Living and working in China? Or at least dreaming about it? Regardless of where you come from or what kind of China job you find, you will eventually experience salary negotiations with Chinese characteristics. That, and visa issues. Here’s our guide on how to negotiate salary and pay rises in China.
One thing every new, old and prospective expat should know is that everything can be negotiated in China. And your salary, most certainly, is part of that. The process follows a somewhat different path from what you might be used to in the West. It’s slightly less structured and less transparent, annual performance reviews are not always forthcoming, and your relationship with your boss and colleagues can have a greater impact on your salary than you’re used to.
Let’s have a look at some of the most common situations you’ll find yourself in when trying to negotiate salary in China.
Usually, there’s no need to bring up the topic of salary during an interview for a China job. Expect ESL (English teaching) schools to ask about your salary expectations within the first five sentences, while other companies might ask you within the very first email contact. A good rule of thumb is to greatly exaggerate your expected salary. You know you’ve failed if they accept it without any protests – that means you’ve not asked for enough! Try and place yourself several thousand RMB over what you actually expect. What complicates the salary expectation question in China is that there’s a lack of reliable statistics. Most people will have to guess what their position is worth. Whether guessing or not, always start high.
If the job you applied for requires a degree, be sure to stress how good your university is (even if it’s not). Degrees are one thing, but where your university ranks according to Times Higher Education table is usually far more important in China.
Your Chinese language proficiency is another highly important bargaining tool, so if you’ve got it, flaunt it. If you’re fluent in Chinese the job market will open up and you can expect your salary negotiations to be a whole lot easier. If you’re a beginner, say you’re taking lots of lessons and progressing quickly. Even an earnest willingness to learn Chinese will be smiled upon.
Whatever the job, try to present yourself as an expert in your field. Stress your foreign credentials and deep understanding of things like Western social media and business habits. This kind of “insider knowledge” is highly attractive to a Chinese employer.
If you’re aiming for an ESL position, your best strategy when talking about salary is to emphasize your experience and your love for kids. In this situation your academic merits are less important. Keep in mind, however, that English teaching schools are very used to dealing with foreigners, which means they’ll probably have heard all your salary arguments a hundred times before. This also means they know you can go to another school if their offer is not competitive enough. As a result, most English teaching schools in China tend to have similar (and fixed) starting salaries for all new employees.
Prepare yourself for “negging”, the act of lowering a prospective employee’s self-esteem to coerce him or her into accepting a lower salary. Negging is often used with strict but arbitrary deadlines for signing a contract.
Here’s a real example of negging job offer from China:
“Dear X, it seems to me you do not have relevant experience, but I would like to try. Please find attached the offer letter and contract.”
Take some time to consider your weaknesses before an interview. This will mean you’re as well prepared as possible for any negging that comes your way. Don’t let it phase you or reduce your confidence. If there’s truth to the neg, admit to it but try and counter with a positive. Maybe you’re not experienced with spreadsheets but you are awesome at graphic design. To counter negging once you’re already in a job, keep a work diary from day one. List all the successful projects you’ve worked on, and exactly why you made them successful.
Sometimes China employers will happily tell you your degree is worthless, you lack all necessary qualifications and smell bad – but they’ll still offer you the job anyway. Don’t fall into that trap. If you believe this is happening to you, play “The Rabbit”. This is a time honored negotiating tactic where the rabbit (you) is attacked by an eagle (your potential employer). What a real rabbit would do in this situation is simply go limp. The idea is that if you stall and don’t agree or disagree to any terms, the employer will eventually lose their patience and give in to your demands. (Or you lose the job to someone else.) Obviously judge carefully when to play The Rabbit.
If you’re an English teacher and you’re approaching your contract’s end, you’re in luck – retaining foreigners in the ESL industry is a challenge for any school. If you’re a reliable employee, they’ll likely be begging you to stay. That’s why many schools have contract renewing bonuses, where they’ll increase your base salary with anything from RMB 2,000 to RMB 3,000 per month. Aside from that, you can also negotiate terms outside of the contract. Most schools won’t accept any changes or additions during the contract period, so make sure to ask for everything you want before you sign.
Salary negotiations in other China jobs can happen at infrequent intervals, but once per year is a good yardstick. In the public sector salaries tend to increase slightly every year without much negotiation. If you’re approaching a year of working for a private company, it’s totally reasonable to ask for a meeting to discuss “the value you bring to the company and your aims for the coming year”. Once in the meeting, say you’d like to hear some feedback on your performance and explore possibilities of a pay rise. Just don’t say how much you’re seeking (see below).
Let Them Lead
During the meeting, never be direct with what you want. If you start off with a number, you’ve already shown your cards. Let your leader do most of the talking at first. After the first round of negging (if any), promptly debunk the critique with examples from your work diary. Even after that, don’t talk numbers. Instead ,keep the discussion going until your leader has exhausted all the plausible negging opportunities and is forced to address the elephant in the room. The idea is to have your employer show you his/her cards first. Maybe the pay raise will be higher than you expected…
“A guy I know knows a guy whose brother is working in China making RMB 50,000 per month teaching English for two hours a week”. We’ve all heard tales like this, but no-one has ever actually met this high-rolling foreign English teacher. Stories like these are mostly the stuff of hearsay and urban legend. Of course, very high salaries are possible in China, but they’re usually reserved for high-ranking diplomats and lawyers. The average expat can make a decent amount of money in China, especially considering the low cost of living, but don’t expect to get the equivalent of a Hong Kong or Singapore salary, for example.
Got any more tips on negotiating salary in China? Leave them in the comments section below.
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