Our first "official" event (because Club Felix doesn't count) was a session in The Library at Café Einstein, a mahogany-panelled private dining room where not only did we have a fantastic lunch, but were treated to a fabulous briefing (in perfect English) about the German system of employment law. Our first speaker was Dr Thomas Kühn, who sits as a Judge in the Arbeitsgerichte, the first level State Labour Court, which is the equivalent of our Employment Tribunal. We then heard from Charlotte Sander, a solicitor with International law firm Noerr who told us about terminating employment contracts in Germany.
The system is so fundamentally different from our own that we were fascinated to hear how it all worked. Works Councils (groups of elected employees) play a major part in the system, having a say in all manner of employer decisions such as who can be recruited, who can be dismissed, company structures, company locations, etc. Before even speaking to an employee about terminating his or her employment, there must be consultation with the Works Council about the issue and you have to seek their consent to dismiss. As you can imagine, in practical terms, this sometimes can result in friendships impacting on business decisions, but if the Works Council says no, the employer has to go to the State Labour Court for permission to dismiss.
There are also relatively few discrimination claims made to the Labour Court because protection against discrimination is built into the mandatory systems for doing things, so, for example, if an employer was carrying out a redundancy exercise, they would have to "score" the employees based not only on objective criteria such as we have here in the UK, but based also on things like "number of dependent children" "are they older" "are they severely disabled"? The more disadvantaged you might be by losing your job, the more points you obtain, and therefore the more protection you have. Fascinating stuff, but not good news for young single healthy Germans!
The result of all of those in-built protections in the system though is that if you ever end up in the Labour Court, you'll have no witnesses with you and will present a statement of your position on the matter and the panel (which is similarly constituted to our own Employment Tribunals) will decide, based on those statements. And it is all normally completed in the space of a few hours. This makes the role of a German employment lawyer really quite different from the role that employment lawyers play here. Questioning techniques are very much not required.
We came away concluding that the next time an employer complains to us about the amount of regulation they face in the UK, we might send them to Germany to reconsider. They'd like the quick Tribunals, but we figured that the in-built restrictions on their freedom to make commercial decisions would, in the end, not be adequate compensation for saving time in Tribunal on the few occasions they arise.
Our second "official" event (because Europe's largest Bierhalle didn't count either) was a tour of the German Parliament building. It is an awesome building, reconstructed in the 1990s by British architect Norman Foster (who also designed the Quartermile development where our Edinburgh offices are located), and largely a modern concrete and glass structure, despite its ancient façade. We heard all about how the German Parliament works as well as gaining an insight into life in post-war Berlin when the river running between the Parliament buildings was patrolled by Border guards who would shoot anyone trying to cross from East to West. On this occasion, the river was being patrolled instead by boatloads of Dortmund and Bayern Munich fans, as our trip clashed with the final of the German Cup, which took place in Berlin. Who knew that football rivalry could be conducted in such an amiable fashion.
And so the members of our Group, also sometime opponents, but hopefully always friends, ended our tour of Berlin feeling a little bit older (I blame Club Felix) but also a little bit wiser.