Career Advice Featured stories and job trends

SNAKES and ladders

Experts say that in the Year of the Snake, HR functions will have to improve the ways they attract and retain the best employees.

Assuming that Hong Kong's economy remains healthy and the jobless rate stays low, human resources (HR) and recruitment professionals can predict the most likely themes and trends in the Year of the Snake with a high degree of certainty.

They know, for example, that companies in every sector will continue to restructure and realign. Whether the imperative is to expand into new markets, achieve efficiencies through technology and cost controls, or simply consolidate after recent setbacks, two issues will predominate.

The first is the ongoing "war for talent" and its impact on hiring, retention, rewards and training. If employers want to attract and hold on to those best suited to perform well in their organisations, they must be ready to adjust, invest and innovate.

The second issue is the requirement to adapt to changes and shifting expectations in the broader business environment. The fallout from the financial crisis has brought new rules and standards of compliance and, with that, there is also a palpably different mood. The public has seen enough of selfish corporate profiteering. As shareholders and individuals they want to see a new paradigm, and as employees or candidates they want to work for a team which consistently exemplifies the right values.

"Our surveys show that business ethics and corporate governance are the most important training topics for senior and middle management in local organisations," says Francis Mok, president of the Hong Kong Institute of Human Resource Management (HKIHRM). "This is not something new, but it is a clear indication that enterprises now regard good ethical practices as crucial for a sustainable economy and for maintaining Hong Kong's role as a leading financial centre."

HR managers must therefore be ready to give a clear lead on ethical policy and matters of professional behaviour. The guidelines should cover everything from corporate entertainment - offered or received - to a wide-ranging list of "dos and don'ts".

Compliance with the law should be a minimum requirement. The aim should be to express and imprint values that not only define the organisation, but also create a culture and way of working that fosters goodwill and acts to attract the best candidates.

"Most companies do compliance training, but they need to go beyond issues such as anti-bribery and money laundering," Mok says. "Clearly defined corporate values should include treating staff well, paying fairly, and even having a good onboarding programme. All this helps organisations to build a reputation and attract and retain talent."

As hiring demand increases, Mok expects to see faster interview and approval processes. If companies want to limit staff turnover, they will also have to pay greater attention to orientation and mentoring programmes, offering tailor-made benefits, and recognising the views of younger staff.

Mok points out that new employees are most vulnerable in their first 90 days. They generally arrive motivated, full of enthusiasm and believing the company's promises. But all too often, those promises fail to materialise and disillusionment sets in. The company only has itself to blame if the individual decides to move on.

"Recruits must be given the tools, resources and knowledge required to do a good job, and a sense of being welcome and valued," Mok says. "The first three to six months is the most critical period in reducing turnover. If companies improve onboarding programmes, it has a big impact on staff retention and engagement."

Marc Burrage, regional director of recruitment firm Hays in Hong Kong, adds that employers should review and, where necessary, reset individual performance goals this year.

"You need simple, but effective, performance goals, so that both parties are on the same track," Burrage says. "For this, the critical thing is good communication - clear, transparent, and with deadlines and objectives."

Despite good intentions, many Hong Kong employers still don't live up to this ideal. As the make-up of the workforce continues to change, however, it will be essential to listen to employees more and to provide different kinds of support and incentives.

"If someone is performing satisfactorily, don't just assume they are happy in their role," Burrage says. "For example, employees should have the chance to get involved in other areas of the business. They will feel their contribution is appreciated and that the company is investing in them."

Tony Pownall, general manager of Hudson Hong Kong, confirms that investment in skills, experience and training will be a continuing priority if businesses are to compete effectively in the years ahead.

Paradoxically, many local employers don't really know what their staff are good at, or even where their ambitions lie. Annual assessments are often more an exercise in form-filling than an opportunity to explore possibilities and plan career paths.

"We need to see employers doing more to understand 'motivational fit' and their staff's main drivers," Pownall says. "As positions evolve and people take on more responsibilities, it is then possible to give them the right competencies and soft skills for promotion or redeployment."


How to navigate the slippery world of HR this year

  1. Innovative rewards Organisations often say they want workers who can think “outside the box”, but then signally fail to do that when it comes to structuring reward and incentive packages. Salary is always important, but to attract and retain good staff – particularly members of the younger generation – it is essential to use more than money and other purely financial perks. Staff are increasingly looking for tailor-made rewards rather than just the standard entitlements for their position or grade. Individuals might prefer additional days off, extra medical insurance, a subsidy for further education, opportunities for overseas secondments, or admission to a fast-track management programme. If companies think innovatively – and consult staff – they can usually find a way.
  2. Retraining and redeployment As Hong Kong moves further from trading and manufacturing to becoming a service-based knowledge economy, companies and employees have no choice but to adapt. New skills must be learned as organisations, roles and responsibilities evolve.  Employers know all about investment in training. Where they often miss a trick, though, is in letting go competent and loyal staff whose jobs are perhaps being outsourced, rather than retraining and redeploying them in different roles within the organisation. A back-office supervisor with a few years’ experience may now be ideal for frontline sales and will know more about the business than a brand-new recruit hired off the street.
  3. Improving communication It is generally acknowledged that Hong Kong has a “talent shortage” by global standards. This is set to become more acute as businesses make plans for new phases of expansion. They will almost certainly talk about the problems of attraction and retention, but they should also be doing more to talk and listen to current staff and to understand what candidates expect. Good staff can leave for the smallest of reasons – such as roster changes or management insistence on petty rules – and the enthusiasm of potential recruits can easily waver if they aren’t clear about the role or are left hanging on for too long. Surveys show that proactive communication boosts attraction and retention.
  4. Interview techniques Psychometric tests can tell a lot about a candidate’s mindset and motivation, but nothing can replace the face-to-face interview as the best format to assess a candidate. With a renewed market-wide focus on ethics, interviewers are now encouraged to use more behaviour-based techniques. They should ask candidates for examples of personal ethical dilemmas – and how they were resolved – or even
    request a written statement of values as a basis for later discussion. This avoids ambiguities and, all being well, leads to a better fit when new recruits join.
  5. Paternity leave There is a strong likelihood of legislation passing later this year to introduce three days’ paid paternity leave for new fathers in Hong Kong. This would still be some distance from what is granted in some European countries, where it is not uncommon to receive one to two
    weeks of leave. Certain employers – notably the type with reservations about the minimum wage – may also be slow to support the plan. However, a three-day allowance is in line with other developed economies in Asia and, indeed, many local companies already have such in-house policies in place. Taking the lead shows that these companies care about their staff, respect the importance of family life, and are willing to move with the times.