Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Work hard, play hard

A friend of mine works at a big, international company –the dream work place for many, both westerners and Chinese. Some weeks ago he recruited a new staff, a young Chinese girl who was selected to be his PR assistant. Some 70 people applied for the job, and he interviewed 10 for the position, and this girl was the one who impressed him the most, who seemed the most driven and who insisted that working for this company would be like a dream coming through for her.

They agreed on a quite attractive salary package, and she started her job.

On day one, she wanted to know everything about over time compensation.

On day two, she asked if she could get a new computer and a new cell phone.

One week into her job, when she was sent on a business trip, the first thing she did when she came back to the office, was to fill a travel claim form so that she would get her day pay allowance.

My friend saw her doing all of this and did not make any remarks. In fact, he told me about it, but said that he thought it was good, that this girl looked after herself so carefully, and that she made sure she got what she deserved.

Then, however, she handed in her sheet of overtime work.

1 hour, 5 min, 2 hour, 7 minutes… 10 minutes. Fifteen minutes.

The girl had written down every single extra minute she had spent by her desk since her first day.

Now, at this point my friend started to feel slightly concerned.

-Sure, it’s good that the girl is making sure that she is compensated for her overtime, he told me. But it’s not like I’ve even asked her to work over time! And what about those days when she comes in late? Or when she takes an extra 15 minutes of lunch? Or, should I even be concerned by the fact that she’s spending a lot of time chit chatting to her colleagues and not working that efficiently in front of her computer all day?

Tricky one, I agreed, especially since the girl was so new –no only at this office, but on the market. This was her first job since graduating. Normally when you are new at your job you might work extra hard and try not to be too demanding/complicated, in order to make a good impression (at least that is my personal strategy. You don’t start making demands until the company sees your value).

I decided to ask a Chinese friend of mine:

-Well, all Chinese people are like that. She said. We all write down if we work 5 minutes extra.

-But what if… what if you took a long lunch? Or if you came in a bit late for work? Or if you spent the first 10 minutes of your day eating breakfast in the kitchen
(a very popular habit of my Chinese co-workers. They all think I am crazy when I say I get up at 6am just so that I can enjoy my coffee and brekkie in peace at home. “Why do that when you can have it at work?!”).

My friend giggled and shrugged her shoulders, kind of saying: “well….”

-But what if… what if this job is very attractive and you’ve promised that you’re going to work extra hard?

-Well, not without getting compensation.

Well, wow. Go Chinese people, I have to say. Then again, is it just me, or is it a little bit weird that a fresh graduate come with this kind of mindset? I’ve always been taught to stand up for myself/think outside the box/work independently, but when I started my very first job, back in 2005, I was not a cocky staff member. I worked very hard, came in early every morning and stayed late (without asking for overtime compensation), brought work with me home –everything in order to make a good impression. I didn’t do it for money –I did it so that my bosses would see how hard working I was. Maybe it was stupid of me –of course my bosses saw that I was willing to work a bit extra for free, but I still don’t regret it. It was like teaching myself a lesson –learning the hard way about working life and about standing up for yourself.

Now I wonder how this girl, with her lack of pervious work experience, already seems to know all of this.


Joel said...

Hi Jonna, being one of your many 'silent' reader of your blog. Keep up with you good work (words)!

Just wanna comment that not all Chinese are like that. At least not from those in Hong Kong as far as I know. Those from Shanghai are whole different species. Many (not all) of them are driven, competitive but short-sighted, and without moral guidence. So, don't be shocked and surprise by them. We do shock by them very often as well. Cheers!

Jonna Wibelius said...

Hi Joel,
Of course I know that not all Chinese are like that! It was my colleague (Chinese colleague) who said that, not me. I have loads of Chinese friends, and I would say that 95% of them are so hard working that I (who see myself as a bit of a workaholic) sometimes feel like a lazy person next to them. They always keep their phone on in case someone needs to reach them (even during the nights), they cancel their wknd plans for work and they always work late. So I know that there is a great mix out there. Just like everywhere.

I think, generally speaking though, that a lot of graduates from good universities with fancy degrees have quite high demands when it comes to their work. They don’t settle for nothing and they are not willing to work hard unless there is a clear chance of compensation/advancing. This is the general feeling I get when I speak to people (western and Chinese) working with HR. Of course it is impossible to generalize though, because China is simply too big.

Ramesh said...

Not really so widesperad in my experience. Some do like this, but many don't. I haven't seen it as a general trend.

Btw, you were so very right and she's so very wrong. Careers are not built by counting 15 minutes !

Joyce Lau said...

I did a talk at a well-ranked Chinese university a few years ago, to students in an English-language journalism course.

They smart, polite, articulate and well educated. But the questions were really boring. They wanted to know every last detail about hours, pay and benefits, down to grilling me about my dental care insurance coverage. (Did it cover cavities? Cleaning? Whitening? I finally stopped this line of questioning).

Nobody asked me about journalism, writing, media or news. Or what it was like to work in the industry, how to improve their work, or what it would be like to live or work in Hong Kong or overseas. I asked them what they did in their spare time -- blogging, volunteering, school newspapers -- but they didn't say much.

These kids were 19-21 years old. They seemed well qualified and I'm sure they will be successful. But they were only "ambitious" in a very narrow sense. They thought like tired, dull 40-year-olds, only concerned about the material payback of their work in the short term.

They didn't exhibit much natural, youthful curiosity, and certainly no actual enjoyment or excitement about their field. I could totally see them "testing" their new boss to see if they could get away with 15 minute OT pay.

Joel is right. In HK, you'd be sacked and laughed out the office door if you tried to bill for 15 minutes of OT!

ordinary malaysian said...

Wow, that kind of work attitude has gone too far. I was about to ask how China managed to become the world's second largest economy in such a short time, if all Chinese workers have the same attitude as that girl. But then you clarified that in fact 95 % of Chinese workers you know work very hard. Here in Malaysia the Chinese work hard, and someone like you friend's personal assistant would probably be told to leave immediately.

Anonymous said...

If her compensation is based on Time and Material (T&M) then she is doing the correct thing but she really needs to round up/down her numbers. Accounting for every single minute can really irk management. However, I would account for the time she is not working while on the job and then present her with the results. I would ask her if she will reimburse me for the time lost. I think she will get the message at that point.

If she is on salary then it won't be long before she is shown the door. Management will be tolerant of such behaviour for only so long. Besides, there are many others waiting in line for a job.

Your friend may want to reconsider this hire because sooner or later he will get frustrated with her behaviour. Just my two cents...

Amanda Krzywonski said...

What an interesting concept. I can't speak for the Chinese, as I live in America and I am only 18. But even at this age, I have always made sure that I am paid for overtime. Bosses can overlook the little things you do for them. Even if it was only 15 minutes, it may have been quite a heavy task. Awesome blog!

Jonna Wibelius said...

Thanks guys for sharing some interesting thoughts and experiences. Joyce -that's just so sad that the students were only interested in the benefits when you gave a talk, especially since it's students that are supposed to become the next generation of journalists! They should be curious and alert about the world around them, and maybe not just think about their health insurance and OT pay (and Hong bao...?!). I don't think it's wrong to look after yourself in a working life where demands are normally very hard, but I think it's the whole attitude thing that bothers me. Sure, you deserve some compensation when you work hard -but first you should maybe show that you ARE willing to work hard.

I feel that the people that work the hardest in China are the migrant workers from poor provinces. They work like animals for an almost non-existent wage. Then you have the graduates from top universities, asking for OT compensation if they work 5 minutes over time. Very sad. And very wrong.

Daisy said...

It might be the 80s young Chinese generation which is commonly described as 'lacking vision, motivation and innovation'. I am one of them and I'm not even in China. It's not like we were born with those traits but it's the horrible environment that molds us into materialistic beings. The social environment here is so suppressive that most of us know there is not a single chance to live our dreams.

I'm sorry but life is brutal in China. Simple truth is if you don't have much money, you cannot afford many things and that makes survival a tricky issue. That's why we go out of our way to earn every penny - either through working hard or 'working smart' (i.e. overcharging).

Homer said...

Well, if I've learned one thing living here it's that, if no one told you not to do it, it's ok to do.

I do agree that that is over the top. Especially since she was not asked to work over time.

So what needs to happen is someone need to talk to her, tell her they don't pay for anything under 30min (or whatever it may be) and if she doesn't like it then they have 69 more people to chose from.

If that's not an option I think he needs to start keeping track of the long lunches, late arrivals, and stealing plant time. Then next time she presents her time sheet, he can present his.

Anonymous said...

If its a big international company, the employment regulations surely have rules on overtime, and not for the girl or your friend to decide if she gets OT or not? I mean its not like those who ask get it and shy employees miss out?