Besides the giant cultural shift one has to cope with when moving to China, there seems to be a whole other set of obstacles to maneuver when settling down in the workplace. While offices in China are, in many ways, similar to their Western counterparts, it is precisely the subtle ways in which they're different that seem to really trip people up.
It is important to remember that, while Westerners may find some of these behaviors off-putting, these cultural workplace norms are a way of life for Chinese. As expats, it is our responsibility to adapt as best we can to the way things are done in our adopted country. These workplace obstacles are here to raise awareness about some of the issues one may face when adjusting to the Chinese workplace. More awareness means more opportunities to prepare yourself, resulting in an easier transition for everyone. So read on for five obstacles that expats commonly face in the Chinese workplace – and feel free to post some of your own obstacles you've encountered in the comments section below!
While "communication" can obviously refer to the "I don't speak Mandarin and you don't speak [insert native language here]," what I'm talking about here is the art of getting an idea across from one person to another. I'm not even going to get into the whole issue of "face" because, frankly, I feel that is a concept that has been talked about before. So instead, I will go into the idea that many Chinese people do not like to be confrontational in the workplace. Not knowing the answer to your question; thinking you won't like their answer to your question; not wanting to admit they haven't done something they were supposed to do – these are just a few instances when not getting a direct answer is the norm. Yes, it may take you five times as long to figure out what is expected of you or how a project is coming along, but self-responsibility and openness in the work place is not exactly how it's done here. It is simply best to find ways to adapt.
2) Office socializing
Depending on the type of office you work in (and equally important on whether or not you are male), office "socializing" can come as a bit of a shock to many first time expat office workers here. China promotes a heavy drinking culture, all in the name of work relations. A deal cannot be forged, a contract cannot be signed, an agreement cannot be made without first engaging in a few dozen rounds of "ganbei!" This often results in one of those fabulous, rowdy banquets where men and women are clinking wine, beer, and baijiu glasses before loudly toasting everyone in the room.
If it's a really important deal or there happens to be a large majority of males involved, it can also result in the ultimate "boys' club" meeting at KTV, which consists (according to my male friends who have gone for just such a purpose) of each man selecting a woman from a lineup that is paraded in front of them. The men then no longer talk to each other but instead drink and sing with their new "friends." But after the night is over, a business deal is bound to pan out in the next few days. Bonding is indeed done a little differently over here but, according to some Chinese, the trust that is built between potential clients during these events serves as a foundation for all future business negotiations.
3) Understanding the law
In the West, it's a general given that as a worker you have certain rights and resources at your disposal. If your manager is sexually harassing you, for example, there are people to whom you can report it and expect certain results. Or if you're suddenly fired because of a disability, there is a channel through which to lodge complaints. That's presumably the whole reason a Human Resources department exists. In China, however, you'd be hard pressed to find an expat office worker in China who even knows if a Human Resources department for their company exists.
Additionally, most expats have no idea what their rights are – or if, indeed, they even have any - as workers in their respective workplaces. With all the recent news of "crackdowns" on expats' rights as residents and workers within the country, it has become more important than ever to know and understand the laws pertaining to your particular office. And obviously be sure to personally monitor everything you have direct access to, such as making sure your visa is legitimate, making sure your work contract is valid, etc.
4) The buddy system/face jobs
Now, this largely depends on what type of office you are employed in – for example, I hear cases of this happening to salespeople all the time but not so much to, say, magazine editors. It is well known that some companies will hire foreign workers to make their companies and themselves look good. But in some cases, that seems to be all the foreigner is good for. It proves to be a double-edged sword: Many Chinese people want to do business with a company that employs a foreigner, but they won't actually do business with anyone but a Chinese. So this often results in a foreigner being the "face" of the deal, but he or she will always need a Chinese "buddy" to come along to actually handle the deal itself. Sometimes even if the Chinese worker simply accompanies the foreigner to a meeting, conference, etc., it's often enough to help the deal go through because there is that status that comes with having a foreigner combined with the trust that other Chinese have in each other.
5) Workplace as home
The "workplace" is often experienced differently in China than in Western countries– the amount of time you spend with your coworkers; the fact that in some jobs you live with your coworkers in dormitories instead of commuting back and forth each day; and the fact that most times your coworkers are people you have known and gone to school with since you were a child, all contribute to an often unusually close knit group of people. As an expat, chances are you will also be expected to share in the long hours (I've had friends who've had to stay at the office until 21:00 or 22:00, despite having no more work to do for the day, simply because everyone was expected to all leave together) as well as the extracurricular activities that some offices plan for their employees. This can cause a huge strain on the expat's family, as husbands, wives, and/or children are suddenly forced to be moved to the backburner because of office expectations. Therefore, it is important to establish your work/home boundaries as early and as firmly as possible.
Depending on your job, you may encounter none, a few, or all of these obstacles in your journey through the Chinese workplace – or some completely different obstacles unique to your office! Regardless, it is important to remember that despite the differences, your coworkers are there to do their job the same way you are.
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Keywords: work culture in China problems in the Chinese workplace obstacles working in China adapting to Chinese job norms
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