Jennifer Van Dale, Asia Pacific head of employment at Eversheds, on workplace trust, flexibility, and her dislike of HR euphemisms.Q. Where did your passion for employment law originate?
I have lived in Hong Kong for 25 years and earned my LLB and PCLL at the University of Hong Kong. I have specialised in employment law for most of my career. I was drawn to it at first because I liked my boss and thought that she provided great training, and second because I like the human element – which is often missing in law.
I am asked to help with unusual problems every day, which keeps me on my toes and so it is very satisfying when a client tells me that I have genuinely resolved a problem.
Q. Your extensive experience makes you an expert on Hong Kong employment. What is the biggest change you have witnessed here over the past 15 years?
Employers seem to trust their employees more now. Ten years ago employers would refuse to allow employees to work remotely because they had no way of telling whether the employee was “really working”. These days, more employers trust their staff to get their work done in the best way possible.
We are more focused on output and less on presenteeism. This may be due to the shift to a knowledge-based economy, but I also think it demonstrates that owners and managers of businesses are adopting a more measured and mature approach.
Hong Kong employment law can be paternalistic so I would love to see more flexibility, while maintaining protection for employees, in particular those on lower incomes. For example, under current legislation employers can unilaterally require employees to take holidays following minimal consultation: I am sure this would come as a surprise to many office workers.
I’d also like to see the law catch up with the gig economy and the agile workforce, i.e. the increasingly common practice of using freelance service providers. Some countries have a classification between “employee” and “independent contractor” that provides for basic rights and responsibilities. A court in the UK recently held that Uber drivers fell into this category, but the law in Hong Kong is very black and white and cannot always accommodate the parties’ intentions.
Hong Kong should introduce greater flexibility to ensure employers do not risk prosecution when they do something that deviates slightly from legislation that was drafted for a different economy in a very different era.
Q. Is there a phrase/mentality that you believe HR professionals should do away with?
I will preface this by saying that I get annoyed easily! I do not like terms such as "talent", "human capital", "team members", "partners" (unless it’s a partnership) or any of the other euphemisms that we use for "people". Do not use labels to achieve a goal that should be achieved through real work. In other words, people will not feel part of a team just because you call them a "team member". Show them!
Finally, I dislike the "不做不錯" mentality that I unfortunately encounter all too frequently. A rough translation is, "If I don’t do anything, I won’t get it wrong", and it indicates a mindset that is focused on avoiding blame rather than achieving goals and making improvements.
Hong Kong is full of smart, creative people who are practical and solution-driven. It is frustrating to see that enthusiasm greeted with "Sorry, but we’ve always done it this way" or "Sorry, that doesn’t fit with our policy".
To be fair, this is not specific to HR, or to Hong Kong, but I would love to see HR professionals pushing their business leaders to adopt a more flexible mindset. HR can really be a leader in this area and make a significant and positive change.
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