is still a long way to go. Two years ago females couldn’t work or drive or probably be even seen alone… there were a handful of women at the office where we went (half totally covered except for their eyes, the rest showing only their faces), but overall it was still a very male-dominated environment. All of our meetings were very formal, and you could see the strong sense of hierarchy within the organization. You could also see the strong sense of hospitality – I can’t even remember how many fancy types of dates we were offered or fancy Arabic tea/coffee and chocolates. At one point we had to just refuse, even if it could have been seen as rude. One can only have so many cups of Arabic coffee…

As I said I felt quite respected in the meetings and the overall reception was great. However, there were a couple times where I noticed a man not being able to even look at me, and one instance in which I was refused a handshake (I only offered it as I saw that this was in general what everyone was doing, but I guess in this case as he was wearing a different type of clothing I should have guessed there was something different – I still haven’t figured it out). While we were in the hotel I took off my hijab, but in general I definitely felt more comfortable with it on.

My experience in Riyadh was short-lived; 12 hours after arriving we were already making our way back to the airport. I can’t say that I was sad to be leaving given the overall experience, but it was certainly eye-opening to be there as a female and not exactly out of the spotlight. I’ll be going back in the future for work and, while I don’t see myself running around doing touristic activities or driving a rental car, I’ll look forward to seeing continuous changes as the kingdom itself keeps evolving and modernizing.

Living in Spain vs. the US: 12 years later, do I see myself moving back?

If I had a nickel (or euro) for every time I’ve been asked this question I could buy myself quite a few cases of my beloved pumpkin-flavored beer (worth an image. See below).

Screenshot 2018-10-22 at 11.52.02

The short answer is no, at least not in the short-term.

Here are my thoughts on four topics that make an impact in this decision: commercial culture (aka shopping), weather, salary/working conditions, being a parent.

Do I miss the US? (that’s another question I get a lot). Of course. I miss my family first and foremost, friends, the ease of communicating in my native language, my hometown of Boston (not during the winter), some specific food items (lobsters are not the same over here), etc. So of course there are a lot of things that I miss about living in the United States of America. Typically when I’m back in the US for a trip I come back to Spain with my suitcase filled with the result of serious shopping expeditions.

The commercial culture is something I miss – there’s so much variety and just so much to choose from. And generally at lower prices than here in Spain. Having said that though, sometimes I wonder how much is too much.

The last time I was in the supermarket in the US I found it a bit overwhelming just looking at the endless lineup of salad dressing options. And don’t get me wrong, I love going to the malls. In fact during my last trip to the US last week I dragged my mom to the mall on the way home from the airport. However, I think that would get a bit old after some time. The US is a huge mall culture. Spain has started copying this over the years, but it hasn’t reached the same intensity yet (surely the weather helps).

Speaking of weather… this is always one of my main points. I love Boston, but I “strongly dislike” the Northeastern climate. I have some nice memories of being little and making snow angels in the snow with my big, puffy snowsuit on. But I also have many memories later on of being so cold that my fingers turned white and lost all sensation. I was back in the US for 9 days last week (between Boston and New York), and I would venture to guess that I saw the sun for about 10-15% of that time. Here in Madrid I really am used to having the sun shine every day, and even on cloudy or rainy days (that are few and far between) there’s always some point when the sun jumps out to say “hola”. It definitely puts me in a better mood to have this climate and be able to do things outside, which I love.

From a work perspective I have some mixed feelings: during probably the first half of my time in Spain I often complained that I would earn a much higher salary in the US. Even after completing my MBA at IESE Business School and earning significantly more than pre-MBA days, I’m still sure that I would make double or more back in the US. But…at what cost? I’ve done a lot of weighing of pros and cons thinking about this topic, and my conclusion has been that I prefer Spain, at least for now. One reason is the vacation time. At my current job I have the whole month of August off plus two weeks at Christmas, plus Easter week off, plus a number of other national and local holidays. In the US maybe I’d have three weeks, but never taken at the same time. I can’t see that working to visit family. My plan this year is to be in Boston with the kids for the whole month of August.

Speaking of the kids… since becoming a mother of two young children, I’ve thought a lot about the differences between bringing up children in the US vs. Spain. I’ve had both of my kids while living in Spain, so, to be honest, I can’t fully compare the experience. What I can share, however, is what I’ve seen raising my kids so far here in Madrid vs. what I remember when I was younger or hear from friends back home. I’m planning to write another post about this, but just a tidbit to highlight: we live in an apartment-complex with its own park, common play areas, pool, etc. where the kids can be out playing easily until 8 or 9pm+ (in summer). And it never really gets so cold that you can’t go outside. That for me, is a huge point in favor of being here (at least vs. the east coast of the US as a comparison). TBC…

Screenshot 2018-10-22 at 11.55.56

This isn’t the park at our house, but it’s an example of one closeby that we frequent. Notice the sun…

To summarize, for now I couldn’t really imagine myself back in the US, but we’ll see what happens in the future. Right now my children are both still below five years old, but I would love them to have the experience of studying in the US when they’re older (assuming they get a massive college scholarship). For now I’ll stick with the sun and take it day by day.

The job hunt is over! How I found a new job in Madrid and why it’s time to to cut back on coffee.

Wait a minute…cut back on the coffee? Shouldn’t I be needing more coffee now that I’m back to the full-time grind?

If there are two important things I’ve learned about the job hunting process here in Spain it’s that (1) you better be prepared to drink a lot of coffee. And (2) you better have a LOT of patience. It’s all about networking and “meeting up for a coffee” to talk to all of the people you know (or contacts of people you know) who can maybe point you in the right direction or give you some advice. But don’t expect things to happen overnight or in a couple months (unless you happen to be lucky or have a really specialized job). If you’re trying to switch sectors and functions like me it can definitely be done and you can get the job you want, but…  Muchaaaa paciencia as we say here…

Networking. During one of my first sessions at the Outplacement company paid for by my ex-company to help those that had been let go with the mass layoffs I remember some talk about the importance of building your network of contacts and the importance of using and maintaining that network. “Blah” I thought! Why can’t I just look for a job posted online, apply, and that’s all there is to it? Wouldn’t this work in the US? Wrong. You’re not in Kansas anymore. 

Back to what I said before – it’s all about networking here in Spain. We were told in these sessions that 80% of jobs here in Spain are found through contacts. That means only 20% are found through other means like online job searches, for example. I remember thinking this seemed crazy when they first told us this fact and drew an iceberg image on the board. “Blah!” I said again. Well, guess what? 10 months later when I had two job offers on my plate, both of them were found through contacts and networking. It can be a daunting and sometimes painful process, but if you want to find a job you have to work on your networking and getting in touch with all your contacts – friends, past colleagues, school colleagues, etc. And make sure you showcase your USP – like being a native English speaker in my case.

I could go on, but if you’re really interested I’d rather chat personally. What I am curious about though is whether the job hunt at this stage of the game is similar in the US or in other markets to what I’ve experienced here. At this point after living here for almost 10 years my Spanishized world and POV is the only reality I know…

Insider Report: Working in Spain (not as an English teacher)

If I had more time I could probably write a book about the peculiarities of working here in Spain and the differences versus the US. However, to avoid boredom, I’ll try to keep it short and sweet and just share some interesting thoughts.

Why do I think my insight might be interesting and different to other expat blogs? Well, to start, I’ve never had the typical “American in Spain English teacher” job. I tried giving some classes at one point when I was studying here and learned that I definitely lack patience for that profession. Also, I’ve worked in a variety of types of companies over here in Madrid: small Spanish consulting firm, non-profit educational organization, multinational American company. What do all of these have in common? At the end of the day, regardless of the international nature/origen of the business, if the company’s here in Spain, it is way more Spanish than anything else.

Let me just preface the following list of Working in Spain commentaries by saying that the degree to which this happens definitely depends on the company. Rather than specifically saying which company it happened at I’ll just leave it general (if you want more dirt you can contact me separately :)) Also, don’t take this all as criticism! A number of these points have positive aspects, in my opinion, compared to working in the US (see #1,2, 9, 10). Everything is a balance…

1. Lunch is not to be eaten at one’s desk or skipped and should be a full hour (at least). Back in the US I could probably count on my fingers the amount of times I went out for lunch with coworkers. Instead it was normal to go to the gym or just eat at your desk. In Spain, it’s definitely weird to eat at your desk, and if you skip lunch, there’s no correlation with leaving earlier. In other words, go out for lunch, take a break, and socialize (see #3).

2. A coffee break is essential, at least a few times a day. Taking a coffee break, whether it’s in the company kitchen or in a bar outside is key to getting up to speed with any news in the company or gossip. It’s also a good way to take a break from your work (kind of like if you’re a smoker…). And coffee is definitely not just for the morning here. An after-lunch coffee is right behind the morning dosage.

3. Getting along with people and going out for “cañas” after work is important. Social relationships are definitely more important in the Spanish workplace than in the US. You might be a great worker and deliver results but if you don’t get along well with your coworkers and the sales force forget about any sort of upward move. Also, when there’s a company dinner, coworker farewell party or christmas dinner, expect the festivities to easily last until 5 or 6 in the morning (for those who can last that long).

4. Complaining all the time is generally accepted and part of employee bonding, but it’s not that often that those complaints will actually be turned into constructive criticism and shared with management. The longer you’re here, the more you’ll find yourself complaining during your morning or lunch coffee break or during your lunch out of the office…

5. Political correctness does not exist. If something happens that you would consider sexual harassment back in the US, you have to think about it two or three times over here in Spain. Without getting into more detail let’s just say that male to female comments that would totally not be accepted in the straight-edge US are more often than not just normal comments over here. Now, I have to admit that sometimes it can be a bit over the top in the US where a male coworker can’t even compliment a female coworker on a nice outfit, for example, but having to listen to male coworkers’ comments about other females can be uncomfortable, at least for an American.

6. Yelling in meetings is not only common, it’s sometimes encouraged. Take it from someone who got told by her boss in an evaluation that if someone yells at her in a meeting that she should yell back. Really? How to Succeed in Business Rule #1: Yelling doesn’t get you anywhere or make you any more professional.

7. Expect meetings to start late, not end on time, and involve a number of confusing circular discussions without really getting anywhere or making any decisions. Also, don’t always expect the meeting organizer to be on time either.

8. Work doesn’t start at 8 or 9am (and sometimes not even at 9:30) and it definitely doesn’t end at 5. Does the song “Working 9 to 5. What a way to make a living…” ring a bell? Well, that’s one of those songs that’s definitely not known here. Unfortunately, in many companies it’s frowned upon if someone leaves at their official time and can be commented on by other coworkers. However, no one is watching to see who comes in early in the morning and commenting on that.

9. Vacation is for taking time off. I’ve heard a lot of cases in the US where people just don’t use their vacation days. Given that there are usually so few days back home, I can’t really understand this. In Spain, people generally have almost a month off a year in vacation. It’s quite common to take 2-3 weeks at a time during the summer. In my nine years working in Spain I’ve never known of someone to not use their vacation days, a slight postponement due to work perhaps, but never to not use them at all.

10. Fridays afternoons are like a “get out of jail for free” card. In all three companies where I’ve worked Friday afternoons around 2:30/3pm is when the weekend starts. A lot of Spanish people have lunch with their families after work these days or just relax, but in general it’s not the same intense work day as the rest of the week.  

Again, the three companies I’ve worked at have all been very different experiences with the most recent job definitely being more demanding than the first two. However, to one degree or another, they all share some Spanish similarities.

Unemployment office Spain

The surprisingly painless unemployment experience

Signing up for unemployment that is.

The actual experience of being unemployed will discussed at some point in a later post “post-facto”. For now, what I can share is my experience of adding to the 24% national unemployment rate.* Now you may be thinking, “Great. A foreigner adding to the already blown-out-of-proportion percentage”. However, I have to say that no one has complained that I’ve been paying about a third of my salary to the government since 2006… I guess I’m seeing a little ROI now.

As an American living here legally in Spain and after having gone through all of the bureaucratic red tape involved in various government processes, I was expecting the worst. I guess I should have remembered that signing up for unemployment, “paro” as it’s called here, isn’t a foreigner-only process. Let’s just say that If I had known it were this easy to sign up I would have thought about it a long time ago! (emphasis “thought about”)

Unemployment office Spain

There are a few steps that have to happen before you are officially on “paro”:

1. You have to get laid off. Now, maybe this is something you’re expecting or hoping for or a complete surprise. In my case, with global restructuring and centralization, let’s just say drastic country workforce reduction (aka an “ERE” as they call it here) wasn’t exactly a surprise. But don’t do something crazy to get fired; you have to be laid off in a good way, not as a disgruntled employee gone mad throwing patas de jamón (aka ham lags) around the office.

2. You have to have been working legally and paying social security for at least 12 months. If you’ve been working legally you’ve probably sadly noticed how far away your “salario bruto” is from the net amount you take home every month.

3. You need to get an “unemployment card”. In order to get this you have to go to one of the Employment offices and sign up. It’s really pretty easy. No appointment needed. You just have to bring your NIE, social security info, proof of any studies (although they didn’t even want to see my diplomas when I went, as much as I was waiting to show them), and that’s about it. More info here: http://www.citapreviainem.es/tarjeta-del-paro/

4. You need to make an appointment to officially sign up. You’re allowed 15 days (not including Sundays and holidays) from the day when you started being on unemployment to sign up. What I didn’t realize is that you can sign up for an appointment online whenever. I waited until after getting the unemployment card (DARDE) and was given a date right on the limit to missing my first payment. Sign up here: https://sede.sepe.gob.es/contenidosSede/generico.do?pagina=proce_ciudadanos/cita_previa.html

5. Sign up. On the actual appointment day you’ll need to go with all your official paperwork from your company (or they may have already sent it electronically) and your “libro de familia” (if you have children), as well as your NIE, etc.

Overall, the entire experience was pretty smooth and painless. And thank goodness for Google to figure out how to go about everything (forget about asking HR). I have to say I was impressed as well with the channel-transition. When I signed up for an appointment online I received an online confirmation and a number. Then, when I went to the employment office on the day of my appointment, I was happy to see that there was an electronic board flashing numbers, and the one they had given me for that time was just about to be called. Even the woman handling my case was quite pleasant. Once again I seemed to have brought with me more information than was actually needed.

About a week later I received a letter in the mail confirming my paro for a year and a half. (Note: I think the longest you can receive paro for is up to 2 years (!) depending on how long you’ve been working. Back to the 24% unemployment rate…)

Hey, if being laid off was rough, at least they make signing up for unemployment pretty easy! Now if only the job hunt process would go this smoothly…

*Note: I’ve never been on unemployment in the US, so I can’t compare the experience there. If you have any thoughts, feel free to comment below.