What’s it like to work for a Chinese boss?

work for a chinese boss

Have you ever been at a point in your job/career when you thought, “I wish I could reinvent myself,” or “restart my career on a different path”? What if I told you I knew of a place where a construction worker became a director of marketing, a sales manager became a journalist, a real estate opportunist started a school, a student became a university economics teacher, and a graphic designer became a CEO (if only for one night).

Such are the opportunities of an emerging market like the big cities of China. But, before you quit your job and throw yourself a going away party, just remember the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence.

If you have read a newspaper sometime in the past ten years, you may have heard China is quickly becoming the financial center of the world. Obviously, opening a market of this size creates many opportunities. And although we are talking about a 5,000 year-old culture, China only “re-opened” its doors to the business world a mere 35 years ago. This creates an interesting relationship between a very proud nationalist people and what they literally refer to as “outsiders”, or the rest of us non-Chinese folks.

For those non-Chinese who have worked in China over the years, the Chinese adaptability is both an opportunity and a deathblow. During the (business) visa interview, one of the questions asked is, “What skills or education do you possess for [this job] that a Chinese person does not?”

If you are working in China, and want to continue working in China, that is always a good question to keep in the back of your head. Because like any country, they are trying to protect their workforce, and when your workforce numbers in the hundreds of millions it becomes even more important.

So, what does the present job pool look like for the non-Chinese?

The short answer is, it is still quite large but shrinking quickly. The most obvious job for a person living in a foreign land is that of a language teacher.

English, as the “international language” is the most sought after. Many Chinese people see that learning English can be a benefit to their work or personal life, however the government seems to waver on whether or not it is in its national interest to teach it in Chinese schools at all, or at least at a higher level.

For now, this leaves the door open to native English speakers to charge a premium for tutoring Chinese children. Take note that the current trend is that a “western American accent” is preferred (not so long ago it was British). However, English is in such high demand that any speakers of English can find work.
As Chinese companies big and small take to the internet and enter the international stage they are in need of copywriters skilled in the language of each of the many global markets. This is one of the many jobs that the Chinese who have been educated in the West have started to fill, and at this point, not very well.

It’s one thing to speak a language, but using the appropriate language to sell something is entirely different and some companies have not figured this out yet. Then there are the companies who think to cut costs by using Google Translate, or the like. I think this method usually ends in the very definition of “lost in translation.”

As Chinese cities become more international there is growing trend of hiring foreign models, musicians and DJs, chefs, and service personnel such as hosts (usually hostesses), waitstaff, and bartenders. These trends are usually started by wealthy Chinese bringing back culture they appreciated while traveling or living abroad. The Chinese are traveling in ever greater numbers, and like all of us who travel, you can’t help but be influenced by what you’ve seen, eaten, and heard.

There are always speciality fields such as international law, doctors, architects, programmers, etc. that continue to remain as present opportunities, but again, as the western educated Chinese youth return to China this job pool shrinks very fast.

Outside of the fields/jobs mentioned, most non-Chinese job seekers looking to work in China are working for non-Chinese companies. At present, China is in the process of opening its doors to companies a little wider. International companies have been coming to Chinese cities in ever greater amounts, to open Asian headquarters or branches for manufacturing, and to capitalize on the Chinese domestic market.

These companies find a society that is pragmatic, where rules can vary according to the situation. They will find a workforce that is ready and willing to take direction, but not necessarily think beyond the task in front of them. These types of companies have adapted to Chinese culture to varying degrees.

So, what’s it like to work in a Chinese environment?

The Chinese business philosophy is built on the foundation of cultural Confucianism traditions and clan-based networking. This system has worked for them so far, with the possible exception of large international corporations that adopt some western business practices with “Chinese characteristics,” if you will. China, however, is mainly made up of small to medium-sized, family-owned businesses. As these companies grow they tend to rely on what brought them success, namely their collectivist culture that is built on family and/or a close network of friends and colleagues gathered over many years.

In many cases this involves the promotion or hiring of a under-qualified candidate rather than promotion based on merit. There is not much weight given to individualism, but instead personal loyalty and group or organizational success are the overarching goals. The Chinese traditionally believe that inequalities amongst people are acceptable, and therefore work relationships tend to be hierarchical. Employees should not have aspirations beyond their rank, and respect for authority is paramount.

The Chinese are a highly competitive society whether in the classroom or in the business arena. There is little to no concern about leisure time, and many employees find themselves sacrificing family time to achieve the greater goal of building honor for their family name and respect for their company. The Chinese are also entrepreneurial and extremely adaptable. This cultural norm allows many of the Chinese businesses to see that there are some roles that, for now, a Chinese worker cannot fill.

The Chinese Siesta, Make-up Holidays, and Chinese Efficiency

One of the first stories I hear from non-Chinese working for a Chinese company or in a Chinese work environment is about “lunch”. Usually it goes like this, “I went out with my co-worker to a Chinese restaurant where we shared a ‘family- style’ meal. When we returned to the office the lights were turned off and everyone went to their cubicle/desk and took a nap!” I had one person tell me that they closed their office door and kept working, only to have someone come in and turn off the light, and tell them that the light coming through the crack in the door was distracting.

Now I’d rather knock off work an hour early than sleep at my desk. More importantly, it seems counterintuitive to the Chinese work ethic of “time is money, efficiency is life.”

The work policy that seems to be the most confusing is the “make-up holiday.” Here’s the math: Let’s say your company gives you a week-long holiday for Chinese New Year, for example. You are then expected/required to work the following Saturday and possibly Sunday to make up for some of the time missed during the “holiday.” So, your week long holiday is really only 3 days and with your make-up days you now find yourself working 7 straight days!

If you are a reasonably flexible person it wouldn’t take long to get over or even be somewhat amused by the lunch and holiday thing, but unfortunately the culture shock doesn’t end there. Non-Chinese employees say they constantly feel like an outsider. It’s not that you can’t make friends with your coworkers. In fact, many young Chinese will flock to you to practice English, hear your story, or because having a foreign friend is “cool.”

It’s just that you, as a non-Chinese person, can’t do much for their Chinese personal relationship network, or guanxi. Foreign workers also say they feel used for their western appearance and not for their knowledge. This is fine if you’re a model or actor, but not so much if you are a doctor, lawyer, or architect. One woman told me that with one company her resume consisted of sending in a photo, and her interview was to establish that the picture was really her.

An architect, who doesn’t speak Chinese, said he had to sit through lengthy meetings where only Chinese was spoken several times a month. I have been told many times, “I was there because I was a foreign face…” But again, if you are a foreigner in a foreign land some of this is to be expected.

The one complaint, or culture shock, I hear from expats who not only work in China but also live here is mockingly referred to as “Chinese efficiency.” In other words, a huge lack of efficiency. It shows up for expats in many areas of everyday life in China, and for most of us it’s something we can never quite understand.

The explanation simply put is that “the Chinese take a long view of things.” This explanation is in-tune with their idea of guanxi and their family value system, but totally out of sync with the light speed pace of economic growth, and the pace at which their society is adapting to western culture. A lawyer who works in a Chinese firm told me, “In China, the expectation is that you sit at your desk, until you are given a specific assignment”.

If you go around looking for work, it makes your boss look bad…, so you never ask for work, if you have nothing to do, you just surf the net.” I have been told by countless others that either they could complete the task given to them in their 8-12 hour work day in less than 3 hours, or that they could have completed it at home and been more efficient.

One of the most important aspects of working in a Chinese company is “not the work you do, but how long you’re at the office.” “You can show up a little late, but always be one of the last to leave…” Most foreign employees feel they have little chance for advancement in a Chinese company no matter how hard they work or how valuable they are to the company. An e-commerce marketing manager for a Chinese internet company put it this way, “We are mercenaries, more than normal workers.”

So, what’s the future of working in China?

The overall demand for foreign workers in Chinese companies is shrinking, but that doesn’t mean that the opportunity to work in China is evaporating. Like most places in this ever-changing global market, China is in flux. Foreign companies will continue to need representation from their home countries. The expat community will need support and services. The Chinese indulgences are trending toward western goods and services.

All of these areas and more are available in the future Chinese job market. And then there is the Chinese youth movement. With a population of over a billion people, you are bound to have a lot of smart and talented people. It’s only a matter of time before these smart, talented people will want be promoted on merit and not stand by idly and watch the boss’s son move ahead. Once that attitude changes, a little farther down the road, smart and talented foreign people will have a chance to advance in Chinese companies as well.

So, if you’re ready and willing for the adventure of working on “Planet China,” go ahead and throw yourself that going away party.

Photo Credits: Photos by Blue Heron MacCormack

6 thoughts on “What’s it like to work for a Chinese boss?”

  1. “During the (business) visa interview, one of the questions asked is, ‘What skills or education do you possess for [this job] that a Chinese person does not?’ ”

    Never been asked that one…which is probably a good thing as I would be likely to reply “Intelligence and basic social skills”

    I have lost track of the countless times people stand there in the street and gawk open-mouthed at me as I am simply walking to work. Not just kids either but adults of all kinds. I live in a small town and always take the same route to work for the past 3 years so I am sure that these people have seen me many times before. No matter, the response is always the same
    “Look over there, there is a foreigner!”
    “Where, oh WHERE?”
    “Over THERE!”
    That in itself is not too annoying but when people come up to me to feel the hair on my arms…is when it gets freakish.

    As for intelligence or ‘thinking out of the box’…here is just one of many stories.
    A Chinese ex-girlfriend couldn’t figure out why the vegetable crisper in her fridge wouldn’t close. I walked over, pulled it out and sure enough there was a veggie that had fallen behind it. This is a graduate of a prestigious university and someone who works for a fair-sized company.

    Granted probably not all Chinese are like this…but there are far too many. I’ve lived in several places in China and had the same experiences in all of them

  2. This is equally applicable thorough Southeast Asia and to a lesser degree in Singapore where their success relied heavily on a mostly merit based system.

    Expats in countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia also face the same challenges.

    Good luck out there!

  3. Wow, very well written! I thought I was the crazy one after working for a Chinese boss and having a Chinese landlord that came knocking on my bedroom window after 9:00pm!!!i didn’t owe rent by the way!!!

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