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The unspoken rules of recruitment in China

In job adverts political correctness rules. More specifically, most employers are not able to discriminate against minorities or exclude anyone who could be a potential candidate for the job. In China anything goes. Most banks ask for “graduates from top universities”, “from finance or science/engineering majors”, “previous internship experience preferred”. Recruiters and HRs say these sorts of stories only scratch the surface. There are other hidden requirements that can’t be spoken of.

Male only 

A large proportion of these requirements are related to gender. Banking is male-dominated, but in most firms there’s an effort to combat this. In China, there’s a definite preference for male candidates. “Quite a lot of my clients would ask us to look at men first,” says a Beijing-based financial headhunter who doesn’t want her name to be revealed, “because they think it’s more convenient to send a man onto a business trip.”

In fact, it’s more than just a simple business trip. “Just think of the job nature,” explains a female HR director at a Chinese local private equity firm. “You have to travel a lot, sometimes with no specified itinerary; you need to drink a lot with clients, and you need to work overtime almost everyday… It’s an all round decision.”

Even some foreign banks that have been operating in China for a long time have adopted such practices. However, fully aware of the consequences of discriminating, foreign banks would ensure that nothing is left traceable. “We definitely won’t write such requirements down in the job ad,” confirms one vice president at a foreign bank in Beijing, who wishes to be anonymous as well. “But when the HR talks to headhunters, they will raise some of these requirements verbally.”

The localization of foreign banks over the years means there’s no shortage of Chinese bosses within the bank. “They are more likely to have such requirements, ” says the VP. “Foreigners won’t.”

The anonymous financial headhunter confirms: “For those earliest foreign banks, their HR would even ask the female candidates about their marital status in interviews. It’s just a case of when in Rome do as the Romans do.”

Undoubtedly, the recruiting practice for Chinese banks have evolved a lot in the past two decades. Back in the late 1990s, it was not surprising to see state-owned banks to include “boys only” in black and white for some graduate posts. “Not any more,” points out a senior director at one of China’s four largest state-owned banks. “We still say that, but we don’t write it down, for fear of getting into trouble for gender discrimination.”

Elitist requirements 

While gender remains a very sensitive issue, the university you attended is not. Some Chinese banks feel perfectly comfortable to specify in job ads that they want candidates to be from top elite universities, be it domestic or foreign. Within China, at least in theory, this means from a university listed in project 211 or project 985 – two government-initiated projects in the aim of building world-class universities. But in practice, as we reported before, major banks these days would almost only consider students from four Mainland universities: Peking University, Tsinghua University, Fudan University and Shanghai Jiaotong University.

And if the student comes from a university outside China, it would almost always mean a top university in the U.S. or Europe, namely Ivy league or Russell Group institutions.

Yet it’s still case-by-case. The above-mentioned senior director at a Chinese state-owned bank clarifies that even her bank doesn’t specify 211 or 985 in the job ad now. The criteria are only applied during the CV screening stage. While the Beijing-based VP at the foreign bank reveals that they only treat it as an “unwritten rule”.

How these practices are received depends on each individual’s background. While the VP says he’s sometimes “disgusted by such discrimination”, the HR director at the Chinese local PE firm thinks she can totally understand it. “It may be outrageous in other industries, but people take it for granted in banking and PE.”

“We only have men and iron ladies here,” she jokes.

But ultimately, there are practices that are too scandalous for people to bear. “What I think the most outrageous is,” says the financial headhunter in Beijing. “If there is a good woman candidate, they wish she is already married and has already had a kid, so that they don’t have to bear the burden of maternity leave”.

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