The ST Jobs HR Summit 2014 (sponsored by the website www.stjobs.sg) was recently held at the Suntec City Convention Centre, attracting more than 70 exhibitors, over 4000 visitors, and a line-up of illustrious speakers from the human resources industry and beyond. Professionals from Singapore and around the region flocked to the summit to hear the wisdom of industry leaders like Coca Cola Singapore CEO Amit Oberoi, Managing Director of Google South East Asia Sales and Operations Julian Persuad, and Dato Dr Jannie Chan Tay, Co-Founder and Vice-Chairman of The Hour Glass, along with the invaluable insights of international authors like John Gray, best-selling author of “Men are from Mars, Women are From Venus” and co-author of “Work With Me: the 8 Blind Spots Between Men and Women In Business”.
In the digital age, the profitability of a company no longer depends on how many units it can manufacture, but rather on the quality of its employees and its ability to retain and grow human capital. We live in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous times, described in shorthand as “VUCA”, a term coined in the US military in the 90’s, anticipating how the collapse of the Soviet Union would shake the international scene up. Between the Crimean crisis and continued strife in the Middle East, not to mention occasional catastrophes like the Malaysian Airlines plane crash and the South Korean ferry sinking this year, these really are uncertain times. Businesses, at every level of their organization, need employees who are conscientious and adaptable, and need to know how to keep hold of talent once it is recruited by valuing and developing it further. And yet the majority of businesses continue to be more concerned with profit and power rather than ensuring the fairness and equality in their hiring practices that would help them in the long run.
As the West increasingly looks to Asia, and the potential it holds in its emerging markets and huge populations, the strength of each global brand’s position lies in the hands of the local branch managers and executives. South East Asia, in particular, has very low unemployment rates, and the younger generation is known to switch jobs for nominal pay increases, and have no qualms quitting after short periods of time or on account of wanting their job to give them either more personal time, or greater personal satisfaction. It is often assumed in this day and age in which unions are seeming increasingly powerless that all of the cards are in the hands of the employers – and yet this desire for more personal space from work demonstrates that employees are not necessarily as passive and compliant as employers sometimes think they are. “The number one reason people leave a job is a bad boss”, says author and speaker Brenda Bence. Importance is placed on the leaders, the immediate superiors, and the company culture, and how they value, treat, and promote their employees within the organization. A company that respects its employees and sees them as humans will ultimately be more successful than one which treats them like machines – in the long run, at least.
One of the biggest issues when it comes to employee care, and something that the summit addressed is the issue of gender equality in the workplace. Women are not being promoted fairly within organizations, and the gender-ratio balance in the higher levels of management is often extremely unequal. How can offices become safe, respectful environments where men and women are equal-opportunity peers? “Perceptions matter, careers are decided in seconds,” cross-cultural leadership expert Jane Horan says, describing an anecdote about a well-qualified female manager being passed over for promotion due to appearing quieter in a single break-out session – a situation that is all too common. John Gray gave a similar example: a male supervisor asks a female executive if she can take on an additional task, and she says “I don’t know if I can do it, I have a lot on my plate”. The meaning he takes from her comment is that she may not be so capable. However, if she had simply answered “I would have to re-organize my priorities to take on that task” her standing would not have diminished in her boss’ eyes. The levels of power in the workplace are clearly often stacked in favor of male workers and masculine values – such as working long hours, expressing yourself loudly and confidently, and competing with other employees – whether on purpose or simply because no-one has ever challenged these seemingly default settings.
“It’s important that we learn to hear each other,” Gray says. Not only would that make for more pleasant working environments, and greater productivity due to better communication, it has the potential to save companies from sexual discrimination and harassment lawsuits. It has also been found that greater gender equality in the boardroom makes companies more profitable. Beyond improving the bottom line, greater gender equality would also translate into a better work life for men, recognizing that they are entitled to a family life and/or personal pursuits of their choosing, just as women are allowed to advance towards a career. And yet very few countries are actively working towards this kind of boardroom equality – Sweden has passed laws that force companies to have equal representation of women on the board of directors, but many others simply say ‘this is a private issue, there is nothing we can do about it’.
That may well be the case, but it is vitally important that companies themselves start to challenge the power of the male-dominated hierarchies they have set up if government’s won’t do it for them. As we have seen, this is vital for their bottom line and their reputation, but it should also be seen as a simple matter of justice – there is no reason for us to continue the centuries-old practice of pretending that men are more capable for corporate jobs than women. I’m glad to see that the summit focused on this cause, and we can only hope that this message will now begin to filter upwards from the HR professionals who attended to the executives they work with. Much work remains to be done however, and employees must not be shy about advocating for their own rights to both fair hiring and promotion and access to a family life and personal space – if we can start to value these human assets above mere profit, we can start to build a more sensitive and less destructive capitalism.
Article prepared by Janice Liu