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Louis Carter, speaker at Talent Management Asia
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Why HR in Asia Pacific is so different from the rest of the world

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Leadership development specialist Louis Carter identifies the unique challenges that HR in Asia Pacific faces, with case studies from Unilever, HSBC Hong Kong, and Singapore Airlines.

In 2005, researchers discovered that inspired leadership is central to influencing individual experiences of spirit at work.

It is also strongly linked to six other organisational factors such as positive workplace culture, a sense of community, opportunities for personal fulfilment, and organisational integrity.

But in today’s global workplace, where environments grow more diverse by the day, how can we continue to capture the inspiration of our employees when their background, race, and religious beliefs may be in total contrast to one another?

Expat Explorer conducts an international study each year that explores which countries are easiest to live and work in as an expatriate, based on economics, positive local experiences, and raising children.

53% of the top countries from the 2014 survey are in North and Southeast Asia.

In countries like Singapore, where foreigners make up 25% of the workforce , there is an ever-increasing need for companies to engage and empower their teams in a way that transcends location-specific identity, so that they can maximise productivity and remain competitive.

But how does one positively affect their employees’ job satisfaction factors (such as work-life balance, team-building, or positive reinforcement) when they come from a culture that may define those values differently?

Kiasu – I am the boss so I am right

The first and possibly most prominent difference between Asian and Western cultures has to do with communication, both basic and complex.

I asked a former HR specialist from Google about the challenges she had while working with Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore.

She said, “In terms of HR, there needs to be a completely anonymous feedback tool, so ground-level staff can bring up any concerns. Management never gives HR the full story.

“Small focus groups of under five people work, as long as no managers are involved; otherwise the conversation becomes one-sided. ‘I am the boss so I am right’.

“We call this kiasu. The corporate hierarchy means they don’t explain things because they feel they shouldn’t have to. Authority is not earned through actions here; it’s earned primarily through title and age.”

Upon searching for the definition of kiasu, we find a vernacular Chinese word 怕输 meaning ‘fear of losing’.

It means to take extreme measures to either achieve success or avoid risk; often both at the same time. We have a word for this in the Western workforce too: nightmare boss. Most of us would shudder to think of that being the norm.

We call this kiasu. The corporate hierarchy means they don’t explain things because they feel they shouldn’t have to. Authority is not earned through actions, but primarily through title and age.”

One of the main elements in an environment of inclusion is communication. An open and transparent environment fosters creativity, develops trust, and leads people to find better ways of doing things.

But if everyone but upper management feels they are best seen and not heard, such an environment will prove challenging in APAC environments.

Confronting employee expectations

The Hong Kong HR market has seen a distinct shift from a preference for HR generalists to more experienced functional specialists.

This trend was evident throughout 2013 as companies across all industries looked to develop targeted HR services, with many implementing a COE framework, aimed at increasing competitiveness and retention.

Steven Yeong, chief talent evangelist at Hoff Consulting in Singapore says, “In Asia, large turnover in mid-level executives is due to poor succession planning.

“In Western countries you see an uptrend of organisations investing in employee retention strategies, but here there is a real need to keep employees on the right track and give more opportunities for employee progression.”

In Asia, large turnover in mid-level executives is due to poor succession planning. There is a real need to keep employees on the right track and give more opportunities for employee progression.
– Steven Yeong, chief talent evangelist at Hoff Consulting

In a survey by Deloitte Singapore, respondents across HR functions in Asia helped create a report on confronting the employee expectations paradox.

83% said that retaining talent is a real challenge across the region, given the main hurdle of satisfying employee expectations.

Unfortunately, employee expectations are not of one type, but several. Expectations concerning career progression were cited to be a challenge by 91% of respondents; better rewards by 86%, and work life balance by 80%.

Solving the recruitment crisis

It appears, therefore, that organisations are expected to provide faster career progression and better rewards, whilst at the same time delivering better work-life balance.

Add this to the communication barriers and corporate hierarchy and you have a potential recruiting crisis.

I spoke to the former head of Asia recruiting for LivingSocial, who explained some of the avenues she took with local teams in Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand:

“Our first challenge was getting the company to view HR as an area of the business that could help them.

“We needed a strategy that would increase our HR team’s confidence and visibility while opening the lines of communication in a way that was consistent with management’s culture.

“We set up discussion groups, and spearheaded activities that would help people feel they worked for a fun and special company.

“In Bangkok, we had masseuse’s come in once a week and do Thai massage in the board room. In Malaysia, we did outings to the amusement parks and had the sales teams make unique corporate videos and tally their hits on YouTube.

“We actually stole most of this from Google – this idea that working for us was a lifestyle, not just a paycheck. You could say what you really thought here; everyone’s feedback counted.

“This helped us come across as a modern and cutting-edge company to potential candidates, which gave us an edge over traditional, more recognised companies (which had been more appealing to traditional candidates in the past).”

We actually stole most of this from Google – this idea that working for us was a lifestyle, not just a paycheck. This gave us an edge over traditional, more recognised companies.
– Former head of Asia recruiting for LivingSocial

Below are some examples of companies operating in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia who had a specific goal to grow the business, which HR implemented.

#1 – HSBC (Hong Kong)
Goal: To recruit talented and experienced bankers in a crowded labour market.
Reason: Company was planning to double number of HSBC branches in China.

How they did it: HSBC implemented a global talent management process to attract, motivate, and retain employees.

HR professionals first visited all Asian countries that HSBC does business in, to describe key principles and nomination guidelines for talent assessment to ensure employees’ buy-in to the recruiting practice.

Multiple sources of data, including interviews, panel interviews, and 360-feedback were then used to review capability ratings for all global talent nominees. A list of potential leaders and specialists was identified to fill positions for the next 3-7 years.

Results: Varied. Cultural and social influences played a key role in talent decisions.

The globally consistent talent nomination criteria and instructions were subject to local interpretations. Cross-cultural differences further impacted the consistency of the talent management process.

Besides, the panel members who reviewed nominations were not equally comfortable with challenging one another or voicing negative criticisms because of “losing face”.

Despite their efforts, trying to standardise HR’s internal recruiting process did not prove to carry a strong positive correlation to employee retention or increased sales figures.

Besides, the panel members who reviewed nominations were not equally comfortable with challenging one another or voicing negative criticisms because of “losing face”.

#2 – Unilever SE Asia

Goal: To create strong employer branding internally.
Reason: Working for an internationally recognised brand or company is important for Asian employees.
HR executive: Melissa Gee Kee, leadership and organisation development director for Southeast Asia and Australasia at Unilever.

How they did it: One way Unilever effectively tied employer branding with its graduate recruitment programme was with its TRESemmé line, which it launched in in Malaysia last year.

“They had a huge style bus they would drive to shopping centers to do consumers’ hair,” Gee Kee says. “We were able to take that to campuses and link the two things together, which is really exciting.”

“Internally, we have a global people survey we run every year; every second year it’s a lighter touch survey to really make sure the culture we have internally is matching up to what we’re saying externally,” Gee Kee says.

Philosophy: “We would look at our brand health from a corporate brand perspective as well as externally, and make sure those two things are marrying well together. If there is a gap, we’ll have to find out why that gap exists, and make sure we close that gap within the market.”

Unilever has a tool kit that spans four specific pillars: Great people, great place; sustainability; innovation; and business performance.

“As long as the countries use those four pillars, which are basically the employer value proposition, no matter where they are in the world, people will always be joining a place where they can come in, innovate, grow and have access to great leadership development.

“But what these candidates really want to understand may be slightly different, so we want to be able to communicate the messages they want to hear and the values in that location well. There is a consistency, but there’s also a very local route in the approach.”

TRESemmé had a huge style bus they would drive to shopping centers to do consumers’ hair. We were able to take that to campuses and link the two things together, which is really exciting.
– Melissa Gee Kee, leadership and OD director for Southeast Asia and Australasia, Unilever

Results: Anish Singh, HR director for leadership and organisation development for global markets at Unilever, says HR worked with the marketing team to build a repeatable model called the employer branding wheel.

“The wheel really tells you what you need to do to build the employer brand, and where the gaps are. We implemented the employer branding wheel in 2009 for our work with graduates, when we were the number one employer in nine countries. In 2013, we became number one in 29 countries.”

Case Study #3 – Singapore Airlines (SIA)

Goal: To maintain status as the Best Overall Airline in the World (won 24 times, in Business Traveler USA) through careful cabin crew selection process and top customer experience.

How they do it: HR strategy begins with recruitment, where SIA adopts a highly rigorous and strict selection process.

Cabin crew applicants are required to meet a multitude of criteria starting with an initial screening looking at age ranges, academic qualifications, and physical attributes.

After these baseline requirements, they undertake several rounds of interviews, uniform checks, a water confidence test, a psychometric test, and even attend a tea party.

The first round of interviews includes group interviews for an initial overall assessment and an English passage reading test to assess language competency.

The next round involves a one-on-one, in-depth interview to evaluate whether the applicant possesses SIA’s required core values and competencies, and then a psychometric test, and then a tea party.

Cabin crew applicants undertake several rounds of interviews, uniform checks, a water confidence test, a psychometric test, and even attend a tea party.

Continuous training and retraining has been vital to SIA in sustaining service excellence, through equipping staff with an open mindset to accept change and development and deliver SIA’s new services.

SIA Group has seven training schools for the seven core functional areas of cabin crew, flight operations, commercial training, information technology, security, airport services training and engineering. Its training programmes (about 70% of which are in-house) develop 9,000 people a year.

Often, training is aimed to support internal initiatives such as the Transforming Customer Service (TCS) programme involving staff in five key operational areas.

HR philosophy: Says Lam Seet Mui, senior manager for HR development, “To ensure that the TCS culture is promoted companywide, it is also embedded into all management training.

“The programme aims at building team spirit among our staff in key operational areas so that together we will make the whole journey as pleasant and seamless as possible for our passengers.

“One has to realise that it is not just the ticketing or reservations people and the cabin crew who come into contact with our passengers. The pilots, station managers, and station engineers have a role in customer service as well, because from time to time they do come into contact with passengers.”

She added, “But TCS is not just about people. In TCS, there is the 40-30-30 rule, which is a holistic approach to people, processes (or procedures) and products.

“SIA focuses 40% of the resources on training and invigorating our people, 30% on reviewing processes and procedures, and 30% on creating new product and service ideas.”

Results: From the 18,000 applications received annually, only some 600–900 new cabin crew are hired to cover turnover rates of 10%, including both voluntary and directed attrition, and company growth.

After the initial training, new crew are carefully monitored for the first six months of flying through monthly reports from the inflight supervisor during this probationary period.

Usually, around 75% are confirmed for an initial five-year contract, some 20% have their probation extended, and the rest leave the company.

This meticulous selection process ensures with reasonable certainty that SIA hires applicants with the desired attributes with a selection rate of 3–4% of its applicant pool.

We have a long road ahead in our study of effective HR practices in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia, which will only grow through our own commitment to sharing best practices with our local and regional counterparts.

Human resource leaders can expect a variety challenges when asked to assist with business expansion, retention, and recruiting efforts in the global marketplace.

When working in Southeast Asia certain sensitivities will be required to effectively navigate and manage mixed local/expat environments.

For communication, employee feedback, and HR implementation, managers will be required to ask themselves whether adopting single policies for all countries versus taking cultural specifics into account on a country-by-country basis will get them closer to their goals.

Encouraging employee engagement through team-building activities and small-group discussions definitely seems to improve communication transparency and strengthen the overall employer-employee relationship, regardless of country.

We have a long road ahead in our study of effective HR practices in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia, which will only grow through our own commitment to sharing best practices with our local and regional counterparts, as well as listening to people who were on the ground first.

The more pro-active we are in finding out what our employees need and how they are most comfortable to communicate, the more we will strengthen our company foundations in the era of global business.

One of the world’s leading leadership development specialists, Louis Carter is the President & CEO of the Best Practice Institute, a think tank and research institute devoted to leadership development and excellence. He is also a headline speaker at Talent Management Asia 2015.

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Talent Management Asia is Asia’s biggest conference on talent management and human capital strategy, attracting a large audience of senior HR generalists and specialists as well as other C-level executives involved in their companies’ HR strategies.

To increase your knowledge and skills across the talent management spectrum, don’t miss Talent Management Asia in April. Review the topics & agenda, check out the stellar speaker list and reserve your seat before it’s sold out.

For more information please contact Carlo Reston on +65 6423 0329 or carlor@humanresourcesonline.net.

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