An Introduction to Alibaba’s Employee Ranking System

6 min read.

LinkedIn published its own list of “top companies in China that employees want to work for” in 2019 based on a survey of its 40 million users. The four key pillars in the study were employee interest in the company, engagement with employees, job demand, and employee retention.

Only companies that had at least 500 employees as of February 1, 2018 and demonstrated a flat or positive employee growth over the following 12 months were eligible for the survey. The list formed part of LinkedIn’s wider analysis of the platform’s more than 610 million users, and was used to determine the top companies to work for across different continents, including the United States, Canada, Mexico, Germany, France, India, Australia and Japan.

In 2019, technology companies made up 15 of China’s top 25 companies to work for, reflecting the country’s quickly evolving IT scene. Six of the top 10 companies were in internet-related businesses — in the top spot was Alibaba Group, with more than 66,000 employees working at offices in Hangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing.

Alibaba’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China
Credit: MIT Technology Review

Alibaba is one of the most valuable companies in the world with a market capitalization in excess of USD 800 billion, as of October 23, 2020. It is not surprising that the company has managed to attract global talents who are graded according to the company’s notorious professional aptitude ranking system. 

Alibaba’s professional aptitude ranking system comprises 14 P-levels (P1 to P14) and 9 M-levels (M1 to M9), which mean Professional (P) and Management (M) respectively. Once employees reach the P6 level, they are simultaneously regarded as M1, and are expected to begin assuming management responsibilities. 

According to an insider, the system was initially adapted from existing human resource systems in major multinational companies for Alibaba’s internal use. However, due to the company’s influence in China’s internet and technology industry, Alibaba’s ranking system has become the standard for hiring in the industry, and adapted by other technology companies to suit their own company cultures.  

In a nutshell, the responsibilities expected of the different ranks can be defined as:

P5 and P6/M1 : The main “worker bees”

P7/M2 to P9/M4 : Domain experts and team managers

P10/M5 and P11/M6 : Higher management 

P12/M7 to P14/M9 : Chiefs of the group’s subsidiaries and the original Alibaba team

Alibaba’s professional aptitude ranking system can be better understood from how it is being applied in the hiring of its technical and product teams, which comprise of software engineers, developers, product managers, designers, researchers, and more.

Alibaba employees in a team meeting
Credit: KrASIA

P5 

Official title: Higher Specialist (高级专员)

Although P1 through P4 exist in Alibaba’s hiring books, the minimum professional capacity that candidates must possess in order to be considered by the company’s recruiters begins at P5, at least for the technical and product teams. They are typically freshmen out of postgraduate schools, armed with a master’s degree in a specific area of specialization, whom Alibaba recruits in its annual campus recruitment drives. Candidates with bachelor’s degrees with good work track records in the industry will also be considered for this level.

P6/M1

Official titles: Senior Specialist (资深专员) and Supervisor (主管

Employees at this level are experienced professionals who have had a few years of industry experience and good track records will be considered for this level — one to two years for master’s degree holders and at least three years for bachelor’s degree holders. Exceptional postgraduate freshmen who have a sterling track record in school; for instance, in entrepreneurship will also be considered for this level, as will fresh PhD degree holders. 

At P6, employees are expected to not only be able to work independently, but also take on some management responsibilities, as this level commensurates with M1. The new responsibilities include coordinating cross-departmental projects, guiding juniors, and so forth. To achieve this, the employee should have a deep understanding of the department’s workflow and strategic goals, in order to assist the department head in setting key performance goals (KPI).

P7/M2

Official titles: Expert (专家) and Manager (经理)

Employees at P7 level are both domain experts and managers. As the experts, these employees possess deep expertise in their areas of specialty. They are resourceful complex problem solvers with both insight and foresight to successfully lead and complete projects. 

As both the expert and the manager, P7 employees work with department heads, offering domain expertise that influences the company’s strategic directions in the said professional domain. They are the key persons to steer cross-departmental projects, manage and train new team members.

P8/M3

Official titles: Higher Expert (高级专家) and Senior Manager (资深经理)

What sets a P8 employee apart from the P7 employee is the difference in their breadth and depth of industry knowledge. P8 employees are extremely well-versed with the internal and external workings of the company, as well as the industry. 

P8 employees lead multiple teams within the organization and are very engaged in the company’s day-to-day operations and projects. Therefore, P8 employees are crucial in providing ground information from actual business activities to inform and influence top management’s strategies in a particular business domain. 

Alibaba’s P8 employees are usually equivalent to director-level employees in other companies.

P9/M4

Official title: Senior Expert (资深专家) and Director (总监

Compared to P8 employees, P9 employees are more outwardly influential. They are well known in the industry for their expertise and influence in a particular area of specialty, which they frequently share at large scale industry events. Within the organization, they provide the strategic directions for their business domains and often sit with higher management to draft corporate strategies.

Being purpose-driven, P9 employees are often considered the innovator and entrepreneur — they are the equivalent of the founders or C-suites in startup companies.

P10/M5

Official title: Research Fellow (研究员) and Senior Director (资深总监

Employees at this level are more commonly known as M5 (as opposed to P10). They are the heads of business units within the main Alibaba Group or the group’s subsidiaries. They are the indisputable experts in their respective domains in China, with their research or work having contributed extensively to the advancement of the company’s businesses. 

Equipped with foresight and a progressive, purpose-driven attitude, M5 employees are heavily involved in crafting the future strategic directions of the company.

P11/M6

Official title: Higher Research Fellow (高级研究员) and Assistant President (副总裁

M6 employees are highly influential individuals in the industry, whether within China or on the global stage. They are usually long-time loyal employees with a proven track record in advancing the company’s businesses, as well as its culture and values. They are not only purpose-driven; they are also strong believers in the company’s mission, and their roles in advancing it.

P12/M7 and above

They are the top management within the main Alibaba Group or the chiefs of its subsidiaries. They could be the original leaders and owners of the subsidiaries, or members of the original Alibaba team (whose employee numbers are in one or two digits). For instance, Jack Ma was P14/M9, the highest level.

Long-time employees have advanced through the ranks, with the compensation packages becoming more attractive with each higher level. However, promotions at Alibaba do not come easy. It typically happens only after employees have served in their incumbent position for two years; only then can employees self-recommend for a promotion or are recommended by their supervisors. 

After that, the candidate will have to prepare their portfolio of achievements and appear before a panel of judges whom they must convince with their list of achievements, in order to be considered for a promotion to the next level. Needless to say, competing to be promoted is just as tough as competing to be hired.

The higher the level, the more difficult it is for an employee to go through the promotion requirements and processes, but one cannot expect anything less from one of the most valuable companies in the world that many are eyeing to work at.