Why does working at a Chinese tech company feel like a bad Tinder date?

9 min read

Editor’s note: This was contributed by Elliott Zaagman, a trainer, coach, and change management consultant who specializes in aiding Chinese companies as they globalize. He uses a comprehensive 4-dimensional model that enables organizations to take a holistic approach to global readiness, from the inside out. To contact him, check him out on LinkedIn, or scan the QR code at the bottom to connect with him on WeChat.

A few weeks ago, I attended a dinner party hosted by a fellow expat friend of mine here in Beijing. The attendees were a collection of twenty and thirty-somethings, mostly American and Europeans. A few drinks into the evening, one friend began to complain about her recent struggles with her employer. After less than two months into her new job at a Chinese internet company, she was already contemplating resigning.

What they told me when recruiting me was a total lie,” she said. “My job role is entirely different from what they promised me, I never even speak to the boss who I was supposed to be ‘working closely with.’ The bonus, which they made seem all-but-certain in the interview process, now seems impossible to obtain, and I don’t even know if they will be able to handle my visa correctly, which they promised they would.”

Her complaints were echoed by the rest of the party guests, who took turns sharing their working-for-Chinese-company horror stories. Right as the mood was getting dark, one friend lightened it with a comedic comparison, saying “you know, working for these companies seems to be a lot like meeting a shitty guy on Tinder, who’s a perfect gentleman until you sleep with him, and then is shitty to you afterward.”

While a funny comparison, it isn’t the best reputation to have. This approach may behoove the Tinder playboy looking for a hookup, it damages the company on many levels. Let’s put aside the less-quantifiable effects of a culture of dissatisfied recruits and a damaged employer brand and focus purely on the numbers that directly impact the financial documents: According to the Society for Human Resource Management, employers will need to spend the equivalent of six to nine months of an employee’s salary in order to find and train their replacement. For hard-to-find foreign employees who have the technical, cultural, and language skills necessary for a Chinese company, this cost is likely even higher.

Employers will need to spend the equivalent of six to nine months of an employee’s salary in order to find and train their replacement.

Despite the high costs of employee turnover, over-emphasis on recruitment and under-emphasis on retention seems to be a trend for Chinese tech and internet companies.

“In most Chinese tech companies, the business leaders focus on recruitment rather than retention and people development. They tend to exaggerate their company’s benefits when attracting talent, but have a very hard time keeping their promises,” says one Beijing-based HR professional who has spent time at Chinese internet firms as well as a big-4 HR consulting firm.

The good thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. There are many simple, common-sense solutions to these problems, but they will require that companies start behaving more like a good husband or wife, less like a short-term hookup.

1. Accentuate your strengths, but don’t say you’re something you’re not.

If you’re a young guy, fresh out of your master’s degree program, and hoping to find the right job, you have a lot to be proud of. But you’re not a millionaire, and if you say you are, she will be very disappointed when she finds out. Your flashy façade may also attract the kind of girl who is purely interested in money, not the kind of person who would make a suitable long-term partner. The same is true with companies in the recruitment process. If you’re a chaotic start-up where many employees work 9-9-6, don’t tell your recruits that you’re a stable option with good work/life balance. Instead, find out the good things about your company, and emphasize them.

If you’re a chaotic start-up where many employees work 9-9-6, don’t tell your recruits that you’re a stable option with good work/life balance.

Do this not simply by quoting the words of the CEO, but by asking more junior and mid-level employees what they enjoy about working for the company, emphasizing those traits in recruitment, and encourage them at the workplace. Also, be honest about the company’s problems. Nobody expects a person or organization to be perfect, and no one likes being lied to. In job-hunting, like in romance, no one expects perfection, instead, most people are looking for a combination of imperfections and strengths that are most suitable to their situation. By being honest about your problems and emphasizing your advantages, you might not always attract the people with the perfect resumes, but you attract the people who are right for you and your company.

Most importantly, be honest about expectations. When dating, whether you want to have kids, travel, or be part of a corporate power couple, you should always make those expectations clear, and then follow through on them. In recruiting, make your expectations clear as well. This means KPIs, job responsibilities, the realities of performance-based pay, and standards for performance appraisals. No one wants to enter a relationship assuming that their partner wants to travel the world, only to learn that they want three kids asap. In the same vein, no one wants to join a company assuming one job description, only to learn that the reality is completely different.

2. Find their “love language”

In the best-selling book The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate, author Gary Chapman outlines five “love languages,” through which individuals express, and prefer to receive, love: gift-giving, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, and physical touch. In his book, Chapman explains how for many couples, a difference in love languages causes them to be unable to effectively communicate their appreciation to each other, which causes misunderstanding and conflict in the relationship.

The idea of “love languages” applies to the workplace as well, as employees, managers, and companies each have their own way of expressing and perceiving appreciation. In many cases, they are not the same, and conflict is the result.

Employees, managers, and companies each have their own way of expressing and perceiving appreciation.

This is particularly true with cross-cultural teams and organizations. In China, where value and appreciation are expressed largely through salary and status, business leaders may feel frustrated when their non-Chinese express dissatisfaction.

“We gave [a foreign employee] a salary 30 percent above market value, but he still spent a lot of time complaining about what was wrong. I don’t think anything could have made him happy,” said a close friend of mine who works as an executive for a BAT firm.

Expressions of loyalty and appreciation from employees can often get misinterpreted through differences in love-language. When working with leaders, I often ask them to describe to me the behavior of an effective leader, a healthy organization, and a loyal employee. While, in many ways, these descriptions have heavy overlap across many cultures, one area in which stark differences appear is in how “loyalty” is defined.

In the case of Chinese leaders of whom I’ve asked this question, loyalty is often described in personal terms, rather than towards the organization as a whole. A loyal employee is, therefore, one who diligently executes the demands of his or her leader. For the Western leaders to whom I speak, a loyal employee is most often defined less in personal terms, and more in terms of commitment to the organization as a whole, and its mission, vision, and values. In this situation, the connection that is developed between the manager and an employee results from a set of shared values as well as a shared purpose.

Chinese leaders often describe loyalty in personal terms. Western leaders often describe loyalty as a commitment to the organization’s values.

If you take this difference into account, you’ll notice that an expression of loyalty may look very different from culture to culture. For example, if someone defines employee loyalty in the broader organizational way, they may view it as their responsibility as a good employee to vocally oppose company decisions or policies which they view as detrimental to the company, or in opposition to its mission, vision and values. For those who do not hold this view, those actions may be viewed as being expressions of opposition to the leadership of the company, and therefore disloyalty to the company itself. Through a misinterpretation of our cultural and professional “love languages,” it becomes difficult to see a shared interest and sincerity behind the actions.

3. Seeing, hearing, and appreciating

Belgian sex and relationship expert Esther Perel, in a TED Talk on the topic of extramarital affairs, expresses a broader view on the concept of romantic fidelity.

“People cheat on each other in a hundred different ways: indifference, emotional neglect, contempt, lack of respect, years of refusal of intimacy,” says Perel, “Cheating doesn’t begin to describe the ways that people let each other down.”

Indeed, most relationships do not fail simply because of one affair or a one-time decision to break up, but from a long, slow decline in which the partners cease to meet the other’s emotional and physical needs. People have a need to feel seen, heard, and appreciated, and when that doesn’t happen from their partner, they look elsewhere.

In many cases, the same is true with employer-employee relationships. When someone decides to leave their job, it is most often not a sudden decision, but an end result of months or years of not feeling acknowledged and appreciated. Often their superiors are unaware of this situation until it is too late. One American friend of mine told me about his experience after he resigned from a position in which he worked for over a year in a position that demanded a 9-9-6 schedule, with a hard-driving boss.

“My boss called me the day after I resigned, praising my skills and asking me to return,” he said. “At that time, I had already accepted the offer for another position, but if my boss had said those things to me more frequently when I worked for him, I probably would have stayed much longer.”

Many companies organize a “day of appreciation” once per year in which they say a very general “thank you” to their employees. While these events are nice and provide for good photos on social media, expressions of appreciation, in general, are far from being frequent or sufficient enough. If your partner ignored you 364 days out of the year, then bought you a gift on Valentine’s day and said “thanks for being a good partner,” I doubt you would be very satisfied with this relationship.

If your partner ignored you 364 days out of the year, then bought you a gift on Valentine’s day and said “thanks for being a good partner,” I doubt you would be very satisfied with this relationship.

Indeed, appreciation is best expressed through specificity and frequency. Compliments like “when you look at me and smile, it warms my heart,” or “the way you think makes me see the world in a whole new way” have much more meaning than simply saying ” I love you” for the 3,000th time, or saying “you’re beautiful” without much emotion. Frequency and spontaneity also matter. These genuine expressions of appreciation seem much more heartfelt when done on a random day every couple of weeks, not simply the one day when they’re “supposed” to happen.

The same goes for expressing appreciation at the workplace. When a manager praises an employee specifically for good behavior, they not only make the employee feel valued, they also encourage more of that behavior in the future. It is a free resource, something that is high in value but costs nothing to give away.

This technique can be used even when the performance is not what you desire.

“I spent a week working on a project, only to have my manager in Beijing tell me that we weren’t going to use what I worked on, but did not give me a reason,” said an American employee for a Chinese internet company.” After that, it was very hard to stay motivated.”

In this kind of situation, that employee’s manager would have been wise to take ten minutes of his time, explain why the project was changed, point out specific things that could be done better next time, identify what was done well, and thank the employee for their effort. By not doing that, the manager turned an engaged employee into a disengaged one. This is dangerous and frankly unacceptable in the highly-competitive world of the Chinese internet, where success and failure are determined by weeks and months, not years. In this environment, having disengaged employees is simply not an option.

In this kind of situation, that employee’s manager would have been wise to take ten minutes of his time, explain why the project was changed, point out specific things that could be done better next time, identify what was done well, and thank the employee for their effort.

Final Thoughts

These issues are certainly not exclusive to cross-cultural relationships, but intercultural environments can certainly complicate them. Successful relationships, whether romantic or professional, require time, effort, and commitment from both sides. When those strong relationships are formed, they are are the cornerstones to happy, healthy, and wealthy lives.  By acknowledging this truth and acting on it with their multicultural staffs, Chinese internet companies can build a foundation to global success. Picture2

Picture1