Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Chinese Firing @ the Factory: Power to the People

Since I’ve been working here in Shenzhen, there have been a lot of people that have been fired. While I haven’t yet witnessed the firing processes in American companies (for myself), I think I have a good idea of how its handled and the necessary customs. In my experience, the Chinese process is…let’s just say, different.

As I’m writing this my secretary is in the process of cleaning off her desk and gathering her personal belongings. The head of the R&D department just fired her at 8am on Monday right after she came in for work.

To tell you the truth, I never really liked my secretary from the beginning. Although she was a smart girl and proficient in computer work, she was lazy and forgetful. It seemed like that she was always sitting at her desk (which is right in front of me), doing nothing while other people were running around. She had no initiative in doing anything. I personally would have never hired her (but our hiring process for my department sucks too).

From my sideline view of this current firing, and other ones previously, I have noticed 3 distinct parts: the before, during and after.

The Before

Before a person is informed of his or her firing, everyone else in the office already knows. It spreads like wildfire. Before my secretary was fired, there were mummers of it for the previous week. “Oh, the manager 马上要赶走她,” my costing engineer whispered to me a few days ago. All of this is talking is done quietly in the background. People whisper the info back and forth until just about everyone knows. Well, everyone except the person getting fired.

In reality, it is pretty well known who is going to be fired a long time before it actually happens. For subordinates and lower ranking members of the staff, their fate is always controlled by their boss. If the boss doesn't like you, there is a good chance that you’re going to get the ax sometime or another. The only complication to this is that sometimes your boss does not have the authority to fire someone (like me). So when my previous project engineer, Thompson, was fired in December, I had no say. Instead, my boss did it. He didn't consult with me or any members of my department on anything. He thought that Thompson sucked and needed to leave… so he acted on it. Simple as that.

For higher-level managers, the process is more secretive, but just as clouded and immediate. Just a couple of weeks ago, the 2nd highest ranking person at the factory (who was in charge of all of the production) was let go. Her firing was a surprise to many of her subordinates, but not to the higher ups. I had heard a conversation between the owner and COO about the possibility that she was “skimming off the top” more than 5 months before the event. That’s a long time to be working when your boss already knows you’re going to be gone.

Although there are “justified” firings, most are just a play for power. Anyone and everyone is expendable at any given time. No reason needed. The thought of what is right and wrong goes out the door. Power is the only thing that matters.

The During

After a person is informed that he/she was fired, he/she are immediately on an island. It doesn’t matter if it is the highest manager or a low subordinate; everyone is somewhat frustrated, embarrassed and quiet. No one talks to the person getting fired.

In reality, what does one say when they’re friend was just let go and told to clean off their office? I don’t know. Instead of getting involved with the person and having compassion, everyone goes right back to work. The person that was fired is left to his/her embarrassed/shocked/angry state before going to HR to collect their pay before they officially leave. It is a miserable time.

This process of collecting one’s stuff and filling all of the paperwork takes atleast 2 hours. Due to the extended time this takes, in some instances, the fired person’s replacement is already on the job before he/she leaves. That’s just not cool. Not only does the company blindside you, but they’ve been preparing for it for a while. That’s the only way they have your replacement all ready to go. Awesome feeling.

The After

After the person officially leaves everyone basically returns back to normal. They start talking again, reminiscing about the firing process and how the company sucks for doing what it did. They talk about how just or unjust it was. This standard tradition is always in the form of shallow whispering.

Almost immediately after the person leaves, a notice is sent to all relevant departments, informing them that certain processes (that the fired person was in charge or apart of) will be altered. There is no fanfare or nostalgia from the company. Business as usual.

As a partial observer of this always ongoing drama, one thing has always bothered me. 65 years ago, the communist revolution in China brought power “to the people.” The proletariat and the peasants got all the power from the oppressive and corrupt land owners. How is it that now, in a still “communist” society (whatever that means), the people at my factory, have no power… or any semblance of power.

There is no collective action or unionization. There are no negotiations for worker’s rights, wages, benefits and working conditions. There is only silence.

Whenever someone is fired, no one speaks. Even if their firing was an awful display of corruption in the most unjust manner… nothing.

Just silence.

A few days later, 2 guys in the prototype department were let go. This time, it really did come out of the blue. No one knew what was going on. They were called in, and told to leave immediately.

When I asked the rest of the proto department what had happened, they were silent. Each and every person just looked down and went about their business. The 2 guys had been working in that department more than 5 years each. They were great buddies with everyone, consistently going out, eating, drinking, playing basketball and working together. Now they’re gone and no one could (or would) do anything about it.

This is the state of Chinese communism.

Power to the People.


Anonymous said...

An interesting observation. The hiring/firing process you have been talking about is practiced beyond the border of China. I gave you a book last month: Richard Sennett's The Culture of the Late Capitalism talks just about that.
Sennett argues that, in banishing old ills, the new-economy model has created new social and emotional traumas. Only a certain kind of human being can prosper in unstable, fragmentary institutions: the culture of the new capitalism demands an ideal self oriented to the short term, focused on potential ability rather than accomplishment, willing to discount or abandon past experience--for both employers and employees.


Chris Carr said...

Great post, Mike.

Has been a while since I have checked in. Keep up the good work!