Wed, Dec 30, 2009 - Page 9 News List

China and the West in the workplace

As China opens up to foreign corporate influence, more attention must be paid to cultural differences in the office

By Hannah Seligson  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

As more Americans go to China to take jobs, more Chinese and Americans are working side by side. These cross-cultural partnerships, while beneficial in many ways, are also highlighting tensions that expose differences in work experience, pay levels and communication.

In the last few years, a growing number of Americans in their 20s and 30s have been heading to China for employment, lured by its faster-growing economy and lower jobless rate. Their Chinese co-workers are often around the same age.

“The tight collaboration of the two countries in business and science makes the Chinese-American pairing one of the most common in the workplace in China,” said Vas Taras, a management professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a specialist in cross-cultural work group management.

But the two groups were raised differently. The Americans, for example, have had more exposure to free-market principles.

“Young Americans were brought up in a commercial environment,” said Zhao Neng, 28, a senior associate at Blue Oak Capital (藍橡控股), a private equity firm based in Beijing. “We weren’t. So the workplace is a unique learning process for my generation.”

People in Zhao’s generation were born around or shortly after Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) opened up China to the West, so China has evolved from a government-regulated economy to a more free-market system in their lifetime. They can therefore face a steeper learning curve.

Sean Leow (廖傳揚), 28, founder of Neocha (新茶), a social networking site based in Shanghai, says young Chinese employees often enter jobs with less hands-on preparation. They may also have less understanding of client services, he said.

In addition, he said, “I know a lot of my Chinese colleagues did not do internships in college,” in contrast to American students.

Managers hiring workers in China appear to be paying a premium for Western experience. Foreigners tend to earn 10 percent to 15 percent more than their Chinese counterparts in similar positions, said Michael Norman, senior vice president at Sibson Consulting, a US firm.

That imbalance does not go unnoticed by Chinese workers.

“There is definitely the perception that Americans get paid more for the same work,” said Wang Ting, 25, an associate at WildChina, a travel company based in Beijing.

The difference is a function of supply and demand, Norman said.

“If you need the foreigner for their specialized knowledge of the West, companies are willing to pay a little more,” he said.

On the other hand, Chinese workers have a deeper understanding of influences such as Confucianism and communism that play a part in the country’s culture and economy.

It is imperative for Americans working in China to adjust, said Norman, who works on management and work force issues for multinational companies operating in Asia.

“In the West, there is such a premium on getting things done quickly, but when you come to work in China, you need to work on listening and being more patient and understanding of local ways of doing business,” he said.

Ming Alterman, 25, a senior account executive at Razorfish, a Shanghai-based digital media firm, is the only American among 40 employees. He says Americans need to understand the importance of building guanxi (關係). The word means relationships, but has implications beyond the obligatory happy hour, occasional lunches with the boss or networking.

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