Guest post by Courtney Gordner

No one likes to be embarrassed. We empathize with the feeling of embarrassment greatly, causing second-hand embarrassment to flourish in American society. Individuals will extend the emotion towards others, even when we ourselves are in no danger of suffering humiliation. There are certain actions you make have taken to help someone else “save face,” or avoid looking foolish in uncomfortable situations. For instance, whispering in a stranger’s ear their fly is open or they have toilet paper stuck to the bottom of their shoe.

These intimate communications are acceptable because the alternative (loudly pointing out the source of humiliation and laughing) is seen as childish, rude and even cruel. You effectively cause the person to lose face rather than save it.

It’s possible to embarrass someone without really meaning to and typically be forgiven. However, in some societies the loss of face for any reason is both undesirable and in many cases, unforgivable. This is a very serious topic in China, making it something American businesses hoping to make headway in the prosperous nation need to be aware of. This awareness should not just be extended to Chinese customers; you also need to be mindful of your Chinese employees.

What Situations Can Make Chinese Employees Lose Face?

Imagine you run a company that acts as a go-between for Z-band, a HDTV video distribution systems company, and you ask two employees to market your system for distributing videos over CAT 5 to a potential client in China. Xian Xu and James Smith work together to create the best presentation they can, but in the end, the would-be client isn’t interested.

As the failure is discussed in the next meeting, you demand to know what went wrong and state your disappointment in front of their co-workers. You strongly suggest they work harder in the future to bring in new clients. The next day, James Smith comes to work and Xian Xu does not. In fact, Xian Xu never returns to work for you. The reason is simple: You made him lose face.

It is one thing to criticize Chinese employees, but it’s another to make them look bad in front of their peers. Situations like the one illustrated above aren’t the only ways a Chinese employee can lose face. In addition to being openly criticized, face is lost through the display of one’s temper, confrontations, and failure to show the proper respect.

Giving Face Instead of Losing Employees

Just as certain public actions can cause a Chinese employee to walk away from a job, there are actions you can take to help bolster confidence and avoid losing a good worker. Be sure to thank your employees for their hard work and commend them on their efforts. Also, encourage them to do better and acknowledge abilities and social standing. Be impressed by them and allow them to see this.

When You Feel You Have To Critique

Many Chinese employers simply don’t give negative feedback, certainly not the sort of blunt and harsh criticism that is practically a running joke in the American business world. Since constructive criticism is such a norm, it may feel almost painful to go without saying something. What should you do when you need to inform a Chinese employee that you need him or her to do better?

First, try to find a balance. While it’s good to offer due praise, don’t praise one person too much and others too little. This can upset the balance within the workplace and create a lack of harmony and good will among employees. Also, be mindful of the timing and manner of your criticism. Above all else, be culturally sensitive; do not expect your Chinese employees to simply “put up with” your behavior because you’re their boss. This is ethnocentric thinking.
Courtney Gordner is a passionate blogger that loves sharing insight into news and law. You can read more from her on her blog: