From 2017 to 2020, Olam Vietnam's employee engagement scores went from 54 to 89. In this interview, Naveen Chhabra, Olam International’s Regional Head of HR for Southeast Asia and China, credits this achievement to the firm's new integrated talent management approach. He likens standalone HR processes, to the links of a broken chain; whereas an integrated approach allows the different regions to grow individually and together.

As part of Olam International, Olam Vietnam’s clear line-of-sight contribution to the nation over the past two decades has been in sourcing, processing and exporting of coffee, cashews, black pepper and rice. However, its impact as a direct employer has been growing rapidly, providing opportunities across demographics and developing a strong local core.

Ever since Olam Vietnam moved to an integrated talent management approach in 2017, the firm raised its employee engagement score from 54 to 89. The company has also been recognised among the top employers in the country by multiple agencies in recent years.

Human Resources Online speaks to Naveen Chhabra, Olam International’s Regional Head of HR for Southeast Asia and China, to find out how the integrated talent management approach helps the firm recruit and retain the best and the brightest talent across all levels. Chhabra and his team support some 5,500 employees in Vietnam, and many more across Southeast Asia and China.

As Olam embarks now on its re-organisation to unlock further value, the goal is for the function to continue playing a central role to the firm's growth.


Q What do you think has made Olam Vietnam stand out as an employer?

Our aim at Olam is to empower employees to imagine extraordinary answers to the world’s everyday food supply challenges, fulfilling their own ambitions and positively influencing our global business and the world around us.

In Vietnam, we apply integrated talent management – where HR is a seamless continuum of key processes. Rather than standalone initiatives, we iterate and improve on these four focus areas:

  1. Talent management and development
  2. Performance management with the individual at the core
  3. Enhanced internal communications to strengthen the sense of belonging
  4. Enabling work environment

For example, when doing performance reviews, we collect granular, measurable data to personalise development plans for all our office-based employees. Even at the interview level, we conduct surveys that feed into a “candidate experience index”, to understand how we did and what potential hires want from an employer, even if it may not be us.

Another example – we made our maternity policies among the most attractive in Vietnam, such as providing additional rest each day during pregnancy and full maternity leave allowance even if the employee returns earlier. This is critical as 65% of our local workforce are women, which we are proud of.

Digital cuts through all our focus areas. Being in 23 locations country-wide, we leverage technology such as Workday, Success Factors-based Talent Acquisition and PMS, as well as schedule regular calendar events to keep connected internally.

That we are part of Olam International operating in more than 60 countries, means we can also draw from a deep toolkit to supplement what works best for our local context. For instance, more than 20 Olam Vietnam staff led a local edition of the Group’s Re-imagineers programme, brainstorming with 1,400 employees of all levels. This created an environment of openness and belonging while driving ideas for improving the business.

Interestingly, I think our approach has been a factor in getting on the radar of engineers or other graduates who might not have considered a career in our sector. We are making Olam Vietnam a place people want to go to and, once here, somewhere they want to stay.

Q Please share more about the business imperative behind this approach.

Engaged employees have a cascading impact – leading to higher levels of productivity. Vietnam is Olam’s biggest operation in Southeast Asia and China. If we had used standalone HR processes, we would be having something similar to links of a broken chain – not very effective. Whereas, an integrated approach allows us to all grow individually and together.

Q Did you face any challenges in implementation?

Throughout the implementation process, we faced two key challenges. One was the complexity of integrating the processes - we had to create a seamless feed of data from one to another. The second, and most important of all, was that taking take a data-driven approach to reviews takes significant time and commitment.

Q What would you say has been the main impact on your people?

The numbers tell much of the story. Our employee engagement scores went from 54 in 2017 to 89 in 2020. The cycle time for onboarding candidates is down from 45 days to 37 days. We are also proud that in 2019, 95% of our female employees returned after maternity leave. These numbers back us up and suggest our policies and practices are well-received.

Q What your key takeaways from building up your HR capability in Vietnam?

Firstly, the basic HR processes - like payroll and operations – must be efficient as these are the foundations to roll out more specific interventions.

Secondly, employees want to be updated frequently and involved in enabling their own improvement.

Finally, our processes must be scalable for growth. That has been crucial because, fortunately, we have been very successful in Vietnam.

As we continue on our re-organisation at the Group level to re-imagine Olam and unlock more value, we will draw from our learnings at Olam Vietnam, across the region, and internationally, to inform our evolving HR needs and help shape the ideal operating and organisational mindset, processes and structure we need.

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