head of human resources
China Sunwah Bank deputy manager, Chun Zhao, and Li Zhang, head of human resources (HR), had closed their office to go home for the weekend after lengthy deliberations concerning the new appointments to their 28 branches in Dalian. It was doubtful they would rest easy over the weekend as all of their contacts knew their cellphone numbers and most knew that the deadline for the final decision was fast approaching. The final list of candidates recommended for appointment had to be sent to the head office in Beijing at 9 a.m. on Tuesday. There had been more than 4,000 applications received via their website and mail for only 12 advertised positions. Chun, Li and their team had already spent hours reading applications and conducting interviews, as well as receiving specific endorsements for applicants from government officials, friends, former school teachers and other bank managers in Dalian, Kunming and Qingdao. They faced the challenge of making the final 12 appointments, keeping in mind they had to try to respect and satisfy the requests for favours they had received from important stakeholders. They were under pressure as these appointments had to be balanced with the China Sunwah Bank’s need to hire the most talented new recruits to meet the drive to create wealth under the Chinese market economy conditions. Li and Chun knew that this would be a tricky process that required sensitivity and skill.
THE APPLICATION PROCESS
Four weeks earlier, China Sunwah Bank had listed a job advertisement (known in China as a recruitment note) for 12 positions on their website and in the national newspaper outlining the requirements for the positions so applicants could access and complete the application form, attach their resumés and submit their applications. Following the closing deadline, the first stage of the elimination process began with the China Sunwah Bank central HR team in Dalian reading all applications and reducing the list to 200. The senior HR staff then examined the remaining candidates with a detailed assessment procedure to eliminate those who did not satisfy the criteria, and finally presented Chun and Li with a prospective list of the top 48 candidates for final consideration and interview. The list contained each applicant’s name, sex, degree, university and “just a few pieces of information for the committee to examine easily.” From this list Chun, Li and the committee would decide the final 12 candidates who were to be recommended for appointment to a position at the bank. If necessary, Chun would have the power to make any final decisions that he, Li and the committee could not agree upon.
After the HR team had examined all the applications, they informed Chun that some had special notes attached to say “this candidate is important,” for example. These notes indicated that these candidates had a relationship and support from a powerful government official, prominent businessman or a senior manager at the bank. Chun told his staff to find the best candidates based on merit, and to leave the applications that had notes attached but did not make the final list in a separate pile.
Although applications were received from graduates from many universities across China, only students from top universities who had graduated with certain majors were considered. Candidates needed to have majored in finance, accounting, power generation, highways or railways, as these were the sectors in which the Dalian branches of China Sunwah Bank conducted most of its business. Applicants studying overseas were only considered if they were graduating from one of the top 100 non-Chinese universities in the world. Many from less reputable universities had already been eliminated.
Some of the local applicants who had not been successful had received a phone call informing them that they would not be getting a position but, for most, there was no notification for unsuccessful applications. All these applicants could do was to call the China Sunwah Bank HR department, hoping for positive news.
If the HR personnel, Chun and Li liked a candidate’s application, academic achievement and/or employment history, then this application would be placed on a separate pile. After the final 48 applicants were chosen, they were then required to complete an examination that had a threshold score they had to reach in order to progress further. All those who remained were then contacted to arrange face-to-face interviews. The application, examination results and first interview were then used as reference points of consideration from which the committee would decide who would be interviewed a second time. Seven candidates who were studying overseas made it to the last 48 and Chun and Li interviewed them using Skype. Three were good enough to reach the second interview stage and Chen flew overseas to interview them. Students in the final list were graduating from Harvard University, the Australian National University and Yale University.
The “guanxi”1 concept of relationships was exemplified through the notes that were attached to some applications, which typified the complexities associated with the recruitments process in China. Modern bank recruiters needed to use more effective recruitment methods to eliminate the need to satisfy the requests of powerful stakeholders in terms of hiring processes. The influence of guanxi had long played a role in securing jobs in China; however, modern Chinese bankers, under pressure to make profits and satisfy key performance indicators, were hesitant about using guanxi as a method of determining suitable employees. The reason for this change was that in the past, banks were sometimes forced to recruit employees who were well connected but not necessarily the most productive, talented or qualified applicants.
To try to minimize the probability of this happening, Chun and Li had advertised 12 positions, yet in reality there were 22 positions to be filled. This provided them with the flexibility to make sure that at least 10 of the new positions were reserved solely for the most talented applicants. This ensured the Bank would be gaining some dynamic and talented new recruits, and meant that at least 10 of the successful candidates would have gained their placements based on presentation, merit and qualifications and not on
1 “Guanxi” is a mandarin word meaning “relationships,” and referring, specifically, to a special type of relationship that bonds individuals through the reciprocal exchange of favours and mutual obligations. Lucien Pye, Chinese Negotiating Style, Quorum Books, Westport, Connecticut, 1992.
how powerful their guanxi connections were. Of course, confidentiality was critical in this process and both Li and Chun had needed to deny, on several occasions, that any such extra positions existed.
To outside observers, Chun and Li had followed the normal procedure needed to recruit employees by posting an advertisement on the bank’s website and in the national newspaper that described the criteria, what applicants needed to provide and how they could submit their applications. As was expected, this open method exposed them to requests for favours from powerful businessmen, senior government members and/or Communist party officials who wanted to secure the job for a friend or relative as “payback” for some previous or anticipated favours.