Integrating expats into Chinese companies causes challenges, as demand for international and highly skilled labor rises in China

By Katrin Büchenbacher Source:Global Times Published: 2018/4/17 17:18:40

For some expats, the intercultural differences in some of China's companies are sometimes too much to overcome. Photo: VCG

When Canadian Françoise Raoult was recruited as a teacher for a private English school affiliated to an international-oriented university in Beijing, she was looking forward to being a part of a professional team. The headmaster wanted her to bring a fresh vision to the school, and as the only foreign first grade teacher, she would have her own classroom and enjoy "hotel-style living" on campus.

But when she arrived, things were very different from what she expected.

"I had to teach in a gym without any teaching supplies because my classroom was still under construction, and I live in an old, dirty and stinky dorm," Raoult told Metropolitan. "Things in China are often very last minute, and then you have to deal with it immediately."

But the real challenge was just about to start. Raoult, 40, found that neither her experience as a French teacher nor the long time she spent working in Japan 10 years ago had prepared her for the Chinese workplace.

"The main issue is communication," she said. "Saving face is so important. What the Chinese managers and teaching assistants say and what they really mean are two different things."

Raoult added that excuses for mistakes, the indirect mode of communication and the "no feedback culture" created trust issues among the workers.

In the beginning, Raoult tried to bridge the divide, but her attempts were rebuffed.

"There is a divide between the foreign staff and the Chinese staff. I went to the [staff] meetings, but they told me not to come back," said Raoult. "There are [also] the occasional lunches for all the first grade teachers, where only Chinese staff is invited. I feel lonely in that respect."

It's not just the education industry that attracts international employees like Raoult. China's rapid economic development and shift from a production to a knowledge-based service economy have changed the demand in the labor market. China's economy is also increasingly interconnected with the outside world, which means Chinese businesses need highly skilled workers with international experience. However, there is an acute shortage of workers with international management and strategic planning skills, a 2016 study conducted by Fudan and Tsinghua University found.

"Well-educated university graduates and overseas returnees do not, in general, meet the needs of the market either," the study said.

Some Chinese companies, therefore, try to close the skill gap with expats. But the integration of foreign labor into the Chinese workplace poses a challenge for some Chinese employers and their foreign employees.

Different mentalities

The highly competitive working environment and intercultural differences are sometimes too much for some foreigners to overcome.

Danilson Ruben Carvalho Dala was recruited by Zhongguancun Science Park's startup incubator Innoway. His job is to lure international startups to the Beijing ecosystem. Three other foreigners are in his department.

After starting his new job, the 23-year-old German immediately noted a difference in mentality between himself and his Chinese colleagues.

"Things are a lot less structured in China. There are goals, but no clear plan of how to reach them. In Germany, we tend to follow a detailed plan, but in China, there may be a thousand ways to reach that goal. In the end, the goal is sometimes attained a lot faster than it would have if we stuck to a rigid plan," he explained.

Dala also noticed differences in the way decisions are made and how information is shared.

"The boss is the boss. We are not consulted on a lot of decisions that take place. Then something happens and we don't know what's going on," he said. "There is no transparency, and the information flow is bad."

Dala and his foreign colleagues talked to their managers and colleagues to try to solve some of the issues that emerged due to cultural differences. As a result of many one-on-one meetings, both sides took a step toward one another. He now describes their office culture as relatively relaxed with colleagues addressing each other by their first name and their boss as "brother."

"We are now better adapted to the Chinese working environment, but the department has also changed a lot due to our presence," he said.

Integration is win-win

Some Chinese companies recruit foreigners to better market their services to the local expat community.

Bolivian Maria Renée Cruz was hired by a large Chinese dental firm for exactly that purpose. As the only foreigner at their Shunyi branch in Beijing, Cruz manages marketing, operations and scheduling.

Although she has been living in China for over 11 years and speaks Chinese well, Cruz, 34, experienced communication issues at work.

"It is the lifestyle and philosophical differences that made it challenging for me," she said. "But it was not as hard as I thought. My colleagues and managers came to understand that this is how I do things and it works, so they give me a lot of freedom."

Intercultural differences in the workplace are a concern for management at some Chinese companies. If communication runs smoothly, work efficiency is higher, and if foreign workers feel happy and integrated at work, turnover and costs are reduced for the company. It's a win-win.

Sebastian Dehlfing, a German student of international strategy and business development at the Hanze University of Applied Science in the Netherlands, is fascinated by these issues. Having worked for a consultancy in Beijing in the past, he draws from both practical and theoretical experience.

"Tacit knowledge about how people are managed is the great achievement of strong ethical conduct embedded in the Chinese culture," he explained.

The 24-year-old sees two issues in the Chinese work culture: The sense of accountability that is restraining the outcome of new ideas and the entrenched experience that puts limits on how to tackle technical problems.

"What Chinese companies can improve to attract more expats might be alignment to the philosophy that agreements reached by independent entities are better at reflecting realities than centrally mandated arrangements," he said.



The expectations of international recruits often do not match up with the Chinese company's reality, says one recruiter. Photo: IC


Tips from the 'job girl'

In Beijing, few people know the job market for international talent better than Madeleine. The 22-year-old Indonesian works for JingJobs, a job-listing platform for young professionals and university graduates.

Her official job title is events and marketing manager, but most of the expats living in Beijing know her as Maddy the "job girl," from many WeChat groups because she matches international job seekers with job offers from various industries. She understands how expats at Chinese companies can feel because she worked in a Chinese office in her previous job.

"It was very quiet; people preferred to communicate by email, even if you were in the same room. I felt very lonely," she said.

Due to her experience, she knows that expat expectations often do not match up with the Chinese company's offer.

"Expats tend to have high expectations regarding their salary, but lack the relevant job experience," she said.

She added that Chinese companies require their employees to be hardworking, sometimes working overtime and answering emails in the evenings and on the weekends, while expats value work-life balance more. As a result, Chinese companies often prefer Chinese who studied abroad to expats because they know the local language and culture, accept lower wages, and still bring international experience.

Madeleine shared three core tips for foreigners who wish to integrate into the Chinese workplace.

First, she advises people to learn business Chinese. Second, job seekers should learn more about current trends in the Chinese community and adapt to the Chinese culture. Third, she advises them to be knowledgeable about market developments.

Dala advises foreigners to be open-minded, understand that things are done differently in a Chinese office and ask many questions.

"When there are problems, communicate. But don't be too direct. Try to put yourself in your colleague's shoes," he advised.

Cruz suggests that foreigners take it easy at first, observe and learn and leave behind whatever they learned before.

"Your five to 10 years of experience doesn't mean anything in China," Cruz said. "Chinese companies do not hire foreigners to come here and tell them what to do. But Chinese employers also need to have a clear idea why they are hiring foreigners. Chinese businesses need to appreciate that expats are bringing a whole set of skills - they need to let them apply what they know."


blog comments powered by Disqus