Toxic culture follows Chinese firms’ overseas expansion, but will it last?

June 24, 2022 0 Comments

China’s growing global clout poses “enormous implications” for the entire world, said Ray Dalio, a billionaire investor and longtime China bull.

As Chinese companies accelerate their footprints in overseas markets, this growing influence is becoming more perceptible and is accompanied by some negative sentiments. Although Chinese multinationals have the muscle for rapid expansion, not everyone is on board with their underlying values and culture.

A cultural clash between TikTok, the short video app owned by Chinese social giant ByteDance, and some of its London employees prompted a staff exodus and a protest at the beginning of June. As per the Financial Times, Joshua Ma, a senior executive at ByteDance and the head of e-commerce at TikTok Europe, stated at a dinner this year that, as a “capitalist”, he “didn’t believe” companies should provide maternity leave.

The inappropriate remark escalated the conflict. Prior to this, at least 20 members of the London ecommerce team, or half of its initial staff, have left since the debut of TikTok Shop, and others have stated that they are on the verge of leaving. Launched in October 2017 in the United Kingdom, TikTok Shop is a service that enables brands and influencers to sell products via an on-screen clickable orange basket during live broadcasts.

“Every week someone leaves. It’s like a game — every Monday we ask who got fired and who quit,” said the report, citing one current employee. Members of the team claim to be working more than 12 hours a day — starting with answering phone calls from China in the morning and ending with submitting “feedback reports” once the live shopping event has concluded in the evening.

The international social platform also adopts other practices of its parent company, such as encouraging overtime, commending employees who continue to work on their days off, and singling out and reprimanding those who fail to meet goals or respond to work requests during non-working hours via its internal messaging system.

While TikTok has said it has conducted a formal investigation into Ma’s remarks and other allegations against the company, this isn’t the first time the viral short video app has been involved in a cultural conflict with international staff.

Four former employees who worked at TikTok’s San Francisco and New York offices between 2019 and 2022 have publicly criticized the stressful work culture that forces them to work an average of 85 hours a week and experience everything from sleep deprivation to weight loss to the need for marriage therapy

On major anonymous workplace review platforms like Blind and Glassdoor, the majority of negative reviews about TikTok focus on the company’s toxic culture as well.

In a post titled “Consolidated list of why I quit my job at TikTok,” the Blinder detailed 11 reasons for leaving the company, including PIP culture, chaotic leadership, lack of inclusion  and diversity, as well as excessively long working hours, etc.

“At the management level, non-Chinese diversity is close to non-existence,” the user wrote, adding that the company emphasizes Mandarin language proficiency as a plus in its tech job advertisements.

Following the post, one user commented below, saying, “Is this truly Chinese work culture, or is this organization simply insane, even by Chinese standards?”

On the North American Chinese expat job hunting and social networking site “1point3acres,” a post titled “What changes could TikTok make to make individuals feel worthy of working for it?” sparked discussions. A reply saying “It should offer nice perks like Meta, or good work culture like Microsoft, or a combination of nice perks and good culture like Google,” received a lot of upvotes.

Cultural clashes are not only a problem for TikTok or ByteDance, but also for several Chinese enterprises conducting business overseas. While long hours, poor work-life balance, a lack of inclusion and diversity, and a relatively oppressive work environment may be the “norm” in China, most international employees cannot accept these conditions.

The reviews that staff have left for their Chinese employers reveal a negative attitude toward the “norm.” On Glassdoor, Chinese smartphone brand Oppo, which has a large presence in India and Southeast Asia, scored 3.4, Alibaba-owned Southeast Asian e-commerce platform Lazada scored 3.5, TikTok scored 3.6, and Chinese telecom giant Huawei scored 3.7. By comparison, Google scored 4.5, Meta scored 4.3, Microsoft scored 4.4 and German enterprise software company SAP scored 4.6.

Image showing what employees are saying about Huawei on Glassdoor

If foreign workers don’t enjoy working for these companies, they may leave, whereas Chinese workers have significantly less freedom due to restrictions on their visas and other reasons. This has also given rise to a dual-track management approach, in which foreign workers are exempt from working long hours while Chinese workers must adhere to the “996” approach. Six days a week, the 996 schedule encourages or compels employees to work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. This used to be very common among Chinese tech firms.

The German media outlet Netzpolitik pointed out in an investigative report in January 2021 that Huawei’s European offices treated Chinese employees and non-Chinese employees differently and implemented high-handed administrative measures against Chinese nationals.

Netzpolitik’s report on Huawei’s “Wolf Culture”

Even some Chinese expats working overseas are advising others on social media to avoid working for China-based international companies, as the vast majority are notorious for their toxic corporate culture.

For these fast-growing international companies with Chinese roots, corporate culture issues may not be a pressing concern right now, as their offerings, including competitive salaries and seemingly promising career development, continue to entice a large number of job applicants.

Long-term competitive advantage, however, cannot be maintained without a positive business culture. Between 2000 and 2010, Microsoft, the industry leader in desktop computing in the 1990s, experienced challenges with established products losing market share and new ones failing to gain traction. At the time, the software behemoth had an inflexible culture and was notorious for a performance management system that pitted employees against each other. The dominance of hierarchy and pecking order stifled innovation and creativity.

Since taking over the company in 2014, Satya Nadella has led a cultural transformation. These efforts boosted creativity, cooperation, and communication while also resulting in a business transformation. Microsoft’s market capitalization topped one trillion dollars in November 2019, a 200 percent increase since the new CEO took onboard.

Microsoft’s case is compelling enough to demonstrate why a positive business culture is so essential. Meanwhile, companies should sense the pulse of the dynamic talent recruitment market.

With the rise of millennials and Gen Z in the workforce, the significance of corporate culture has grown in prominence. A positive corporate culture may attract superior talent and, more crucially, retain talent, as well as contribute to the development of a solid brand image. Without a strong or engaging corporate culture, businesses will lose the war for people, which is detrimental to their long-term growth and may even result in a shortage of personnel.

Last year, as more younger generations in China demanded a boycott of the toxic culture, technology firms including ByteDance, Kuaishou, and Tencent announced they would no longer mandate excessive work hours for employees.

Chinese companies are still in the early stages of going overseas, and altering company culture could be critical if they aim to be long-lasting players in global markets.

Last year, as more younger generations in China demanded a boycott of the toxic culture, technology firms including ByteDance, Kuaishou, and Tencent announced they would no longer mandate excessive work hours for employees.

Chinese companies are still in the early stages of going overseas, and altering company culture could be critical if they aim to be long-lasting players in global markets.

“TikTok has lately resumed relocating senior-level staff from China to the U.S.” a current employee said in a WeChat group of Chinese tech workers in the U.S. seen by PingWest. “Since no one is interested in working in the sweatshop, the only option left for TikTok is to transfer personnel from China to the U.S.”, Some jokingly remarked, “Good for TikTok, since relocated employees with L1 working visas cannot quit at will.”

Cover image by Mitchell Luo on Unsplash

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