So you’ve finally got a job in China. Congrats! Now there’s a whole host of things you need to learn about the differences between Chinese and Western workplaces. While there are stark differences between workplaces across the same hallway, let alone from different continents and cultures, appreciating and understanding different workplace cultures is the first step to truly integrating into your China job. Here are some of the differences and nuances foreigners may encounter in a Chinese workplace.
In the Western workplace, your boss and supervisor will most likely tolerate and even encourage some form of office banter. Managers will usually leave staff to their own devices, allowing them to listen to music, take breaks, chat and browse the internet during work hours – as long as work is completed. Colleagues and managers will often go for lunch or a drink after work, but serious “organized fun” activities are few and far between. Planned events such as Christmas and retirement parties often revolve around drinking as opposed to team building acclivities.
Unlike their Western counterparts, Chinese workplaces generally place far greater emphasis on maintaining traditional protocols, respecting authority and forming close bonds. Staff will likely look after their place of work as they would their own home, bringing in plants and personal items to show they’re settled and secure. As a result, Chinese workplaces often foster a stronger sense of family compared to Western workplaces. Regular non-boozy lunches and formal team building events, such as obstacle courses and military-style boot camps, are employed for the purpose of building a greater collective spirit. As you might have gathered, working for the common good is a very important concept in China.
Roles and Responsibilities
In Western workplaces you’ll usually find that jobs and responsibilities are clearly defined and distributed among employees. The individual will work to complete their own tasks and therefore demonstrate his/her own capabilities. Moving sideways to comment on or work in areas not assigned to you can be seen as “stepping on toes”.
However, in the Chinese workplaces roles and responsibilities will often expand beyond your job description at the discretion of your immediate superior. The mentality is that within a workplace, everyone is contributing to a common cause. When something needs doing, be prepared to pitch in, whether it’s your area of expertise or not. Helping out your colleagues on all or any task is a way of expressing your commitment to the job.
Western workplaces are relatively laid back when it comes to working hours. Although America once had the ticket punching system, nowadays it tends to be all well and good as long as the job gets done. In most offices you’ll see staff working to the clock, with a mass exodus at 5/6pm, save for those working on last-minute tasks. Overtime is much less common than in China, and workers are routinely compensated with additional pay, flexible working hours or time off if working extra hours is unavoidable.
Although acknowledging the importance of working as a team, the Chinese also work very hard to achieve and stand out from the crowd. It’s pretty unusual to see employees leave the office immediately when their hours are done, and many will stay and endure unpaid overtime in a bid to show willing. While helping each other and working as a team is the norm, there is a delicate balancing act between that and wanting to impress the boss. As a result, many employees are keen to demonstrate their worth by taking on extra assignments and working beyond their contracted hours.
In Western workplaces, as long as tardiness is not a habit it will be tolerated on occasion. If you’re late, time can usually be made up at the end of the day. Although there are workplaces that still adopt a sign-in system, the immediate penalties are not as severe and you might see in China. Repeat offenders will usually receive several warnings before any solid action is taken.
For staff in China, however, tardiness is one of the most important gauges of their commitment to a job. Chinese people place a lot of importance on being on time, and some organizations even use a salary penalty system, deducting a small amount from an employee’s wage every time they’re late. The Chinese believe that being on time is the simplest way to demonstrate respect and integrity within the workplace.
Hierarchy and Layout
Modern-day Western workplaces tend to favor flatter organizational structures. Senior management may still enjoy the luxury of an office, but they’ll more than likely be very vocal about how proud they are of their “open-door policy”. Management can usually be approached via a quick knock on their glass-paneled wall, and will hopefully be happy to discuss any work or even personal problems with their staff.
You will typically find many layers and levels within the organization of a Chinese workplace. Everyone reports to a manager or a boss, and even within the same team the power structure is often based on tenure and/or pay grade. This is closely reflected in the office arrangement; the more senior the staff, the less you will see of them. Managers are often tucked away in their private offices, while the most senior figures might be absent altogether. There tends to be a greater level of respect for and/or fear of those in higher positions. For example, Chinese employees are much less likely to crack a joke or talk about their personal lives with their superiors.
In the West, meetings are typically used as a way to spark quick-fire conversation and ideas. As a result you can expect coffee shop meetings, stand-up meetings and even plank meetings, where staff members must hold a stress position while talking. This ensures points are kept short and sweet. Western-style meetings also tend to invite feedback from all participants regardless of tenure and seniority.
In the Chinese workplace, meetings (开会 - kāihuì) are viewed as official business and tend to be somewhat formal. There is often someone taking the meeting minutes, a large agenda and a number of attendees who only speak if they’re asked a specific question. If you’re invited to a meeting in the Chinese workplace, be prepared to take notes and block out the remainder of your morning or afternoon. Senior staff members usually dominate the conversation and expect little input from lower pay grades.
As always, if you can think of any other differences we’ve not covered above, want to tell us how wrong we are or would like to share your own unique experiences, please feel free to use the comment section below.
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Keywords: China workplace norms China workplace differences
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A good article, you presented the overall common broad strokes without getting into all the different variations. It would be a good thing for college grads without work experience to read. Training centers will not be Google or Facebook and also are not going to follow their example.
Dec 29, 2017 10:04 Report Abuse