Chinese Turtles and Rednecks

Ray Zhang knows something about the Chinese talent hunt. The HR director for PepsiCo in China gets calls from headhunters himself almost every other sunrise.

Zhang, speaking at what has been billed as the first-ever U.S.-based conference on HR in China, describes the Chinese workforce as belonging to two groups: “turtles” and “rednecks.”

Turtles are returnees from education abroad; about a million Chinese have gone abroad for education in the last 30 years, and only 30% have come home. The advantages of hiring turtles, he says, are their communication skills, thinking and problem-solving skills, their international view, and their understanding of different cultures. They tend to have strong presentation skills and “high social maturity.”

Chinese managers used to “blindly worship the turtles,” he says, but have since come to their senses.

Rednecks, as he describes himself — and the word comes without the negative connotations as it’s used here — are educated and developed locally. Their strengths, he says, include familiarity with local customs, on-the-ground experience, and a willingness to start at the entry level. They grew up in one or two cities, have “low social maturity,” are used to executing well but not communicating as well, and have worked with a smaller number of people — their classmates. About 20% to 30% can’t find jobs upon graduation.

If a turtle expects a $10,000 to $15,000 salary, Zhang says, a redneck expects $5,000 to $10,000.

Zhang describes one multinational that recruited a “turtle” from Harvard, and soon lost him. It recruited another grad from a top university, and lost her. The legal director at the multinational then threw in the towel and stopped recruiting from top colleges. The corporation, Zhang says, focused too much on recruiting and not enough on such things as providing growth opportunities and to accurately portraying the work experience. Candidates are probably expecting too much.

All in all, he says, turtles should play a role in “leading organizational culture transitions” while rednecks will “ensure your execution quality and mid-level communication.”

Four Traits Employers Want

Chinese employers look for four things in candidates, Zhang says:

  • A good academic record
  • Commitment to work
  • Strong communication skills
  • Willingness to cooperate with others

The biggest difference between this and what American employers want, Zhang says, is that U.S. managers value experience more.

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“We need more time to grow our global leaders,” Zhang says. Leadership is not a trait as coveted in China as in the United States., he says. Chinese managers aren’t eager to point people out as different and are more likely to value people who will work hard and “follow the leader.”

Also, proficiency in English is important for those seeking a promotion at a large Chinese company, though it certainly doesn’t guarantee a move up. Perfect grammar, he says, is less important than whether people can understand you. For the VP level, he says, English is essential. Below that, it depends who the employee needs to communicate with.

Recruiting Costs

His estimates of recruiting costs for a Chinese employee:

  • Campus recruiting: $200-$500
  • Newspaper/Web: $100-$1,000
  • Headhunter: $3,000-5000

Top 10 Reasons for Turnover

Zhang provides the 10 most common reasons people are quitting jobs in China:

  • Try new opportunities to build new capability
  • Unsatisfied with salary
  • Lack of learning environment
  • Work isn’t what they expected
  • Promotion
  • Bad relationship with a manager
  • The work is boring
  • Need a rest
  • Unsatisfied with benefits (satisfaction is higher in the U.S.)
  • Lack of belief in the company’s culture

Zhang manages the west and central region of China at PepsiCo Beverages International. Before that, he at various times managed benefits, training, and recruiting at Procter & Gamble in China.


2 Comments on “Chinese Turtles and Rednecks

  1. I am happy to see someone addressing the cultural implications of hiring a returning Chinese candidate as I have too often seen this fail. I see companies hire candidates based on their language skills and interviewing skills too many times be unhappy with the performance of those same candidates that dazzled them in the interview process.

    In roles where local knowledge is indispensable, Sales/Marketing especially, I caution my clients to pay close attention to the candidates past performance in the market. Local market skills are more easily transferred from one industry to another; sportswear to cosmetics, for example, than are cultural skills. Our firm, while working across all of Asia, still maintains a deep, local market focus on our searches to ensure we get the best candidates for the job.

    I see this problem growing in our China market as more and more multinationals come to play and hope we can avoid making the same mistakes made by those who came before us.

    Brian Fenerty
    General Manager
    AdMark China

  2. This is typically true within the FMCG industries. More and more companies are paying more attention to “rednecks” but in some organizations, they still focus on “turtles” from top universities from America and Canada.

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