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Ten things to know before you join a Chinese bank

Chinese banks are hiring at home and expanding overseas.

But while the country’s “Big Four” banks – Industrial and Commerical Bank of China, Bank of China, China Construction Bank, and Agricultural Bank of China – certainly have global clout, working for a bank in mainland China is a lot different from working for a Western firm. Here’s what to look out for.

1) Get a grip on Guanxi

Your success in China is linked to Guanxi, personal relationships and obligations to others. These can clinch you a promotion and can be more important than technical skills or performance objectives, said Vivian Lin Thurston, a financial professional who has worked in both China and the US, and is the current president of the Chinese Finance Association of America. “Dinners or social activities with colleagues can build your networks,” she added. “Giving small gifts on major holidays is also helpful. Gifting is considered a common social interaction in China.”

2) Expect extra cash

At a Chinese firm, your official salary is often a lot less than your actual monthly earnings. Banks commonly pay extra cash during festivals like Chinese New Year and Qingming, while quarterly, half-yearly and birthday bonuses are just a few of other potential payments on offer, said Jason Tan, director of financial services at recruiters PSD Group in Shanghai.

3) Make room for random meetings

“Last week I went to a local provincial bank in Shanghai,” said Tan. “Soon after the meeting finished, we were suddenly invited to another room to see the human resource director. Then the branch manager asked his PA to quickly ask the director if he could meet with us. No email or phone call in advance were needed. In China, it’s all about the personal touch.”

4) Don’t motor through meetings

During business meetings Westerner bankers typically get straight to the point and try to achieve their objectives as quickly as possible, said Lin Thurston. This approach won’t work in China. “Chinese people may not talk much real business at the first few meetings; they want to get to know you instead,” she said. “If they like you and trust you, they will talk business later. There’s an old saying in China: ‘The faster he tried to finish, the longer it seemed to take him.’”

5) Work fewer hours

Employees at Chinese banks are less likely to work overtime than those at global firms, said Fabrice Isnard, head of financial services at recruiters Robert Walters in Shanghai. But there’s a catch: “While at a foreign bank you can easily refuse a social invitation from your management after work, in a local bank it can seem disrespectful to turn it down,” he added.

6) Learn the hierarchy

The management structure at Chinese banks is generally more hierarchical than at Western ones. The power to make decisions rests with a small group of leaders, often princelings, the children of senior Communist Party officials. “A meritocratic working environment, which some Westerners may be accustomed to, will simply not exist,” said Sean Upton-McLaughlin, a Shanghai-based consultant at management website learnchinesebusiness.com. “You’re not likely to get on a first-name basis with the company president,” he added.

7) Take orders

Leadership at Chinese companies isn’t about working alongside your employees to achieve a common goal, said Upton-McLaughlin. It’s about telling them what to do and making sure your orders are carried out. “Chinese leaders often expect to be heard and obeyed, so disagreeing or offering your own ideas has the potential to offend if your opinion wasn’t asked for,” he said.

8) Don’t lose face

The Chinese concept of “face” can make it embarrassing for a subordinate to be criticised in public. “Likewise, if you absolutely need to disagree with a superior, it’s always best to wait until you’re alone,” said Upton-McLaughlin.

9) Sing the company song

Some Chinese banks make staff sing a company song at their desks each morning. Take part; your absence will be noted, said Alistair Ramsbottom, managing director of Shanghai search firm The Blacklock Group. “In addition, there are frequent company outings, particularly at the weekend. It is critical that you are seen towing the company line,” he said.

10) Share hotel rooms

Beware that Chinese banks may run their business trip expenditure differently from Western ones. Sharing a hotel room with a colleague is not uncommon, said Ramsbottom.

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