How Important is Time in China? Here's How Being Late Will Go Down

How Important is Time in China? Here's How Being Late Will Go Down
Feb 01, 2018 By Niklas Westerlund ,

Everyone knows that some cultures put more importance on punctuality than others. We're always told that time in China is seen as very important, so what does it mean if you're late to the Chinese workplace? Be 10 minutes late in Germany, and you're kaput. Be 10 minutes late in France, and you'll find yourself waiting for everyone else for another 20. At least, that's how the stereotypes go. China is the victim (and perpetrator) of a lot of stereotypes. So how does China feel about lateness in general and tardiness in the Chinese workplace? Let's find out!

If You’re A Student

Like most Asian nations, China has an extraordinarily strict education system. Class attendance at universities is mandatory, and being absent will permanently deduct points from your final score. Worse yet, if your attendance falls below a certain percentage point you’ll fail the course altogether. As for tardiness at Chinese schools and universities, be late frequently enough and your final score will be ducked by six points. Some universities (such as the renowned Peking University) will deduct a fraction of points every time you’re late for class. And this is cumulative, meaning that tardiness can have a serious impact on your grade. In case you’re still not getting it, being late as a student in China is not the done thing.

At A Job Interview

Being on time in China is considered one of the easiest things you can do to show respect. If you’re going for a job interview in China, therefore, being late is not going to stand you in good stead. Do a dummy run of your route the day before if possible and always give yourself an extra half an hour on top of what you think you need to get there. If you end up being 20 minutes early, it won’t do you any harm in the eyes of your potential employer.

As An Employee

Tardiness in the Chinese workplace can either be seen as a serious offense or something completely irrelevant. It all boils down to, perhaps unsurprisingly, which field you’re working in and your company culture. Let’s dive in!


As you should jolly well know by now, China takes education very seriously. And that goes not just for students, but also for teachers and professors. Tardiness will not be accepted under any circumstances if you’re a teacher in China. If you’re late for class you better brace yourself for a stern warning. Not because the school cares, but because the parents do. Never be late as a teacher.

Private Sector Office Jobs

Working in a regular office, doing regular office-esque stuff? In that case, you might already have noticed that tardiness is not the biggest issue around. From personal experience, it doesn’t matter so much if you’re a tad late coming into the Chinese office, as long as you get two things right:

• You’re in the office when your boss needs you to be there (which might be never, or it might be on Sunday morning).

• You keep the HR folk happy by clocking in and out every day. They’re not overly concerned when you do it, so long as your average in the office is never less than the standard 44 hours a week.

Public Sector Office Jobs

Jobs in China’s public sector are considered the holy grail if you like coming in late and leaving early. As a public employee, you'll have job security others can only dream of and, save for a revolution, you won’t be losing that post. Tardiness won’t give you much heat from leaders and colleagues alike, and napping during the two-hour lunch (which can become three hours, if you want) is not only accepted, but expected. Unfortunately, jobs in China's public sector are seldom occupied by foreigners.

Running Late?

You’re the new foreigner at the office and of course you want to leave a good impression your first week. But today you’re running late because of too much KTV last night or an unresponsive Ofo this morning. Don’t panic! Just keep your head down and quietly slip into your cubicle or work station. No-one will care, and who’s keeping track of this stuff anyway?

Most importantly, don’t bother your boss with distressed messages or phone calls if you’re running 10 minutes late. They don’t want to hear about it. Just make sure you work back the time you lost or the HR department will be all over you.

If you’re a teacher, on the other hand, you’d better let your boss know immediately if you’re running late. Each school is likely to have a contingency plan for tardiness and, usually, they tell you all about it in great detail during your training. And you better have a good explanation for your tardiness, too. ESL schools are used to dealing with unreliable and (barely) functional foreign alcoholics, so they will not hesitate to fire repeat offenders and cancel their work permit while they’re at it. You have been warned.

What if You’re the Victim of Someone Else’s Tardiness?

You’re waiting for a colleague, but this guy is always late and you tell yourself you’ll scold him when he finally shows up. This is a normal reaction to have. In a country where "face" is everything, however, don't dwell on someone's tardiness and, most of all, don't openly criticize someone for being late, especially among other people. You'll turn an insignificantly annoying situation into an awkward one.

What’s your experience of tardiness in China? Tell us in the comments section below.

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Keywords: tardiness in the Chinese workplace late for work in China


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