How HR leaders manageÂ during a time of uncertainty.
By Michael Switow
Petrol bombs, flight cancellations, road blockades, trainÂ suspensions, tear gas, and water cannons. Millions ofÂ Hong Kong residents have taken to the streets to protestÂ peacefully, but violent images from the cityâs âseason ofÂ discontentâ have unnerved the public and shaken businessÂ confidence.
The protests have presented HR leaders with newÂ challenges. Top of the list is ensuring the safety and mentalÂ well-being of employees, though the economic impact ofÂ social discontent also weighs heavily on companies.
Business largely goes on as normal, but as one HR industryÂ veteran who requested anonymity puts it, âItâs totallyÂ impossible to have our minds cleared from the chaosÂ happening every day.â
âLook, nobody knows what the future holds,â addsÂ Michelle Loong, the head of talent acquisition andÂ development at luxury goods retailer Richemont, which hasÂ 2,000 employees in Hong Kong. âWe prepare for the worstÂ and hope for the best.â
Richemont has created a special hotline for safety andÂ security issues to support its employees in this chaoticÂ time. It regularly reminds staff that third-party counsellorsÂ are available to provide emotional and mental support.Â Counselling can be done anonymously or face-to-face,Â via WhatsApp, over the phone, or even via a customisedÂ app. Senior management is also making more visits to theÂ companyâs boutiques to encourage and reassure retailÂ staff.
At times, though, the upheaval associated with theÂ protests strikes particularly close to home. One SundayÂ night following hand-to-hand combat between policeÂ and activists, there was âa lot of very vivid imagery onÂ social media that almost everybody saw,â recounts CharlesÂ Caldwell, the head of human resources at the EnglishÂ Schools Foundation (ESF), which runs 22 schools in HongÂ Kong and employs as many as 4,500 people.
The fighting was inside the train station immediatelyÂ next to ESFâs office, and when staff came to work theÂ next morning, the entrance to the station was still closed.Â Caldwellâs team immediately called for an employeeÂ briefing and arranged for a counsellor from the companyâsÂ externally-run employee assistance programme to chatÂ with staff, providing them with skills to cope with theÂ current situation.
âWeâre trying to focus on business as usual, but at the sameÂ time we need to be mindful that employees and studentsÂ may be experiencing stress,â Caldwell says. âUntil we knowÂ what that ultimate outcome will be, itâs like a constantÂ âchipping awayâ. Over time, this can be a lot for employeesÂ to take on. Iâm constantly monitoringâwhatâs the tippingÂ point where it just becomes a little bit too much andÂ starts impacting people from an employee engagementÂ perspective?â
Several weeks after the start of the protests but priorÂ to the start of the school year, Caldwell activated ESFâsÂ crisis management team. It meets twice a day to monitorÂ and discuss any disruptions that might affect the safetyÂ of the staff and students, both at work and in transit.Â Contingency plans have also been put into place inÂ the event that staff cannot make it to work due to aÂ disturbance near their home.
ESF and Richemont also promote flexible and remoteÂ working hours subject to the permission of an employeeâsÂ line manager. But sometimes, getting people to takeÂ advantage of this flexibility is a challenge.
âItâs very easy for someone to want to be a good,Â hardworking employee and sludge their way into work,Â but sometimes they need to be reminded not to putÂ themselves at risk,â Caldwell says.
Not every company is so understanding. Some, facedÂ with absenteeism, particularly by younger workers, haveÂ instituted new guidelines about reporting to work. OneÂ accounting firm, for example, requires staff to file a briefÂ account of why they missed work on their first day back inÂ the office.
Another issue of which Hong Kong companies need to beÂ cognisant is the possibility of tension between employeesÂ who have different political views or backgrounds. ManyÂ companies report that their staff keep personal views outÂ of the office, but when politics does creep in, opinions canÂ become polarising.
A number of professionals from the mainland, meanwhile,Â are rethinking their relationship with Hong Kong. âIt isÂ obvious that Chinese colleagues from the mainland areÂ scared at the recent news of riots on the street and in theÂ MTR,â says one HR professional who requested anonymity.Â The South China Morning Post reports that someÂ mainlanders are considering returning to China, whilstÂ others contemplate sending their children back home forÂ schooling.
Impact on Hiring
For the first time since before Hong Kongâs return to ChinaÂ 22 years ago, Fitch Ratings downgraded the cityâs creditÂ rating in September. The move makes it more expensive forÂ the Hong Kong governmentâand companies tied to itâtoÂ borrow money. Itâs also a sign of the economic impact thatÂ the protests have had on the territory.
Recruitment is slowing and some companies report a sharpÂ decline in the number of resumes received. Many firmsÂ are also keeping expenses in check as sales drop or clientsÂ become more conservative. Hiring, salaries, and bonusesÂ are being affected as a result.
However, a slowdown for some is an opening for others.Â âWeâre taking this opportunity to invest in people and atÂ look at key strategic hires,â says Loong. âWhat weâre doingÂ is much more forward-thinking. Weâre doing a lot of talentÂ development plans internally to give people reassurance,Â whilst externally, we see a future talent pipeline. WeâreÂ trying to change the current environment into a positiveÂ one.â