The Art of Employee Engagement in China

Chinese companies increasingly recognize the importance of measuring customer satisfaction, and it is now becoming common practice, particularly in the private sector, to actively monitor customers’ perceptions, needs and motivations. However, research that explores what satisfies and motivates employees is far less frequently undertaken, and far fewer companies in China recognise the usefulness of such research. For various cultural and sociological reasons, 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 and frequently try to gather constructive feedback from employees, to date Chinese companies have been far less active in engaging 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.

To some extent, the lack of open communication between employers and employees in Chinese organisations suggests scope for effective research in bridging this divide. In fact, anonymous employee research arguably has a greater role to play in cultures where transparency is lacking between different levels of the corporation. Not only does effective employee research lead directly to improvements in staff satisfaction (and ultimately customer satisfaction), but it also enables senior managers to tap into a rich knowledge resource within the organisation. Employee research help to improve organisational performance, generate new ideas to drive business success and as an additional way of ‘sense-checking’ important managerial decisions.

Employee satisfaction research increasingly focuses on finding ways to enable better engagement with employees, enabling employees to have the opportunity to feed views upward, being well-informed about what is happening within the organization and receiving reassurance that managers are committed to the organisation. Western companies with operations in China often transfer wholesale the HR practices in other countries, and actively look to develop and nurture employee engagement. In a culture where ‘job-hopping’ is common and employee commitment less firm than elsewhere, many companies have recognised the need to instigate a model of employee engagement that encompasses job satisfaction, feeling valued at work, communication and training & development. Employee research is critical to this objective.

A combination of qualitative and quantitative research techniques are typically used for employee research in China, according on the size of the organization. As companies in China often employ greater numbers of staff than in Western countries, and a quantitative survey (either online or offline) is often the most effective way to poll large groups of employees quickly and effectively. Focus groups, forums and one-on-one interviews can also play an important role in trying to identify and understand key issues facing employees, although it is also important that employees have the option of anonymity and are interviewed in an environment conducive to honest and open expression. In hierarchical societies such as China, the greater distance between employers and employees underscores the importance of making employees feel that the research will not be used for any sinister purposes. Care also needs to be taken when analyzing and interpreting the data that comes out of employee research in China. Cultural factors and Chinese reticence to criticize authority figures makes it critical to take care to ‘read between the lines’ of comments or core issues (whether negative or positive). A large sample size for and an experienced moderator ( for focus groups) will go a long way to minimizing any bias that may exist when executing and analyzing the fieldwork.

As companies in Chinese 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.