[Note: This article was first published on eChinacities.com on February 12, 2018]
No matter which company you work for and which country you live in, there’s always the possibility of workplace disputes. The language and cultural gaps that exist for foreigners working in China, however, further compounds the difficulty of avoiding and resolving disputes. Whether trivial or serious, you should always have an avenue to remedying complaints.
Perhaps you’ve taken issue with a co-worker. They may be encroaching on your desk space. They may inhibit your ability to work effectively because of petty pestering, xenophobia, fear of your advancement or simply snoring too loud. There may be romance issues at play, bullying, sexual harassment, discrimination, miscommunication and so on.
Maybe your dispute is actually with HR or your boss . In this case, the power structures at play will dictate a completely different way to approach a resolution. Whether it’s a boss or an underling you’re dealing with, however, the most important aspect of resolving a workplace dispute in China is handling the concept of “face”.
While sometimes the concept of “face” in China is played up too much, it certainly exists. It can summarily be described as “avoiding causing others embarrassment,” but that’s definitely too simplistic. The full effects of face are outside the scope of this article. In practice at work, however, it essentially dictates that you stay in your lane.
When handling problems in the Chinese workplace, it will never help your cause if you ruffle too many feathers too quickly. You should maintain the chain of command and avoid insulting anyone above or below you. Telling your boss straight away that you have a problem with a co-worker is ill-advised. It will put everyone in an awkward position. Involving a superior means you will embarrass and anger your co-worker. Your boss will hate it, your colleagues will loathe it, and you will rue it.
It’s best to negotiate between the parties at hand first without involving anyone else. If that just won’t work, try asking a common friend in the same department. Mediate disputes at your hierarchical level first, then try other avenues.
Example – Remuneration: Let’s take payment issues as an example. So you’ve worked your agreed-upon hours but have yet to see a deposit in your bank account. You finally see money come in, but it’s for a wrong amount. You double check your contract, ascertain the correct amount, talk to HR, but there’s no response. What should you do?
Consult Office Friends
Often your co-workers know precisely down which avenues you should proceed. Longer-serving members of staff may have connections you don’t know about or a pulse on the boss that could aid your case. They might even let you know you’re pushing the boundaries and that backing down is the best course of action.
In our example of tardy payment, instead of going straight for the jugular and confronting your boss, it makes sense to ask a colleague first. They might know that HR is under staffed and has probably made an honest mistake. You should never feel uncomfortable asking a workmate for advice in this situation, but there is one caveat. Often foreigners get paid more for the same line of work than a local, which can lead to some tense moments. Employ common sense and be sensitive.
Contact Human Resources
Human Resources provides a great outlet for any workplace dispute in China. A firm knowledge of your contract and a little bit of guanxi with HR will go a long way if you’re having issues with payment.
In addition, HR is often slightly removed from the rest of the workforce. That layer of removal can help when trying to save face, as complaining to them is not as public as other options. It also cuts the boss out of the equation so he or she can focus on business, and it shields Chinese co-workers from knowing anything about your wage. If you have no idea how to get in touch with your HR, ask your closest work buddy.
Speak with Your Boss
If all that fails, you can always speak to your boss about the dispute. Developing a healthy relationship with co-workers on the same level as you is useful, but doing so with your higher-ups can be indispensable when handling workplace disputes.
If the issue is with remuneration, your boss may or may not be your friend. In a large corporate structure, having a healthy relationship with your boss can help move things along in HR. If your company is smaller and your boss has the final say on your pay check, however, this is obviously trickier. Consulting him or her directly may cause a loss of face, so approach the issue as if it’s an accident you’ve spotted as opposed to an accusation.
The final remedy is by far the most extreme. It also might prove entirely futile. As reported by China Labour Bulletin, nearly half of all cases that are settled by China’s Labour Dispute Arbitration Committee are mediated. The courts tend to urge mediation over arbitration.
As in many countries, the cost of bringing legal action against an employer in China is prohibitive. Workplace disputes in China are dealt with in the civil courts as there is no other designated court system in place. Lawyers’ fees are often in excess of 5,000 RMB, paid up front before litigation even starts.
Getting back to our example, if you’re looking to seek litigation over a payment dispute, you can consult China’s Labour and Social Security Inspectorate, which deals with basic services like salaries and minimum wage requirements.
If the dispute is about a workplace injury, however, you can contact your local social security department, who will determine whether or not your injury is workplace related. After this, they can help settle your case and secure rehabilitation costs.
In a country where saving face is of utmost concern, as is not asking too much of the social strata above you, be sure never to burn bridges. Your contacts (guanxi) are the people you should look to first in workplace disputes. In pretty much any form of dispute in China, a measured and sensitive approach is best.
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