The unspoken challenge

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 August, 2006, 12:00am

WHEN A WESTERNER says 'ni hao' to a mainland workforce, the collective response is usually: 'Wah - your Chinese is good!' But if an overseas Chinese were to say 'ni hao' to them, the reaction could be quite different, even negative.

Negative treatment of overseas Chinese superiors by mainland workers is not an uncommon occurrence. In fact, there is a view that mainland employers should not rush to hire overseas Chinese or returnees to manage a company.

Several multinationals based in China are hiring overseas Chinese and returnees of Chinese descent to manage local staff, and this has resulted in a dichotomy, with ethnic Chinese who are bilingual (speaking fluent English and Chinese) and possess both formal qualifications and overseas experience, and local Chinese who do not have these advantages.

The situation can be just as delicate when a Chinese executive from a first-tier city is hired to manage a mainland workforce in a second-tier city.

'Second-tier city workers resent working for managers from first-tier cities such as Beijing and Hong Kong, and for overseas Chinese,' said Michael Cronin, former executive vice-president of human resources and finance for vehicle parts maker Asimco Technologies, and now working for Hewitt Associates.

'They consider them arrogant. Besides, they don't see why a fellow Chinese should be earning more than they do.'

Speaking at a human resources conference in Hong Kong, Mr Cronin said HR experts had noted that people either liked to work with those who were very much like them, or with those who were so unlike them that there was little room for comparison.

There was a perception among the mainland workforce that non-local, overseas or returnee Chinese managers tended to be 'snobs', and even worse - that they were Chinese who had forgotten where they came from.

Many mainlanders also have a negative stereotype of the west, and feel that western ways are not always desirable.

Mr Cronin said companies should be aware of these realities and the potential for resentment when hiring overseas Chinese.

He said mainland HR executives were often unaware of how non-local Chinese managers were perceived in the local work environment.

These managers often walked into awkward situations and were made to feel isolated. If this was left unaddressed, it could result in feelings of being unwanted and unappreciated. Managers in such work conditions usually quit. Holding on to non-local executives in China could be a challenge because such people had no roots in the mainland and no close ties to the employer, job or even the country. Should they get a better job offer, they would not have to battle with sentiment when considering a switch.

Mr Cronin said a typical mainland family scenario had one spouse going to the eastern seaboard (Beijing or Shanghai), while the other stayed home. The travelling spouse went out to earn as much money as possible in five years and then returned home.

In such situations, the outsider went where the money was. Company loyalty was not strong enough to hold him to a job when there was a better offer elsewhere.

Locals, on the other hand, tended to stay with their employers longer because they had roots in the area through family and friends, and other binding factors, he said.

The local Chinese manager in a secondary city tended to be happy with his lot and was not likely to move on, he said.

'Hiring smart young local Chinese and putting them in positions of seniority seems to work,' Mr Cronin said.

Quoting writer William Craig, he said: 'Give them hope and give them something to believe in, then you'll have their loyalty. Give them fear and they will leave you.'