Hiring American reporters versus Chinese and Indian

Note: This blog post also ran in the Society of Professional Journalism’s “Journalism and the World” blog. Click here to see the original post (and comments).

I’ve managed journalists from pretty much everywhere — the US, Britain, Germany, France, Russia, Central Asia, and, now, India and China.

In my experience, the differences between individual reporters far outweight the differences between countries. In otherwords, I’ve worked with some really really bad American writers, and some really good Chinese ones – and vice versa.

But there are some general differences.

WRITING ABILITY

Sometimes — but not always — the American writers have more experience with business reporting, or, at least, know what a news story is supposed to look like as a result of having seen a lot of them.

The only difference I can actually point to is in writing style — native English speakers produce stories that are more readable and more grammatically correct than non-native speakers.

In the first category I would put the Ameicans, the Canadians, the Indians, and (yeah, okay) the Brits (funny spelling be damned).

In the second are the Russians and the Chinese and the assorted Europeans.

JOB SKILLS

The more experienced someone is, and the more jobs they’ve held before, the happier, in general, I’m going to be with their work.

In the United States, kids get their first jobs at 12 (paper routes) or 14 (other jobs). They have part-time jobs through high school, to get money for junk food or clothes, to save up for college, or to buy a car. During college, US students hold work study jobs during the school year and full-time internships during the summers.

By the time and American graduates from college they’ll have held at least two jobs — often many many more, if you add in temp jobs.

I probably held a couple of dozen jobs by the time I graduated from college. I would sign up with temp agencies during short breaks or between other jobs, and did something different every semester and every summer. That adds up quickly. I’ve worked as a programmer, as a teacher, as waitress, as a circus roustabout, as an envelope stuffer, as a typesetter, as a receptionist, as a bear, as a book editor, as a newsletter editor, and, of course, as a newspaper reporter.

Then there’s the volunteer work for my high school paper and for the literary journal.

I don’t list all these jobs on my resume — I don’t want people to think I’m a total nutjob. But I’m probably typical. After all, young people don’t know what they want to do, they change their minds, they have dramatic episodes and quit perfectly good jobs, they run away and join the circus, and so on.

But after you go through all this, you pretty much know what you want to do. And you know what you have to put up with in order to be able to do it. You know how long it takes you to do things. You know which jobs you shouldn’t take, and you know the conditions under which you just cannot work.

By comparison, I’ve had several employees who had never held a job at all before coming to me. And they weren’t all Chinese, but most were.

They didn’t know what they wanted to do. How they worked. They didn’t know what kind of behavior was expected, and what was inappropriate.

One assistant answered the phone by telling the caller that I was in the bathroom. Then didn’t take a message. My employees routinely take off without warning — then reappear again, just as mysteriously. They have problems with girlfriends and boyfriends, problems with coming to work on time, problems meeting deadlines, and problems scheduling their work.

But it’s not clear-cut. Three of my freelance writers are middle-aged American men who still don’t know what they want to do with their lives. All three are veteran journalists with impressive resumes, but still have problems with deadlines, scheduling, and organization. (If you’re reading this and think I’m writing about you — it’s not. It’s somebody else.)

So you can’t make assumptions. You can’t say: “I’ll only hire Americans because they do a good job.” Or: “Chinese employees don’t know how to act in a workplace.”

Some of my Chinese hires, with no previous experience at all, have taken to their jobs easily and quickly, working independently and aggressively.

So it’s all down to individual people. As is everything.

ATTRITION

The biggest difference between expat and local hires, in my opinion, is attrition rates. In Shanghai, turnover is high for every nationality, every job category, every company. For expat hires, however, the problems are magnified significantly.

By definition, expats in Shanghai aren’t at home — and eventually, they’ll want to go home, for the sake of theirkids, spouses, parents, or just basic home-sickness. There are some permanent expats, but they’re few on the ground — especially in Shanghai, which is not exactly the most livable fo cities.

Expats also have more opportunities. On principle, everyone I hire is part of the same wage structure — their salaries are based on their value to the company. This means that, for the most part, I pay expat employees the same as Indian and Chinese employees.

Many foreign companies, however, pay expat employees American salaries (plus expat packages, in some cases).

As my company grows and I need more and more senior and experienced people, I expect our salaries to rise as well. But I expect that, for expat hires, my company will be a training ground rather than a destination for quite a long time.

By comparison, for local salaries, our company’s wages are pretty competitive. Combine that with a decent working environment, flexible hours, bylines in American magazines, and the work looks pretty good for the long term.

I have some Chinese employees who have been with the company for a while and I expect that some of them will stay for a long time. They represent the company’s institutional memory and our work ethic and culture. They are the heart of the company and I hope to see their numbers increase with time.

Signing off in Shanghai,

Maria