What are the differences between working for a local vs. multinational company?

By Robert Half on 14 May 2021

Foreign investment in China is on the rise, and with it, more multinational companies are setting up shop in Mainland China. For both new graduates and experienced professionals looking to advance their careers, it’s easy to assume that working for a multinational firm is the surer path to a higher salary, better career prospects, and possibly even international travel.

But as it turns out, there’s no definitive answer to the ‘local vs. multinational’ question. With the country experiencing critical shortages of skilled professionals, the war for talent means that many companies, both local and multinational, will go above and beyond to hire and retain the best candidates.

Despite this, there are still some important distinctions that you should be aware of before deciding which type of company to send your application to. Here’s a breakdown.


In the past, it was often the case that Chinese firms paid lower salaries than foreign companies. This has changed as the country has shifted from being a low-cost manufacturing hub into a centre for high-technology and services industries. This has caused wages to rise, along with cost of living.

Due to the shortage of skilled talent, most local companies understand that competitive salaries are required to attract and retain good employees. As a result, local and multinational firms will typically offer similar levels of pay. In fact, working for a Chinese company can be an advantage if you’re a superstar employee, as they can pay generous year-end bonuses.

Career advancement

Multinational companies are known for producing strong business leaders, backed by prestigious management training programs. But a recent Bain & Company study found that many locally owned companies have drastically improved their internal talent development programs, in order to compete better with those same multinationals for homegrown talent.

China’s fast rate of economic growth is also reflected in the fast growth rate of local companies. For jobseekers, it can come down to choosing between a predictable career path at a multinational firm which represents an established brand, and a role at a local company where the learning curve is steep, but there’s also the opportunity to climb faster up the career ladder.

Workplace culture

Keep in mind that office culture can still vary widely among local companies. Many Chinese firms are becoming more Westernised, with employees having studied abroad or worked in multinational companies. So, you can expect to see significant variation in communication styles depending on how much of an ‘international flavour’ is present.

For cross-cultural communication, English remains the dominant language. As such, multinational companies will also often expect new hires, particularly people in managerial positions, to be fluent in conversational English.

Work-life balance

A number of technology companies in Mainland China have recently made international headlines for their long working hours. In particular, for encouraging a ‘996’ work schedule of 9:00 AM–9:00 PM, 6 days per week. Employees of such companies can be rewarded with good salaries and quick promotions if they achieve results.

While this may appeal to younger professionals who want to fast-track their careers, it’s also been shown that excessive overtime can lead to serious health problems. Before you apply for a position, it’s worth doing some research into their attitude towards work-life balance – and knowing how much personal time you’re willing to sacrifice for professional gain.

Whether you plan to settle in China for the long haul, or have aspirations to work and travel overseas, it’s useful to know what to expect from an employer. While many local companies are adopting Western style business practices and remuneration trends, there are still many subtle (and not so subtle) differences that can have long-term career impact.

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