The Chinese workplace and cultural differences

by Will Hutchinson.

Will started work in Shenzhen in August 2014 and is about to complete his long-term contract.

Chinese work life is quite different to my experiences of western work. There are intricacies and hierarchies entrenched in Chinese work life that simply don’t exist in the UK and these can be obstacles at first, however it is important to adapt and adjust to a different way of doing things. It is not possible to claim that one is better than the other as both cultures instil value in different aspects of your work and personal life. As with many new things, showing a willingness (when appropriate) to be flexible and receptive to new ideas goes a long way in forging strong workplace relationships, in and out of ‘the office’.

An instant difference I noticed in my school was the rigidity of the hierarchy structure there. There are obviously a huge number of people that are involved in the running of a successful school; from the man who empties the bins to the head-mistress, and these roles all have a place in the school hierarchy. At the top of that hierarchy is the head-mistress. In my 10 months working at the school, I have seen her outside her office roughly four times and interacted with her twice – once on my first day and the second time when I was given a gift by her. Her role is purely administrative and ceremonial. She has almost no contact with the students apart from at formal events where she speaks or gives out awards. Her role is extremely different to my experiences with head-teachers in the UK. My high school head-teachers were all keen to be seen taking an active role in school affairs, constantly being on duty during break times, teaching lessons here and there; generally being as involved with students as possible. I was even on the student interviewing panel when a new head-teacher was being recruited at my school in the UK. From my experience, a Chinese head-teacher seems to simply be the face of the school for PR and is in charge of all administrative decisions and overall educational ones. She is often followed around by a small team of people (including a photographer) and commands a huge amount of respect from all of her staff. According to my contact teachers, my head-mistress is a former teacher who has risen through the ranks and actually founded the school that I work at. It was extremely interesting for me to hear that she is actually widely disliked. I was taken aback to hear this because I expected people to be very reserved when expressing opinions, especially about those senior to them. This is definitely not the case amongst colleagues that occupy the same position in the school hierarchy. There is open discussion about other staff (often more senior members) amongst new teachers and expression of how they feel their workload is too much etc. There is certainly a sense of unity amongst teachers that are at the same level of authority, going through similar experiences.

Below the head-teacher are all the directorial staff. They are all former teachers who no longer work in the classroom. They make all the administrative and educational decisions and advise the head-teacher. Once again, they are very removed from the actual hands-on educational element, simply acting on reports generated by senior teaching staff. They often can be seen wondering the corridors during lessons, listening in to classes. They seem to be widely feared by teachers as they have a large amount of power in terms of disciplining teachers who are not performing well. They are so feared that I have actually been asked to move by teachers who have sat with me at lunch, as we were ’too near the directors’ table’. My colleagues felt intimidated and unable to talk freely when in earshot of the directors and that says a lot about the hierarchies and power structure in the Chinese workplace.

The senior teaching staff consist of the grade heads and subject heads, whom are directly in charge of all the teaching staff. They are in charge of all timetabling and are responsible for the performance of their grade or subject. As a result of the pressure placed upon them, they can be extremely demanding of their staff, often delegating large amounts of work to new teachers, on top of the massive amount of teaching work they already have. Senior teaching staff are often talked about very badly behind their backs, just because they dish out so much work to their staff. As soon as they are in earshot however, the element of ‘two-faced’ relationships comes into play. This aspect of workplace relationships exists so much in China simply because people do not feel able to express themselves to their bosses. If they could openly explain their opinions there would not be the extreme divide between different levels of the workplace hierarchy. I have been out for dinner with all the English teachers in my grade and the head of English and to be completely honest, the only way to explain the experience is watching a group of less senior teachers ‘suck up’ to a senior member of staff. It is quite uncomfortable when you know what is said behind closed doors.

The largest level in the hierarchy is formed of the regular subject teachers. This group interact in a very similar way to the UK workplace. Discussion is certainly more open an honest than in an inter-hierarchical context and the teachers are clearly good friends as they are all in the same boat. New teachers (those that started at the school when I did) have the toughest deal in this group. They are in their probationary period and can literally be sacked without reason. This is a constant worry for them as there is no shortage of teachers waiting to take their places. As a result of this, they work extremely hard to please senior members of staff and to make a good impression of themselves. In my opinion, it is not a healthy way for a workplace to operate as it can simply breed resentment of those with more power and apparently significantly less work to do. The view of the school regarding student performance is that it is purely the teacher’s fault if the students don’t perform well. A bad result is not the students fault – the teacher’s classes are not engaging enough and they are not controlling the class well enough. It’s a very backwards view of education, placing no blame on the students absolves them from all responsibility for themselves. Obviously if they don’t study for exams, they won’t do well. Teachers cannot be responsible for a lack of effort on a student’s part. Subsequently, teachers are constantly under pressure to look good so that they can keep their jobs thus there is strong intra-hierarchical unity and little inter-hierarchical unity.

You will never see two members of staff from different hierarchical levels interacting in a way that does not involve work. If they go for dinner, it will be a formal occasion with multiple colleagues. Friendships across the workplace simply don’t seem to exist from my experience. Whereas in the UK, a senior member of staff would want to foster an open and honest relationship between colleagues to create a pleasant and mutually beneficial environment. It has been extremely interesting to be on the fringe of the workplace relationship but I strongly feel that the Chinese system is fundamentally flawed. How can a school expect to improve when the senior members of staff never interact with students, and only interact with teachers when praising or criticising them? The restricted flow of ideas and opinions in an inter-hierarchical fashion limits change and development for the better. The sense of community and belonging created in each stage of the hierarchy is great to be involved in as it has made me feel as though I have colleagues that are good friends, however in the long run, I don’t believe the segregation between different levels of seniority is healthy and conducive to a positive work environment. Those at the top are untouchable and those at the bottom are constantly striving to stay on the ladder.