I love my work — do my employees?

My theory is, in China, the higher up you are the less work you do — poor people on farms, in mines work the hardest.

If you’re unemployed you scramble the hardest to feed yourself and family.

In the US and Europe, the poorest people don’t work at all, get subsidies, the highest-paid people work super hard. I’m not saying that they do their jobs well — just that they work a lot of hours.

In rich countries, work becomes its own reward — a symbol of success and status. People complain about how many hours they work — but, really, they’re just bragging.

In China, I think, there’s still the sense that people have to be forced to work, that it’s low-status and demeaning.

In my office, my Chinese managers occasionally ask me why we don’t fine employees for coming in late, not writing enough, stories, and so on.

Apparently, this is a common practice in Chinese companies (and in foreign ones here, too: see “Ghastly” conditions at HP, MS, Lenovo factories).

At first, I didn’t understand this. What kind of horrible employer would dock employee pay for minor infractions? Safety violations, maybe, where the employees’ own lives were at stake. And if you’re an hourly employee then sure, you lose pay when you clock in late. You don’t lose a day’s pay — you just lose the hour you’re late. It’s commensurate, not punitive.

I believe it will take time to change these attitudes but, most importantly, it will take the creation of a real safety net. Ironically China, even though a technically still a communist country, doesn’t have many of the protections we take for granted in the US and Europe. There are no wholescale welfare support systems for the disabled, the sick, the elderly, the very young, the unemployed, or the very poor.

One of my European friends here said last week that his highest goal was to have influence. That’s a pretty active goal. He wants to change things, to make an impact, and to be in a position where he can do this. Maybe the CEO or a VP of a company, he said. (I believe he’s already reached this point — but that’s neither here nor there.)

In China — especially with the older generation — it seems that the main driver is respect. Not the Aretha Franklin R-E-S-P-E-C-T kind of respect, but the Godfather kind of respect, where people come and pay you obeisance. Or give you bribes, if you will. And you wave a little finger, and flunkies rush around to do your bidding. It’s a passive kind of goal.

I think it’s changing. The younger generation, which has grown up with shows like Friends, is starting to embrace the idea that interesting work is its own reward, and is even worth a loss of status — think of Chandler quitting his accounting job and taking an unpaid marketing internship.

In the west, people routinely take time off to follow their dreams. To write their novel, to travel, to start a business. As a general rule, they are admired for their bravery and respected for their passion. And people envy the fact that they’re getting to do something that they love.

I have a hard time seeing a senior Chinese executive taking a year off to, say, try to make a go of it as a short story writer.

An American executive would have no problem doing that, and would probably blog or write a book about how he was able to connect with his inner self and forge renewed bonds with his family and friends. And his dog.

Until that happens, I’ll have to find new ways of motivating Chinese employees. The status, say, of having their names in print in US publications. Or good old money.