Friday, March 11, 2011

Staffing in China

One of the largest obstacles dealt with in running a business in China is staffing.  I think any expat entrepreneur , multinational company and even Chinese business owners will agree that finding quality, long-term employees is a mountain to climb.  I know, I know, it’s hard everywhere, right?  But….since I lean towards China being the center-of-the-universe and based on my loose experience and memory of dealing with my home country, I’d wager that it’s even more of a pain in the gluteus maximus here in China.

When people look for a job in China, they do so in ways that differ from other cultures, especially in comparison to the Western World.  Two of the major factors are what their family thinks and if this job will bring them “face” (the “face” part especially has bearing on males).  Taking that into consideration makes the traditional ways of finding and hiring employees to differ. 

Here are thoughts and recommendations on 4 of the main channels used to find qualified employees. 

Job Sites / Agencies:  These are websites, physical agencies you can walk in, or any sort of job placement fair or business.  In my going on 8 years of running JLmade, we had 0% success rate with this.  We’ve done job fairs, joined websites, you name it.  Oh, we found employees through these methods, and each one probably didn’t last longer than 1 to 3 months. 

The people you hire via these channels feel no attachment, no loyalty and enter the job with the mindset of “let’s just wait and see”.  In other words, they take the job, give minimal to no effort and then they’ll grace you with the final decision as to whether this job is for them or not. 

Recommendation:  Highly avoid

Acquaintances:  These are folks you know from the community.  You don’t know them very well but you do have some interaction with them.  Perhaps in a time of needing new teammates, you offered them a job.  Since they know you from the outside world, once they get inside the office, they act very chummy and familiar with you.  They saw what a good, relaxed egg you were; they assume the company is equally as relaxed and carefree.  And it may very well be a relaxed company but this employee will carry on too relaxed.  They’ll assume the same chum you were outside is the same person you are during work hours.  They’ll stroll around the company, chatting, rubbing elbows with you as management, all the while, not realizing they’re not learning and being neglect of their duties.

Once they realize business is business, they either get disappointed and want to quit, or emotions can range from a mild embarrassment to a freight and they become sort of a dulled-down, zombie-style employee.  

I’ve fallen into this trap at least 3 to 4 times.  Hey, it’s not easy…since the job agencies are junk, in the early days of my busy, desperate times called for desperate measures. 

Recommendation:  Avoid and stick with people you either know very well or not at all.

Family & People You Know Well:  Once our company started hitting our stride, we realized it was because we were doing something right and that something right was hiring family.

The two heads of JLmade are already a pretty tight unit, Jacob (husband) & Leeds (wife)…but then we started bringing on some of Leeds’ cousins from her hometown of Jiangyan. 

Family in China, based on our experience, will be loyal, ready to take “ownership” of projects and eager to learn.  They are able to separate work from personal life and since they are family and family relationships are involved, they don’t “horse around” and do strange things that employees tend to do when they feel like they don’t have anything monumentally invested into the company. 

Recommendation:  If it were anywhere but China, I’d say don’t.  But since this is China, the old rule of not working with family doesn’t apply.  Go for it

2nd Degree Connections (power of word o’ mouth):  We’ve had our highest rate of success with this method.  These are the people you don’t know and have never met.  But somebody you know knows them.  And the person you know is not a close connection either.  It is like an acquaintance introducing someone to you.

Then for some marvelous reason, once this person gets there, they work out great.  I’m not sure if they have got some sort of integrity to uphold with the person who recommended them or if they have a hidden agenda to prove, but either way, these people work out best.  Usually the person who introduces them is close to the prospective employee, but you may not necessarily be close to the introducer. 

Recommendation:  In a land where relationships are king, this is definitely the best way to go. Go for it.

If you need folks to join your company, don’t go to agencies, stay away from folks you already, kind of know.  But walk around town and the nice lady at the store, the drycleaner, people at the real estate office…sow little seeds of your need with them, and they’ll start going through the contact file in their mind, thinking about who they can introduce. 

Would like to hear your thoughts or whatever ways have worked for you?

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  1. Very interesting and very insightful.
    We (mostly) had success with 2nd degree connections: one of our inspectors knows another one who was his colleague previously, our supervisor gets to know an office girl to hire through his friends, etc.
    I would still stay away from family members, though. I have seen too many factories that are entire run by the boss' family, and usually they are highly dysfunctional. Not easy to hire for competence in that case...

  2. Very interesting you've also had the same success with the 2nd degree connections. These connections prove helpful. We may have to agree to disagree on the family Think about most businesses (small to mid-sized) who is doing the finances? Usually an aunt, a sister-in-law, etc.. At least with my Chinese in-laws, the trust is there and they have been some great colleagues on the team that led to growth in our early years. As far as a large structure such as a may be right, but I'd wager, the 姑姑, or 哥哥 still have prominent positions in many successful factories.

    Always good to see you here Renaud and I appreciate you keeping the convo rolling.

  3. Of course, a cousin or a brother in law is always involved to prepare false accounting statements. They don't want to be blackmailed by a ex-employee. BUT the reason in the first place is that they evade taxes. If they set up proper internal control (you prepare the statements, she checks them, I sign the cheques, and so on), no need to hire family members...

  4. I always say go from trust to trust. Don't jump into the unknown. I work with family (my brother and Ameena) so I confirm #1.
    #2 is the trust to trust method, it never fails. People you trust will want to keep this trust and keep you happy. BY hiring someone they recommend, you confirm their trust in you. It's a win win.

    Great post Jacob, it's really interesting to see how in small business all over the world some methods work no matter the country.

    Have a great Sunday Jacob:)

  5. Go from "trust to trust" is a good one John...I'm going to use that sometime ;) Definitely has same methods mix and mesh via different cultures. Now I'm going to enjoy this beautiful Suzhou Sunday and hope the Falchetto clan is good in Provence.