The Art of Employee Engagement in China

This week, Mark Hedley takes a timely look at the issue of employee satisfaction

With rising unemployment figures, reduced income levels of the majority of workers and the contentious issue of bankers’ bonuses continuing to provoke strong public feeling in the UK, it seems the issue of how to keep employees satisfied and motivated has never been more relevant. In China too, the issue of worker treatment has started to receive much greater attention in the media. Most recently, Apple’s decision to investigate reports of poor working conditions and low pay at the Foxconn plant in southern China, following a spate of accidents and worker suicides, reflects a growing public mood in China for improved treatment of workers by both multinational and local Chinese companies.

While very few companies have employee problems on the scale that Apple currently faces in China, it is nevertheless true that many foreign companies in China often fail to invest sufficient time and resources in measuring and looking to improve satisfaction levels amongst their employees. Although this is particularly due to a failure of will on behalf of Western managers, this is also due to cultural differences in the way that companies are organized and operated in China. Nowadays, many Western firms have a localized management team in place, which means Eastern cultural values often remain entrenched in how these companies operate within China.

Chinese companies tend to be structured along more hierarchical lines than Western firms, where flatter management structures allow for greater interaction between senior managers and employees. While managers of Western corporations often look to engage employees from all levels of the business in the decision-making process, frequently gathering feedback from employees, Chinese managers are often less active engaging with employees in this way. It can be argued that Western society is conducive to an environment in which employees are more willing to give voice to their views in an open and often critical manner than is the case in hierarchical societies such as China. Conversely, senior managers in China are normally expected to take decisions without broad consultation from junior stakeholders, while junior staff may be disinclined to voice their opinions in an open and honest fashion.

Effective employee satisfaction research arguably has a more important role to play in hierarchical management cultures such as China than in Western markets. Not only does effective employee research lead directly to improvements in staff, but it also enables senior managers to tap into a rich knowledge resource within the organisation. Employee research can also help to improve organisational performance, generate new ideas to drive business success and as an additional way of ‘sense-checking’ important managerial decisions. It gives workers opportunity to feed views upward, remain well-informed about what is happening within the organization, and to gain reassurance that managers are fully committed to the organisation.

As companies in China fight to retain their most talented employees and make the best use out of their existing human resources, there is likely to be a growing future demand for research that accurately captures the attitudes and needs of employees. Assembling a more satisfied workforce is a major competitive advantage in an increasingly competitive environment. Findings from employee research can be used to develop a strategy for building a committed workforce who will contribute to the well-being and future prosperity of the company.

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