Some 10 years ago, good employees in Hong Kong were in a position to call the shots. The spectre of unemployment was unknown, and talented professionals, enjoying a high market value, could virtually pick and choose between attractive job offers. They were in demand, well paid and had great mobility. That, though, was a golden era and a new set of standards and conditions now apply.
Hit first of all by the Asian economic downturn, the job market swung in favour of the employer. Fewer top vacancies were available and average salaries held steady or fell. Now, though, there are signs that things may be starting to change once more.
A manpower survey on turnover and vacancy rates conducted in April 2004 by the Hong Kong Institute of Human Resource Management (HKIHRM) found that the turnover rate in the first quarter was 2.1 per cent compared with 1.7 per cent for the same period in 2003. Similarly, the comparative vacancy rate had crept up from last year's 1.4 per cent to 1.5 per cent in early 2004.
"People have become more active about changing jobs and looking for a move to develop their careers," says David Li, co-chairman of the HKIHRM's employee relations committee. "They do not necessarily expect to receive a high salary but, at least, to make up for what they lost out on during the salary freeze of the last few years." Mr Li points out that the local economy has not yet fully recovered. He notes that many employees still have to work extra hard just to retain their jobs and that the majority of companies remain generally cautious about hiring. However, with thousands of mainland tourists flocking to Hong Kong under the "individual visit" scheme, there is greater demand for staff, especially in the retail, service and hospitality industries. "One positive aspect is that competition for jobs has helped to improve service standards in these sectors," Mr Li says.
At the same time, as businesses in China continues to expand, there is a need for more professional accountants and insurance agents from Hong Kong who can lend their expertise to enterprises in the mainland. Top talent in this field, and others, is being sought through open recruitment, referrals or by means of internal company transfers. Market feedback indicates that employers are once again turning to headhunters for assistance in filling more senior positions.
In this new environment, Mr Li observes that the latest strategies used by HR executives to recruit the best talent rely not simply on offering a better salary. They guarantee, instead, a high degree of job security and emphasise empowerment, allowing the candidate to play a vital role in decision-making and the future development of the company. Potential employees are also being attracted by the prospect of constant challenges, the chance to be involved in ground-breaking projects and the opportunity to receive regular training to keep their technical skills up to date.
Mr Li believes that companies must make an effort to give senior executives wider job exposure and greater accountability. It is up to HR professionals, he says, to ensure that duties given to individuals meet their expectations and utilise their abilities to the full. Doing so will have a direct impact on staff retention in future years.
"Showing care for common concerns is equally important," he stresses. "Employees must be encouraged to strike a better balance between work and rest in order to relieve pressure. HR executives should, therefore, consider granting longer annual leave and allowing a five-day work week."
Recognition and rewards need not always be measured in monetary terms. Other ways can be found. For example, the company can nominate outstanding staff for professional awards and share the kudos they bring. Alternatively, schemes covering medical check-ups, hospitalisation and insurance can be reviewed and extended, often at little extra cost to the company. "The 13th month payment may have been stopped in many cases, but a bonus pegged to the company's performance can be an equally good incentive," Mr Li suggests.
He points out that, when the economy was buoyant, many organisations were prepared to invest heavily in training. They hired full-time training staff, appointed in-house mentors and groomed executives with the potential to become future leaders. By their very nature, such programmes are geared toward the long term and quick returns should not be expected. Mr Li, therefore, advises companies to think twice about scaling back their training budgets even in difficult times.
"Survey findings have shown that good leadership is the key to business success," he says. "In planning for leadership, it is important to identify and develop staff with the potential to be managers. On-the-job training is fine, but you need to give them something extra to test their abilities and give them new ideas." This is especially true for companies dedicated to a policy of promotion from within rather than recruiting from outside.
All in all, what it means is that HR executives must be ready to move with the times. "There are new challenges and we must be ready to deal with them," concludes Mr Li.
More than money
- The economic downturn has taught job seekers and employees to shift priorities
- For senior staff monetary rewards may not be the major
- Responsibility, recognition and alternative rewards are
all important factors
- To cut investment in the training of future leaders is
a false economy