6 Things Foreigners Working in Chinese Companies Should Avoid

6 Things Foreigners Working in Chinese Companies Should Avoid
Jul 01, 2021 By Cian Dineen , eChinacities.com

When you’re a foreigner working in a Chinese company, you’re not like your local colleagues. For better or for worse, you’ll be treated differently. As a result, it’s sometimes hard to know how you should conduct yourself in certain work situations. Here are six things foreigners working in Chinese companies should avoid doing.

foreigners working in Chinese companies 
Source: McPheeSteury

Using Colleagues as Personal Translators

Although pretty understandable, this is often the most common mistake foreigners make in a Chinese work environment. For expats in China, routine everyday things can become difficult challenges. From speaking with your landlord to making a Taobao order or talking to the Meituan delivery guy, our Chinese language skills are often stretched to the limit.

At work, however, we sometimes find ourselves surrounded by local colleagues who are much more bilingual than we are, and so it seems easier to ask them to help out rather than struggle on hopelessly trying to deal with problems ourselves. But what starts out as a small one-off favor can gradually lead to a dependency. It’s not fair on your colleagues and you’re not doing yourself and your Mandarin language learning efforts any favors either. Stamp it out before it becomes a bad habit.

Complaining About Chinese Work Culture

Chinese workplace culture is probably very different to what you’re used to back home. Even the tech companies that aspire to emanate the likes of Apple and Google are still Chinese companies at heart. As a result, you should expect to see some habits and practices you might not fully agree with.

An obvious example is the taking of naps at lunch time, a habit that can transform a workplace into a giant slumber party for one to two hours. Another that may grind your gears is colleagues slurping noodles or chewing loudly as they eat at their desks. Finally, you may have come up against colleagues who periodically decamp to the toilet stalls to watch some TV or play games on their phones.

I could probably go on to write an article ten times as long about all the things that annoy me about Chinese workplace culture, but the point isn’t whether these habits are right or wrong. The point is that you are in a tiny minority as a foreigner in the office and you are unlikely to be in a position to enact change or influence such practices in any way. Just ask yourself one simple question: can I accept this? If not, the solution is simple. Go work for another company (and possibly in another country). If you can accept it, stop complaining and get on with your own tasks.

Always Telling Colleagues that Things are Done Better Where You’re From

By the same token, avoid falling into the habit of constantly telling your local colleagues how much better things are done in your home country. Don’t keep banging on about the fact that you can disagree with your managers, that companies have well-established workflows, and that overtime is always compensated.

Again, you may be right in what you say. It’s just that you’re wasting your breath in doing so and probably getting a fair number of backs up at the same time. It’s hard to change workplace culture in any company, and in China especially, it’s not constructive to present an “West vs. East” narrative. If you really want to make changes, present your proposals logically and avoid framing them as any kind of comparison between two different cultures.

Skipping Team Building Activities

After a long day at work, the last thing most of us want to do is see more of our colleagues. It’s nothing personal against the people with we work — well, in some cases it may be — but we all have our own lives outside of the office.

It’s important to know, however, that team building activities are not really considered optional in China. It’s possible to get out of them without landing yourself in trouble, but you’ll need to have a very good reason. Think along the lines of a holiday you’ve already booked, a friend’s wedding, or a family birthday. Otherwise, if you don’t go, it’ll be taken as a slight against the rest of your team and your management.

Refusing to Work Overtime

Before you all grab your pitchforks and chase me, I’m not suggesting you work an Alibaba-style 996 schedule, stay at the office until 10 at night, or give up your weekends without good reason. What I’m suggesting is you occasionally make an effort to show some solidarity to your local colleagues.

In many Chinese companies, locals are expected to work at least some amount of overtime, while foreign staff in those same companies are often spared this fate. There’s no denying that a number of locals feel a sense of resentment about this, particularly as their foreign counterparts are usually better paid as well. It may not solve the problem, but if you make small sacrifices here and there, your colleagues will likely appreciate this and resent your privilege less.

So, if the whole team is staying late to finish a project, stay back a little later too and see how you can help out. If a colleague needs help with a small job just as you’re ready to clock out, stay that extra 15 minutes so they can carry on with the task. A little consideration for your teammates will go a long way in building working relationships.

Thinking You Can Get Away with Anything

The most dangerous thing a foreigner working in a Chinese company can think is that the rules don’t apply to them. Just because your colleagues or boss don’t call you out on certain behavior, it doesn’t mean nobody has noticed. It may start out with watching a YouTube video on your phone and nobody saying anything, or coming back to the office late because a doctor’s appointment overran and nobody asked where you’d been. However it starts, these bad habits can quickly spiral until you’re watching YouTube all day and taking two hour lunches.

The problem is that your colleagues undoubtedly did notice and, most likely, so did your manager. While the Chinese are notoriously reluctant to be confrontational in the workplace, particularly when dealing with foreign staff, taking advantage won’t do you any favors in the long run.

What else should foreigners working in Chinese companies avoid doing? Tell us in the comments section below.

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Keywords: foreigners working in Chinese companies


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Good pieces of advices to be taken into account!!

Sep 11, 2022 07:13 Report Abuse


Thank you for this interesting essay

Mar 23, 2022 16:21 Report Abuse


How to be a good pet foreigner in seven easy steps.

Aug 22, 2021 09:46 Report Abuse


Good article. In summary you need to understand that in China a foreigner is a guest and should behave as a guest. It doesn't matter if you are a working guest, or just a visiting guest; you are still a guest.

Jul 24, 2021 05:56 Report Abuse


if you are a 'guest' then that still does not mean that you should tolerate being treated like crap. Some Chinese seem to use this excuse to justify treating people badly, and then they get 'angry' when people point out that you don't treat 'guests' like that. Nor would locals tolerate receiving the treatment that seems to be reserved for foreigners. 'foreigner tax' prices being case in point. what you seem to be suggesting is the foreigners accept how they are treated, no matter how crap this treatment is. Not the sign of a good 'host' of you behave like that. I have heard Chinese 'guests' behaving badly while in my home country - they are not shy about being vocal when they don't like something.

Jul 27, 2021 06:11 Report Abuse


Nice article overall. Guess the point is to have an open mind and to be aware of the differences and adapt where you think necessary, instead of getting resentful. We already scored by working in a different country/culture.

Jul 20, 2021 00:00 Report Abuse


my hours are 8.30 to 5 pm i dont do over time because my boss does not want to pay me overtime.my wife works late and i need to take care of my son.also no weekends either.

Jul 12, 2021 06:45 Report Abuse


It's interesting to have all the points brought up openly..

Jul 03, 2021 21:43 Report Abuse


it is a pity that they are not based in reality.

Jul 04, 2021 14:12 Report Abuse


Sorry, I feel a need to add another comment to address the individual remarks in this article. Perhaps Cian Dineen, author of this article, believes the burdens in her workplace with foreigners required a dressing down of foreigners, but thankfully echinacities allows for comments to respond back. Human Translators: While I agree that relying too heavily on a co-worker for translation problems is excessive, if it is a problem with that co-worker, perhaps they should speak up. I always find it funny when asked why I do not learn Chinese if I plan to live and work in China. My response is usually, "why do you tell me that you can not learn to speak English or find confidence in using English considering you have been studying it since Grade 1?" Some people just do not have a talent, willingness, or time for learning new languages. Complaining about Chinese Work Culture: 2/3 of the conversations that my Chinese co-workers have at their desks is gossip about other co-workers or complaining about their duties. There is far more "griping" on the Chinese side than the foreigner's side. I feel like I am in high school again. As for the slurping and chowing down on food, it makes me homesick to hear it. It reminds me of days on the farm with the pigs slurping at troughs and cows chewing their cud. I wish I could find the person who originally said "Chewing with your mouth open is a sign that it is good food and a compliment to the chef". I would give them something to chew on. As for sleeping for two hours at lunch, perhaps they would not have to work so much overtime, if they woke up and did some work. I try to be considerate of those sleeping around me, but I get so much of my work completed during this period, and if I make a little noise as a result, then so be it. After all, I am paid to work, not sleep. I agree with the West vs. East narrative of the story. Just as I find many workplace practices inefficient and ineffective, perhaps Chinese see the same in western workplaces. I see it as more of a problem of culture. As I am constantly reminded, China has 5000 years of history. It is hard to change when certain things are engrained in the Chinese DNA. Changes to culture are always slow. But, if China is wanting to compete in the western world of business, conformity to western business practices is just as important on their part as it is on a foreigner's part. Team Building: While I agree that team building is important, I do not think any person should be asked to participate in such things if they do not wish to. Just because the "boss" says to dance like a chicken, does not mean I will. China has a thing called "losing face". Well, sometimes foreigners will feel like they are "losing face" doing some of the silly things that they are asked to participate in. Again, it is a balance that both Chinese and foreigners must find agreeable. Personally, I do not participate in formal Chinese dinners due to the drinking that occurs. I do not drink often and I do not like feeling obligated to drink and drink and drink because "This is China". I do not enjoy being around drunks, and I just remove myself from such things. Overtime: The article is correct to say that it is unreasonable for a foreigner to provide an extra 15 minutes occasionally when needed. But, I remind the author of this story that most foreigners are under contract. That contract spells out our weekly working hours and our overtime requirements/pay. Again, this is a cultural thing. Chinese may accept constant overtime expectations from their employers, but foreigner seldom do. Personally, I and some of my foreign co-workers do many things extra without pay to help benefit our company. But, those situations are often requested, discussed, and agreed upon by both parties. They should never be taken for granted or expected. I had to chuckle with the last one. "However it starts, these bad habits can quickly spiral until you’re watching YouTube all day and taking two hour lunches." The addiction to videos and game playing is not a problem that Chinese bosses often have to be concerned about with foreigners. I assure you of that. I will remind the author once again, foreigners are under contract. Each year, we must get evaluated by the company to see if we are necessary to the operation in order for us to have an offer to sign for an additional year and get our residence visa permits. If there is such a problem with a foreigner, we would soon discover that within the time remaining on our contracts. If a foreigner is taking such liberties, they issue can easily be resolved. While Chinese may have certain "rights" under Chinese employment law, foreigners do not. Even our contracts are not as legally binding as if they were done in our home countries. It is kind of like driving laws in China. They are more like suggestions or expectations than laws.

Jul 02, 2021 08:32 Report Abuse


While I agree that there is a level of conformity and understanding required of foreigners in the workplace, it also needs to be understood that most foreigners come from lands that have "rights" and laws protecting employees that have been engrained in our minds. We are no more Chinese than Chinese are western. This is one the main reasons Chinese companies have hired foreigners. We are not hired due to a shortage of labor in a country of 1.3 billion people. We are hired because we are necessary for that company's operation. Is that to say that we are to be treated as royalty or gods...no. But, just as certain expectations are placed on us to conform and be understanding, so should the same considerations be placed on Chinese when working and dealing with foreigners. I will be the first to say that there are foreigners who take advantage of our status in China, or are crude in their behaviors. Some foreigners do have a holier-than-thou personality. What I offer differently from what this article portrays is that there needs to be a balance of understanding between both groups within a company. That balance should begin at the top management. If they have no experience or understanding of a foreigner's work culture, then perhaps they should not be hiring foreigners with the expectation that we will be good little drones and follow in their shadows. As an employee of any company, there is a level of conformity required, whether in China or in another land. But, that conformity must be understood and accepted by all parties working within that company. Foreigners are required to sign contracts that can be quite detailed, often with a list of fines against a foreigner for infractions. If there are issues in a company that are expected by a foreigner, they should be placed in those contracts (overtime, team-building, marketing, etc.) As for the social issues, then it should be dependent upon the individuals to work out the relationships between co-workers. I understand that many Chinese have difficulty with addressing problems and speaking their minds in the work place to foreigners. Perhaps they could take 1/5 of their gossiping skills they practice among their co-workers and share with the foreigners too. While I love working with my Chinese co-workers, very few friendship bonds are ever developed. This is not because of an lack of effort on my part, but more on theirs.

Jul 02, 2021 07:37 Report Abuse


patronising much? 1) I found that local colleagues would speak English to me when i said i wanted to become more proficient in Chinese, or the switched to a local dialect and continue their conversation. 2) a Colleague using the toilet for something than its intended purpose, especially when cubicles are at a premium is just plain rude. Wafting for 10 minutes for your colleague to finish playing Candy Crunch merits strong words. Chinese people complain A LOT. And when you are the focus of rude passive/aggressive behaviour, only a jelly would accept this without a word. If you are in a position of authority, if you need to complain, do so. 3) If someone asks you how you would do something, I would be honest. I would just say I do things DIFFERENTLY (and and usually more efficiently) 4) the 'team building' activities are usually juvenile in the extreme in China, and more of a 'power play' by the senior manager/owner. I would not attend more than once every 2 weeks as my evenings are my time - usually I would be in contact with family at home then. 5) persistent overtime is a result in poor planning. In my experience Chinese colleagues leave everything to the last moment and as a result have to work late. Staying late is also just for show more than anything else. 6) in my experience foreign colleagues are less likely to try and get away with stuff like that mentioned. Usually it was the locals i had to stop from wasting time on their phones. Dear ECC, ffs WHY to you even have things like this? If your target market is foreign, you are not doing yourself any favours by insulting them. In fact you will alienate the very people you want to attract.

Jul 02, 2021 04:21 Report Abuse