Cultural Dimensions of HR

  • 作者: 超级管理员
  • 时间: 2013-12-24 15:33:26
  • 点击率: 2013
Understanding cultural traits and designing policies and rules that take them into account can help foreign companies in China address important human resources issues.
 
by Min Chen
 
Culture generally refers to the knowledge, behavior, and belief system that has permeated the lives of a people for generations. Culture includes a way of thinking, behavior, and life and takes shape in a particular geographical area under specific political, economic, and historical conditions.
 
In the past 200 years or so, the mainstream traditional Chinese culture, characterized by Confucianism and Taoism, has been diluted by the impact of Western culture and social upheavals including the Cultural Revolution (1966 –76). Reforms since the late 1970s have also brought tremendous changes to Chinese culture. Confucianism and other traditional cultural values are no longer dominant, and Chinese culture is now characterized by a combination of traditional Chinese and Western values. For example, Chinese are now much less hierarchical and more individualistic than earlier generations. 
 
Company and national cultures play significant roles in human resources (HR) practices in multinational corporations (MNCs). Companies that bring their corporate culture to China without taking local culture into account when formulating policies, rules, and regulations for their China  operations often have difficulty retaining and motivating Chinese employees. Understanding some of the cultural traits that shape modern Chinese thinking and behavior can help HR professionals create strategies to overcome cultural barriers and develop a corporate culture that maintains core corporate values while adapting to some aspects of local culture.
 
Personal, not group, loyalty
 
Though many writings on Chinese culture emphasize the importance of loyalty to groups, loyalty to family would be more accurate. Traditional Chinese value filial piety and cherish their families. Family is the only social group that tends to evoke feelings of loyalty from its members. Other groups, including the workplace, have great difficulty cultivating such loyalty.
 
As a result, a company may find that Chinese employees devote more time and attention to office politics than employees elsewhere in the world. Many Chinese institutions, especially government bodies, spend significant time and energy dealing with internal strife among departments or among small cliques and individuals. Many foreign companies have found that constructive group spirit is much harder to build up in China than in the United States, where individualism dominates the culture. 
 
To foster loyalty to the organization, companies in China should cultivate a family-like atmosphere, especially among key employees. Foreign companies would do well to try to make employees feel that they really care about them on a personal level. In this way, employees will feel bound by something more than money. If treated like family and managed well, Chinese employees often double their efforts and work longer hours, even without extra payment.
 
In a Chinese family business, the boss often tries to take care of employees’ personal troubles and prepare hongbao (red envelopes containing money) for employees on special occasions.  Hongbao differ from the traditional Western year-end bonus because the year-end bonus represents an institutional reward while the hongbao implies personal care. Group dinners, outings, and parties can also help build up a sense of family among employees.
 
This strategy has to be practiced carefully, however. First, personal attention from a senior executive can cultivate loyalty to that executive rather than to the company as a whole. When the senior executive leaves the company, key employees may leave with him or her. Second, the frequent rotation of top executives in many Western companies is a major hurdle to cultivating deep trust and loyalty. Third, even when a foreign manager is in place long enough to build an atmosphere of trust and loyalty, language barriers and cultural differences make it difficult. A manager may inadvertently come across as awkward or insincere, leading employees to suspect that the executive has ulterior motives. Therefore, expatriate managers who are not confident that they can sincerely create this atmosphere may be better off not trying to do so. 
 
Corporate HR policies can also play a key role in motivating and retaining employees. Some MNCs, such as Hewlett Packard Co., Intel Corp., and Johnson & Johnson, have been particularly successful in this regard (see Successful HR Practices).
 
Disregard for rules and regulations
 
Chinese society has long been characterized by rule of man, not rule of law. Although various legal systems have existed throughout China’s history, leaders have tended to place themselves above the law. Even now, in many Chinese companies, rules and regulations are for rank-and-file employees, and the boss’s words trump all.
 
The Chinese disregard for rules is readily apparent on the road. Drivers making a turn have no patience at intersections, even though they should yield to oncoming traffic. The rules are bent to such an extent that whoever goes first has the right of way. Pedestrians walk across streets when the pedestrian light is red and even risk their lives to walk across expressways—and sometimes get killed. 
 
The concept of guanxi, or relationships, exacerbates this behavior (see the CBR, May-June 2004,  Guanxi Networks in China). For many Chinese, having guanxi often places one above the law and allows people to do things that they would not normally be able to do. For instance, people without  guanxi do not receive as good service or help as those with guanxi, especially in the context of a governmental institution. Chinese use guanxi to end their kids to a good school, see a good doctor in a hospital, and even reduce criminal penalties.
 
When ranking the words "law, reason, and emotion" in order of importance (in terms of human relationships and daily activities), Westerners tend to put law first, while Chinese generally reverse that order and place "human feelings and guanxi" before law. Consequently, laws are infrequently observed, and people tend to look for loopholes in the legal system for their own benefit.
 
In a business setting, the lack of a rules-based mindset has implications not just for internal company operations —employees who break the law could land their company in serious legal trouble. Thus, in addition to formulating appropriate rules and regulations, companies must go several steps further to ensure that employees understand and observe these rules and regulations. One strategy is to tell Chinese employees exactly what they should not do so that they do not bend the rules. Companies should also enforce internal rules strictly and punish violators —without exception—so that all employees know they will be held accountable. 
 
Evading responsibility
 
In China, officials and managers often complain that they do not have enough authority to do their jobs.
 
Nevertheless, when there is a serious decision to be made, they often hand the matter to their superiors. Many Chinese managers tend to separate power from responsibility. They accept the extra money and control over more people that comes with a promotion but often fail to take an appropriate level of responsibility. Even top Chinese executives shift responsibility to their subordinates. Finance and HR departments are often blamed for senior executives’ decisions. For example, when an employee asks for higher pay, his boss may simply say "I am willing to give you a raise, but HR has disagreed." When a senior executive is asked for an explanation of budget cuts, the answer is often "Our finance department has rejected it due to overall budget problems." One way to minimize this tendency is to clearly connect managers’ responsibilities to the benefits they receive.
 
This evasion of responsibility is also why matrix management, in which responsibility is often shared, must be designed with a closely knit web of responsibilities. To make a matrix successful, companies must clearly define a shared responsibility so that someone who has more power and responsibility cannot push responsibilities onto others. 
 
Lack of sincerity
 
Chinese rarely speak candidly, in part because of the importance of "face" in Chinese culture. One not only has to keep one’s own face but also has to avoid making superiors, relatives, friends, or other important figures lose face. As a result, instead of freely telling each other negative thoughts or opinions, people speak honeyed words when face to face but disparage each other behind their backs. Thus, Chinese tend to believe only their closest friends and relatives.
 
Such behavior can harm business organizations. In a Chinese company, one often hears comments such as: "I cannot say anything about this because I do not want trouble..." and "he must have said bad things about me in front of my boss...." In such an atmosphere, simple business issues can turn into complex human relationship issues, harming morale and distracting employees from their work. This trait can also become an issue in meetings where Chinese tend to keep quiet or agree to a certain  decision orally. Once the meeting is over, they may complain privately about company decisions.
 
This reluctance to speak freely and criticize constructively can be one of the most serious challenges for foreign companies in China. To minimize problems arising from these tendencies, companies need to cultivate a culture of open communication among employees and between employees and management. This is no small task, but can be achieved with a clear-cut strategy supported by a set of policies. For example, employees who speak up in meetings should be encouraged while those who remain silent should feel pressure to contribute. Without an open culture, too much energy will be consumed in office politics.
 
Dangers of inequality and jealousy
 
Rulers throughout Chinese history have heeded a famous Confucian adage: "You should not fear ruling a poor but equal country; but you should worry about ruling a country with inequality" ( bu huan gua, er huan bu jun). Material egalitarianism has long been an ideal in China and was reinforced by Mao Zedong’s rule from 1949 to 1976. In fact, the emphasis on egalitarianism helped Mao keep an isolated and poor society stable. 
 
Economic reform since the late 1970s has fundamentally reduced the importance of this value in Chinese society. With the slogan "to be rich is glorious," Deng Xiaoping openly called on people to get rich and advised society to allow some people to do so first. Subsequently, people began to strive for wealth, with government officials and even professors "jumping into the sea" (leaving their secure careers behind) to do business. As a result, income inequality has grown dramatically in the past two decades. 
 
Despite great improvements in China’s overall standard of living, people harbor deep-rooted prejudice against the rich. In a business organization, someone who receives a higher salary and bonuses can easily become the target of attack by the rest. In China, it is hard to keep compensation information secret, because sharing personal information is a common way to build up relationship. The one who is rewarded can easily become a target, and colleagues could try to hurt his or her performance by refusing to provide help or setting up artificial barriers. This kind of jealousy poses a severe challenge to HR professionals who must motivate people to work better while maintaining harmony in the company. A strict policy of confidentiality on such information can help a great deal.
 
Widespread contempt for others
 
Looking down upon others is a common habit in China. For example, in restaurants waiters and waitresses are poorly treated, simply because customers look down on them. Beijingers look down upon outsiders; urban people snub farmers; Southerners make light of Northerners; rich people show disdain for the poor; those driving cars scorn those riding bicycles and taking buses—the list is endless. 
 
Such contempt can also be found within a company. A boss looks down on his assistant; managers belittle lower-ranking employees; technical people scorn marketing and sales people whereas marketing and sales people tend not to trust their technical support; even among blue-collar workers, such mutual contempt exists. This trait, if not controlled, can form a serious barrier to mutual learning and other group activities, as employees may be reluctant to acknowledge that they have something to learn from others. 
 
Contempt for others often reflects a lack of confidence in oneself and of trust in others. This habit is an entrenched social problem, but companies can adopt measures to minimize it, including team building activities, inter-departmental cooperation, and cross-functional training. 
 
Working with the local culture
 
Despite all of the negative traits discussed above, Chinese people also have many positive cultural traits. They are known for being hard working, thrifty, polite, sympathetic, low-key, and patient. While Chinese may be superstitious about many things, they are not highly religious and are relatively tolerant of different cultural and religious traditions. 
 
Nevertheless, it is important for Western executives, especially senior HR executives, to adopt strategies that minimize negative aspects of the Chinese culture while encouraging the positive ones to create a progressive corporate culture in their business operations in China. Simply transferring the corporate culture from the parent company may not work well, but allowing the Chinese culture to dominate can also have serious adverse effects. Creating a new and effective corporate culture in China operations is not only possible but has already been done in many Western operations. The most important thing companies can do is to introduce a fair, open, transparent, and caring HR system that also accounts for Chinese cultural factors. 
 
Successful HR Practices
 
Several US companies have succeeded in implementing human resources (HR) policies in their China operations that reduce conflict among their staff, promote retention, and improve performance.
 
Constructive confrontation, open communication, and risk taking 
 
Intel Corp. has a policy of encouraging constructive confrontation, in which employees are exhorted to criticize their colleagues’ and managers’ ideas. The aim of the policy is to resolve problems constructively rather than allowing employees to undermine each other when they disagree. If employees oppose a particular decision, they should prepare sufficient data and discuss their differences to resolve problems before the scheduled implementation date. Constructive confrontation, of course, cannot resolve all problems and is therefore supplemented by a mechanism of implementing decisions even though disagreement remains. Employees who have been overruled are usually more willing to implement the decision, as they have had an opportunity to voice their views, and they may prevail in the future. 
 
Intel also encourages one-on-one meetings between management and employees, in which employees have a chance to air their opinions to senior managers privately. This practice suits the Chinese culture well because Chinese generally feel much more comfortable speaking their minds on a one-on-one basis. Because Intel is an innovation-oriented company, it also encourages its employees to take risks for new ideas and allows them to make mistakes without fear of punishment. 
 
Grooming talent and fostering loyalty
 
Johnson & Johnson has a mentoring system that assigns a mentor to every manager. Employees recognized as having high potential also receive special training. The company’s international development program, aimed mainly at the development of managers outside the United States, sends candidates to the United States for one year of intensive training. If a manager has the potential to become a general manager, the HR department will arrange for the manager to attend trainings in sales, finance, and general management and to be rotated to different posts in the company. Though several big multinational corporations have such programs, few in China have such a thorough system. 
 
HR as competitive strategy
 
Hewlett Packard Co. (HP) has raised HR management to a strategic level. In China, HP’s training system emphasizes not only technical training but also cultivates the values and behavior that are part of the company’s worldwide corporate culture. HP trains its employees to fully understand the company’s overall strategy and how they should use the strategy to guide their day-to-day work. 
 
HP China also has its own business school, which is often called the information technology (IT) industry’s Huangpu Academy (the Chinese military academy that trained many twentieth-century Chinese political and military leaders) because it provides rigorous and comprehensive training and teaches the importance of vision to leaders in the IT business.
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