Embrace China’s Restless Workforce

Rather than battle the fickleness of your employees, work to live with it

By Wang Yijiang

One of the greatest fears that companies in China have today is investing in their people, only to see them snatched away by rivals. But this is a short-term view that misses the point when it comes to recruitment in China.

Although it might seem counterintuitive to a Western mindset, companies should still invest in their employees even if many of them will likely soon leave. It is true that Chinese companies typically have much higher staff turnover than in the West, but the fact is Chinese employees come into a job knowing that they will not be staying in the job forever, maybe not even three years. Rather than try to fight this reality, companies should find the best ways to come to terms with it. 

What Chinese employees care about is their own mobility and their own market value, and so they focus on the skills they can acquire to achieve their goals. Companies that fail to provide proper training to their employees will soon develop a bad reputation, making it harder to recruit in the future. As well as improving recruitment and retention levels, training also has the benefit of ensuring employees’ skills are up to date.

Focus on the group, not the individual

Instead of worrying about individual employees leaving, companies should focus on their pool of employees as a whole. When viewed from this perspective, it is not necessarily a bad thing for employers to provide training to employees who then leave shortly thereafter. Rather than focus on retaining as many employees as possible, it is better for companies to maintain a stable pool of well-trained employees.

Recruitment and retention of staff are both very challenging for companies in China today. In the current economic environment, many traditionally heavier industries are losing their competitiveness. As a result, there are more unemployed workers flooding the market, but they lack the skills and mentality required to fit into new sectors. 

But the issue is not just recruitment: With the economy undergoing rapid structural changes and the underlying economic conditions worsening, retention is also difficult. 

Best ways to retain staff

Despite the challenges, there are certain ways that companies can cope. It should come as no surprise that the best way to retain senior staff is to offer packages that make it better to stay than to go. Telecommunications giant Huawei and e-commerce conglomerate Alibaba, for example, all have very good records in retaining their senior employees because they can control their own work and career progress, and in addition are very well compensated. It might seem too obvious to say, but offering the best package to your employees is still the best way to keep them. 

More retention options for junior staff

With more junior staff, there are other options available to employers when it comes to retention. Since they are at an earlier stage in their careers, they are still feeling out their career paths and exploring the opportunities that are available to them. Junior employees put more emphasis on interesting work, developing friendships at the office and feeling positive about their companies, so emotional factors may play a larger role in terms of their retention. 

Overall, though, it is getting harder and harder to recruit and retain employees. Underlying macroeconomic conditions mean that workers feel less secure in their positions, and consequently more effort into finding new opportunities. This creates a far higher degree of mobility for the entire labor force, and the result is that it becomes increasingly difficult for employers to recruit the workers they want and to keep them.