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The Returnee: Believe me, sometimes it’s better to work for a local firm than a foreign one

When talking to headhunters about job opportunities I am always asked the same question: “do you have a preference between a foreign or Chinese bank?”. I would have answered “foreign” without thinking if I had returned to China two years ago, but now I can see that both options have their pros and cons.

Chinese banks are catching up on two fronts: working hours and compensation. I used to be so jealous of my friends in Beijing who did nine-to-five days, while I slaved away for much longer in Hong Kong. They were busy on social networking sites; I was busy fire fighting the latest office crisis.

I think this honeymoon is over. People at domestic banks in China generally work long hours now for the same reasons as their counterparts at western firms: insufficient headcount to support business expansion, system delays, global management meetings, client events etc.

But in return they are starting to get reasonable compensation packages. Leading Chinese commercial (not retail) banks often pay their relationship managers better than the foreign banks do. This is because of regulatory restrictions which mean some profitable business lines are not yet open to international firms.

And it’s not just in commercial banking where compensation is becoming a more contentious issue. For almost two years my friend at a foreign investment bank in China has been pitching to clients for IPOs and M&As, and providing free strategy consultations, but she has not won a single deal.

Her bonus is a joke compared with what she might get at a local firm. It just can’t justify the hours and effort she puts in. She says the frustration of failing is pushing her to look for other opportunities.

On top of these two tangible factors, I think finding a culture fit is also important. I see returnee friends not being able to socialise, maintain relationships and play politics in the local way. As a result their career path is narrowed down. They will need time and patience to adapt to the local business culture.

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