Preparing for the economic upswing |
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Preparing for the economic upswing

Published on Friday, 20 Nov 2009
High quality staff will be difficult to find once the economy really starts to pick up.
Photo: Bloomberg News

With the economy showing signs of recovery, some companies have stepped up recruitment for contract staff, while a few have drawn up plans for permanent hires. Others, meanwhile, are taking a wait-and-see attitude as they continue to pay close attention to controlling salaries.

For many employers, the past 18 months have conjured up a series of difficult dilemmas, with the challenges of redundancy, restructuring and preparation for recovery following one after another.

Deirdre Lander, Watson Wyatt's head of human capital group in Hong Kong, said human resources teams in many companies were aware that once the economy started to improve significantly the ability to attract high quality employees could become a major challenge.

To prepare for an economic upswing, Lander suggested companies look closely at workforce planning rather than vacancy filling.

She said human resources professionals should identify individuals who could be fast-tracked. This could be achieved by looking at performance achievements and identifying career steps that matched the company's needs with the abilities and career aspirations of individuals. "[It] takes commitment and management support for the concept to work, as the results are not always immediately realised," Lander said.

For legal firm Allen & Overy, preparing for better times involves addressing the needs of employee aspirations.

"We have defined a road map for the career development of both lawyers and support professionals," said Dorin Whelly, head of human resources, Asian region, at Allen & Overy. The road map provided direction for skill development at each stage in an employee's career.

Extensive training programmes are offered to develop attributes such as job-related skills, commercial savvy and management and leadership skills.

Whelly said the regular performance reviews served as key opportunities for the law firm to gauge employee sentiment. The information obtained is also used to review and reward an employee's contribution as well as to motivate them.

Meanwhile, the company conducted informal reviews to encourage feedback from staff.

"The review system is a good way to engage an employee because they can see quite clearly where they fit in to the firm, what training and rewards they will receive, and the timeline for the next promotion."

Whelly said Allen & Overy operated an open-door policy that allowed employees to build up trust and rapport with their supervisors, who in turn could observe on a daily basis the results of any training or development recently undertaken.

Getting ready for a recovering economy is also a major concern for professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

Dave McCann, PwC's human resources partner for China, Hong Kong and Singapore, said PwC was looking for individuals with work experience and hiring in accordance with a revival in the economy.

The firm is being watchful if does not recruit more people than immediately needed to meet the demand for services, but at the same time have enough staff to ensure it will not be overstretched to meet service demand.

Apart from hiring externally, the Big Four firm has also devoted resources to developing talent internally. This year PwC recruited 400 graduates and will take in more or less the same number next year.

"We invest in good people, whether they are accountants, analysts, IT specialists or engineers," McCann said. "By providing staff with coaching and training, regular feedback and interesting work, we want to keep them engaged."

He added that PwC's workforce of about 10,000 in Hong Kong and the mainland were provided with opportunities to move around the organisation internally and overseas.

"Obviously, it's expensive to send our staff overseas, but it encourages loyalty and retention," McCann said.

James Mendes, managing director for Asia-Pacific at recruitment specialist Alexander Mann Solutions, said companies in many industries had found it difficult to find enough people with an adequate blend of skills and experience.

To counter the shortage of professionals, Mendes encouraged firms to develop a structured approach to nurture talent internally. For example, work-shadowing programmes matching individuals to a mentor would provide practical benefits to the company and assist individuals in their career development and progression.

Mendes said companies would have to ensure their human resources departments had suitable resources and infrastructure to deliver development programmes and support to help their companies achieve their goals.

Responding to a pickup in market sentiment and customer appetite for investment products, HSBC recruited about 100 experienced premier relationship managers and wealth management managers during the summer.

Francesca McDonagh, HSBC's head of personal financial services Hong Kong, said individuals who showed potential could progress to looking after a smaller portfolio of higher value customers. They could also progress through the sales management route into a position where they would be managing others in a junior role.

McDonagh said HSBC had increased classroom and online training to frontline staff. "This is part of a continuing process to refresh and upgrade skill sets to adapt to changing market conditions and new product launches," she said.

Centaline Property chairman Shih Wing-ching, who was forced to lay off about 300 employees early in the downturn, said his company had rebuilt its workforce by about 10 per cent in the first six months of this year.

Shih said he was sceptical the upturn of the property market would last, and had been hiring in pace with market needs. "We are seeing a big influx of mainland buyers which is creating another bubble, but there is little to convince me the trend can be sustained unless the real economy recovers," said Shih, who had planned to retire this year, but deferred the decision to guide his business through the difficult period.

He said it was important that estate agents expanded their language skills to cater for the needs of mainland clients. They should be aware of the tastes and habits of those clients. For instance, mainland customers tended to commit to transactions quicker than Hong Kong clients.

But, ultimately, Shih said estate agents should be able to project their personality and show they believed in the job they were doing.

Firms must vet job applicants carefully

Hiring the right people with the ability and experience to excel in their work and embrace the company's philosophy may seem a challenging task.

But the difficult becomes achievable with careful recruitment processes in place, according to a Hong Kong recruitment specialist.

Andrew Morris, director of Robert Half Hong Kong, said that when vetting resumes hiring managers should look for the skills and experience that would be essential for success and spot signs of a person not being suitable.

"Typos could illustrate a lack of attention to detail, and vague phrases, such as `familiar with', could mean the applicant does not possess first-hand experience or expertise in this area," said Morris, whose recruitment agency specialises in finance, banking and accounting.

In an interview, evidence should be sought to support a track record of success achieved over a reasonable period of time, while emphasis should be placed on intelligence and communication skills.

"The ability to communicate succinctly will take employees further and enable them to take others on the journey with them," Morris said.

He added that small signs of nervousness should not necessarily be interpreted as inability on the part of the candidate. "Providing the person is not overly nervous, this is often a good sign the applicant is passionate about the job and wants to succeed."

If internal promotion is an option, Morris suggested that management should look for key achievements in the potential employee. These include areas of productivity, cost control and general efficiencies in addition to the ability to integrate as a team player.

Morris said an employee who was willing to contribute beyond normal job requirements was likely to be ready for promotion. "Those without a title but whom others approach for advice often make good leaders."

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