"Are you telling me that floors don't get dirty in New Zealand?"
It's a good question, of course. But I think I still emphatically say that Chinese floors accumulate dust faster than any other surface known to man, woman or cockroach. As a barefooter in the house, I can accurately measure dust accumulation from a morning of wandering around the day after we've mopped the floor. Today, a seemingly reasonable floor browned the soles of my feet in barely minutes. Where does it come from? The doors are shut overnight yet by morning there is dust again. Where does it all come from, I ask?
Of course, I'm not that much of a clean freak when it gets down to it, but there are other sorts of hygiene that are tragically lacking in China in ethical and business practices. With the benefit of not having my name mentioned here and no company brand to be tainted, I can dare open my mouth. In the blog age, we shan't mouth off about our employers for the risk of dismissal etc. if we do. And I can attest that no potential students would have the patience to get through my content. (Even capable high-level former students on mine in New Zealand told me they struggle with the sheer content of expressive writing.) And besides they'd need software to get past the Great Firewall to see this blog. And I'd still steer potential teachers to my company anyway because it is very good for professional development.
My company is a western company in China. We're told from the start that it works via western rules but the more you stay the longer you see that it is more of a fusion of approaches. Some might cynically say it selectively chooses which approach benefits the company, especially its finances but also its management. I could talk about that general topic, but I'm more interested in the dirt right now, and especially practices that would be illegal or unethical in other countries. It is depressing to keep it all in. I'll work my way from minor to major, and along the way describe what to avoid in management. I should also add a little note: The evils I'll talk about aren't specifically relating to Chinese business nor am I claiming they don't exist in the West. They shouldn't happen anywhere except where they are allowed to flourish.
Many jobs are dictated by a fancy acronym, KPI, or Key Performance Indicator. This is intended to be an objective numerical measure of your performance. Of course, it is hard to quantify performance and so a set of KPIs might be needed to evaluate it. In an ideal world, these would be unfudgeable and would be decided by those in an objective position. Regrettably, this is not the case here. My boss's boss's pay is determined strongly by one KPI. This is one related to the number of classes and how many students are in there. Unluckily for me, the scheduling of classes falls into the ambit of my job, to schedule classes at the right time so that they are mostly filled. Because the boss of my boss's boss wants to look good, they set the target very high; the pressure is high because its a big part of his pay but the ability to add (fictitious) classes is completely at the hands of us at the lowest levels. In terms of our academic team, it was a compromise we had to make and there was no recourse to complain. Several levels up the chain are all happy about this cheating because a high number reflects well on them. There is with all likelihood complicity quite high up the level. In China, there is a poor man's version of the prisoner's dilemma. There is no virtue to honesty nor any benefit whatsoever. So no team can meet the targets without cheating. So many targets cannot be left to doubt. Of course, you get into all sorts of irony. We get told to cancel classes because of a lack of demand... yet the classes are "full". One week I taught lots of classes without ever entering the classroom...
My boss is about to be fired. It is a salutory story, which I won't attempt to explain in its entirety here. But he is one that has tried to make an issue out of following procedure and standards. The latest idea the company had made him quite irate, and in a way that neither I nor my fellow senior teacher could understand at first. Now we know: They introduced an appraisal system that would be linked to pay. They described each level of performance with descriptors like: "The teacher prepares his class in an appropriate way = 1. The teacher prepares his class appropriately considering potential contingencies etc." The staff member being assessed will assess themselves and then will meet the centre director and academic manager to discuss their evaluation of him. Then the combined assessment will be sent to the the area academic manager for a sign off and a monetisation of their performance, their bonus for the next year. My colleague and I thought this was an improvement on what we had, great teachers will be rewarded. My boss, however, explained how it was an unacceptable system. First of all, the descriptor is flawed. "Appropriate" is insufficient for anyone to give an objective evaluation, and so it becomes opinion. If a staff member challenges the assessment, the manager can just say that they weren't appropriate enough. In practice, an appraisal system must have concrete criteria. He illustrated it well in a directors meeting where he gave our dress code to everyone and then the standards in the new appraisal system for dress and asked everyone to assess their colleagues as if they were perfoming the appraisal. Not surprisingly, on a scale of 3, some people's scored varied from 0 to 2, demonstrating that the existing criteria would be too subjective and staff in some centres would be advantaged by lenient grading leading to "nice" centres and "mean" centres. I gave myself a zero because the standard for a 1 was to follow all the requirements in the work manual, one of which was to wear a tie. I don't. Others ignored that aspect and went for a nice mark of 2.
There were other issues raised (it was going nationwide of course so the area manager in the room was never going to do anything), but the one objection he raised that makes this slip from incompetence in system design to dirtiness was a specific problem my boss never broached in that meeting but later over a meal in a restaurant with us. The performance appraisal is not just verified by the area manager and ticked off. Internationally, managers just need to tick off the objectively observable strengths and weaknesses, and the area manager should agree because there is no room for doubt. But because there can't be too much excellence in the school (which would cause budgets for bonuses to be exceeded) the area manager needs to be a gatekeeper to knock scores down. Who goes up and who goes down? Opinion, again. What does each appraisal score equate to in terms of a bonus? Completely at the discretion of the area manager. Our top performing teacher stepped on the area manager's toes a few months earlier and despite what would have been a complimentary appraisal of his performance, his performance bonus was barely above the lowest possible rise. A moderately performing colleague got more than him. The system is not only biased to favoritism, it is open to use to punish those who have gone against the upper management. It becomes a tool. But nevermind, talking about salaries is a fireable offence, so punished staff member will never know, will they? And thus we get to the crux of my outgoing bosses argument: there is no reason to improve these things because with the vagueness comes their utility. An objective system cannot be a tool, but they need it to be a tool. It sounds almost dictatorial and, shall we say, communist.
This brings us back to the western company in China situation, and perhaps exposing what is just human nature. In Christianity and even the secular values of western nations, there is a belief that humans need to be reformed with systems. With the developing nature of the Chinese economy there haven't been the struggles yet that created strong institutions and managing principles that have taken a long time to establish in western nations. Playing with numbers and using your opinion when only reason should suffice is very human, not specifically Chinese, and we can only look to those who established the system here for their lack of nous. And the later is probably one of my central theses from my experience so far. Don't expect teachers to be able to do the jobs of managers unless you train them. The worst of human nature will come out when a system is poorly designed.
My bosses imminent departure was never going to be good for me. He has been something of a mentor, and still we learn daily from him, but at least I've managed to step up a lot in the last month. I've had many achievements - I stopped the area manager in her tracks with a brilliant presentation (saving my boss from a sooner dismissal, he was planning an all-out assault) and also designing a more effective way of presenting notices. He may go next week, next month or if they are patient, August. I still have a lot I'd like to learn - he is a goldmine of experience. But all the same I should also try to go it alone without the back-up he provides by simply being in the room. He believes by going, in the long term, the school might become a cleaner place.
I'm not so sure.