Home' HR Monthly : May 2018 Contents •••
May 2018 HRM magazine 17
How does HR work in China? Chris Sheedy, who recently spent six months in
the Chinese head office of a multinational, says that before you understand the
HR function, you must first appreciate the culture it operates in.
HR IN CHINA
n the Chinese business that has welcomed
me as its guest, a manager I have enjoyed
several interactions with over the last few
weeks is suddenly gone. His office is empty.
Those who worked with and around
him go about their usual business, never
mentioning the man’s name. It’s as if they
are oblivious to the fact that he ever worked
After a few days I begin to ask around.
Where did he go? Should I expect him
back? Is he on leave? Retired? Fallen ill?
Some offer answers that are many and
varied. He has taken time out to look after
his ailing wife; he is carrying out full-time
university study; he took a more senior
position in another business. Many smile
politely and avoid answering. Finally one
man, a Westerner, tells me the gentleman
was sacked and that the Chinese staff are
simply protecting his ‘face’. B etter to make
up a positive story, or act as if a person
never worked in the business, than start
ru mours and gossip that could damage the
individual’s social standing.
It’s one of my first and most powerful
lessons in Chinese cultu re during my
six-month stay. I’m here to write a book
about this business and its founder (as
the book is not yet released, I’m unable
to name the business), and the more I
learn about this fascinating, elaborate,
deeply historical culture, the more I realise
Chinese organisations and business units
simply cannot help but behave differently
to their Western counterparts.
The same but different
Many senior Chinese managers and talented
younger professionals have experience of
Western culture and business. Perhaps they
earned their MBA in Australia, the US or UK, or
maybe they worked within a Western business.
However in China they work in a completely
different cultural and operating environment.
Danny Armstrong, managing partner of
ShineWing Australia, a leading international
Asia-Pacific accounting and advisory firm,
spent five years in Vietnam setting up the
Commonwealth Bank’s local business, and four
years in China doing similar work for National
Australia Ban k. When I ask about the difference
between HR in Australia and HR in China, his
response supports my own experience.
“The intent of the function is not any
different,” says A rmstrong. “Every business
needs to hire good people and put in place
appropriate training programs, risk
management processes etc. The intent doesn’t
differ significantly. What does differ
enormously in an operating sense, and this
is a very broad generalisation, is the cultu ral
environment and the cultural norms around how
We’re all a product of our upbringing, says
Armstrong. People in China are no exception.
“Typically those in China are very respectful
of their parents, of their teachers and of their
government,” he explains. “As a result, they’re
less likely to question authority. Also, very
generally speaking, Chinese staff are more likely
to hang back and wait for direction from a
leader rather than question the status quo, put
forward ideas or make decisions.”
This aligns perfectly with a story told to me
by a Chinese manager in my host business.
Having spent 20 years in an A merican
business, he understands both cultures
deeply. He explained that if you hold up two
fingers and ask an A merican staff member
how many fingers you’re holding up, they will
say, “Two”. But ask a Chinese staff member
and they will ask why you’re asking.
What does any of this have to do with
HR? The people being managed, the humans
in human resources, see the world through
a different prism. In China, they think of
family before individual, of their leaders before
themselves. Facts change everything.
Individual or company?
Management consultant Professor Kevin
McConkey has been working with businesses
in China for 25 years. The Chinese H R
professional’s greatest responsibility is to the
business rather than the employee, he says.
But don’t mistake this as a negative.
“In Australia, up until recently, HR
professionals were focused on transactions –
how to fill out forms, get sick leave, get hired,
etc. The big change that’s occurring is that
HR is more strategic. H R people have
“In China, when I say the HR focus is on the
company more than the employee, I ’m saying
the role is more strategic. It’s about what’s best
for the company. In Western situations people
are also increasingly talking about strategic HR,
which is a focus on the company.” »
23/4/18 4:37 pm
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