Some Hard Truths about working in China – hints & tips

When I attended my first expat wives coffee morning here, one of the most heated topics of discussion was the treatment of expat husbands in the Chinese workplace.

Not so much in terms of support from corporate HQ, although that came up, (congrats Microsoft, your HR support for accompanying families and working spouses is the only one I’ve heard consistently good things about) but the day to day reality. The overwhelming sense was one of bewilderment.

Of course, adjusting expectations and battling to understand complex behavioural norms is a fact of life for expats. Add a language barrier and you have yourself a situation.

Neither is it fair to say every expat working here has an awful time. Everyone has come here for the opportunity to work in the most important market of the 21st century. Most love it. Some never leave. But almost everyone will also admit to some serious frustrations at one point or another.

I’m not going to touch on the issue of “face” or table manners or how to present business cards. What follows is based on raw observation and feedback from the coal face – tips from anecdotes heard over the past 6 months:

  • Start learning Mandarin – you can have an interpreter (and sometimes this is a useful negotiating tactic during meetings with clients) but they will always edit and you won’t gain as much respect as if you have a go;
  • However, make sure it is clear from the outset to HQ and the local team that language ability does not happen overnight and, in the vast majority of cases, that’s not why expat workers have been bought in;
  • Insist on a foreign line manager – a truth universally acknowledged in Beijing is that reporting to a Chinese boss does not work, leading to massive stress and resentment on both sides which often filters back to HQ. If you can’t, insist on having a liaison at HQ (NOT someone in HR);
  • Likewise, understand that for most Chinese, having a foreign boss is like a slap in the face. While it will never be acknowleged publicly, the view is that expat workers are lazy and spoiled and completely unecessary. Maybe they are. More often than not, you will be resented. See point 1;
  • Understand that while most Chinese employees will get a kick out of being invited into your home, trying western food and drink, hearing western music etc, it is almost always done out of politesse and will last a very short time. One woman I met spoke of preparing for hours before her team came for a drinks party, only to have them arrive en masse and leave after 30 mins.
  • The office hierarchy is unspoken but strict. If you manage to make real Chinese friends at the office, count your blessings, it is extremely rare and will probably consist of Chinese who have studied abroad;
  • Yes, at some point expect to be presented with bizarre foods and plenty of booze. And yes, it is a test of your manhood;
  • Get used to finding 15 different ways to explain something – short and simple is best;
  • After handing out instructions, set a deadline for the team to come to you and ask questions. If you don’t, you may find that when you check in on progress days later, team members are still struggling to understand what needs to be done or discussing it amongst themselves;
  • Don’t be surprised if after a team discussion about a task where no one appears to have immediate questions or concerns, a team member is appointed by his/her fellows to come to you with questions. Understand that culturally, this is extremely hard for the person in question;
  • Don’t be surprised if you receive negative appraisal/feedback on your performance. Remember the Chinese education system is based on trying to shame pupils into good habits and on fierce competition where all tactics are considered valid. Try not to take it personally but above all manage it with HQ – if you work with teams in other offices, insist on feedback from them to provide a more balanced perspective;
  • Get used to resentful colleagues sending emails directly to your boss, with you in CC, for all manner of petty issues. These normally revolve around the fact you have refused to do your colleague’s work for them. Emailing up is a daily occurrence, it seems.
  • Take a look at Sam Goodman’s Top 10 Tips

Forewarned is forearmed, right?

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