Nael Islam, executive director of HR at the Singapore Tourism Board, shares how the company keeps monetary rewards fair for employees across the organisation. By Sabrina Zolkifi.

Nael Islam is aware his position as the executive director of HR at the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) allows him to have more leeway than many other HR practitioners, thanks to his strong relationship with the company’s chief executive.

“HR in STB reports directly to the chief executive, so therefore, we have this enviable position to a certain degree that we can do a lot of things, and the only person who can overrule me is the chief executive,” Islam says.

That relationship comes in handy particularly in terms of structuring employees’ rewards and incentives programmes, as it ensures the needs and motivators of staff are always high on the management’s agenda.

“Communication is key in everything we do,” Islam says, adding the organisation is introducing an ‘Ask Nael’ feature on its intranet to allow feedback from the entire workforce.

If anyone has a question, whatever it may be, they can ask me and I’m under obligation to address their concerns.
The use of technology and communication is also evident in the company’s performance tracking programme, where staff are able to go online and update their key work indicator deliverables (KWI) or reflect changes in reporting officers, making for a “dynamic performance tracking system”.

Overall, STB measures its employees against three attributes, namely their KWIs, competencies and alignment to the company’s values.

“When we measure people, we measure against those three attributes. Clearly, the KWIs part is the easiest to identify, but we absolutely make sure the other components are tied in to how we reward people.”

Because STB considers itself a high performing organisation, Islam says there is a direct correlation between how an employee performs and the monetary reward they receive at the end of the year.

“While we may be a bit more straightforward about your salary and where you fall within a certain salary range depending on your position, how you get rewarded is quite open.

“The bonus you get and the percentage you get as an annual increment will vary depending on how you’re performing,” he explains.

In order to determine the individual employee’s bonus and annual increment, Islam says the managers get together every year for about two days to review every person’s performance.

“The junior levels are looked at by a large group of people, and as those decisions are made, a certain group of people will leave because now they are going to be discussed,” Islam says.

“That goes on until the last stage where it’s just me and the chief executive.”

STB is also very particular about keeping their monetary rewards fair across the organisation, so front and back office staff are measured against the same benchmarks.

“A lot of organisations have this thing where their front office tends to get measured and paid differently from their support divisions. We don’t do that.

If someone in the front office is graded a B and someone in support is graded a B, they will both get paid the same amount.
However, this poses another set of problems for STB, as different teams will of course have to be measured against different deliverables.

“For example, we’ve secured the rights to the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) Championships, so let’s assume the manager who spearheaded that would have, in the past year, been more in the spotlight, than maybe a manager sitting in HR who had helped hire the team that delivered on that. That’s where HR will have to moderate the discussion, and that’s why you need everyone in the room,” Islam says.

Therefore he says it’s important the managers sitting in the room during the appraisal period are able to “to make sure the voices of their people are heard”.

“As much as you have it as formalised and unbiased as you want it to be, you want to make sure you have managers in place who are strong enough to make their case heard.”

But Islam understands while money is a huge motivator for many employees, another huge driver for employees of STB is a sense of public service.

“People who join STB are doing it out of the desire to do it out of public service; part of the reward here comes from that element of national service,” he says.

“That’s not to suggest that we don’t pay fairly because we do look at the market and we are driven by market forces, so the sustainability comes from that.”

As part of research to benchmark the company’s pay packages to the market, Islam says his team looks at salaries in the “oil and gas, the public and private sector, and a defined list of organisations which for us are competitors, including companies we take people from and we lose people to”.

As the workforce landscape continues to evolve, Islam says one of the concerns when it comes to structuring incentives and recognition plans for the future will be around the different employee demographics.
Islam says the problem is a good one to have, though, because while it means employees on one side of the spectrum are getting older, it also means younger and more diverse employees are coming into the workforce.

“So the way we structure incentives and benefits will probably need to change to attract an older worker.”

He adds companies have to start looking at ways to bridge the gap between providing incentives relevant to each age group within the workforce, while keeping it consistent and fair.

“In Singapore, there are more people who want to continue to work and are fit to work, and we should encourage that – these are people who have the knowledge, understand the organisation and this is something org are missing out on,” he says.

“These are people who can provide mentorship. Your workforce is going to change, the percentage of your older workforce is going to increase and how we look at incentives has to address that.”

He shares that STB also provides incentives and benefits such as flexible working structures, which help attract and retain employees.

“We are also an extremely family-friendly organisation. We have a very large proportion of women in the organisation so being able to provide facilities or programmes that allow them to go for childcare or maternity is important,” he says.

“We have a very open and used work-at-home policy, so a lot of people – and not just the women – telecommute.”

STB also keeps an eye on the shifting workplace demographics, and Islam says he acknowledges Gen Ys will have a different set of demands in terms of incentives.
“More and more we’re seeing, especially in a company with a lot of younger workers, that the environment plays a very big role,” Islam says. “Your colleagues play a big role, and the element of having a fun workplace, while at the same time still doing serious work, is becoming more and more important.”

The changing demographics also mean a change in employee mindset. However, Islam says one challenge that presents, particularly in the Asian workplace, is the need for employee to “save face”.

“The only think you can really do, which I’ve tried doing in the time I’ve been in HR, is just to show that it is possible and that in fact, you will be rewarded for speaking your mind.

“The last thing you want as a boss is to be in a position where I’m going off down the wrong path because I don’t know enough or don’t have the right information, and there is an employee in that meeting with me who knows what I’m saying is wrong but won’t correct me.”

Islam says the onus then falls on managers to create an environment where staff feel comfortable to speak up, with leaders holding on to the responsibility of “giving that kind of freedom of thought and putting across the message that you will be rewarded and helping us do the right thing as an organisation”.

He adds this culture of open communication goes back to being able to provide employees with a more robust and holistic review at the end of the year.