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Banks in Hong Kong are way too obsessed with Mandarin language skills

Are banks in Hong Kong getting much too obsessed with Mandarin?

Brush up

Banks in Hong Kong have been recruiting Mandarin speakers for at least five years and the range of roles requesting them continues to expand.

But although most vacancies listing Mandarin as a must-have do legitimately require the language, recruiters say mandatory Mandarin is now creeping into some Hong Kong job descriptions where it shouldn’t be an essential skill.

“Too many front-office roles that don’t involve liaising with any clients in mainland China are still advertised with Mandarin, yet English is still the dominant language for financial markets in Hong Kong,” says Michael Cunningham, a partner at search firm Anton Murray Consulting. Another recruiter, who asked not to be named, cited an example of a recent algorithmic trading job description which had an “unwarranted” mandate for Mandarin.

By mentioning Mandarin in technically-focused jobs like algo trading, banks may be missing out on applications from foreign-based candidates, existing expats and Hongkongers who aren’t fluent in the language. “If banks are being too fixated on language requirements, they might turn down non-Mandarin speaking candidates who could be a better fit for the role – compromising other skills that are more important than Mandarin,” says John Mullally, director of financial services at recruiters Robert Walters in Hong Kong.

In the middle and back office, Mandarin is a justifiable prerequisite for many jobs, especially those in greater China audit, compliance and risk that liaise with mainland financial regulators, says Nick Lambe, group managing director at recruitment agency Links International in Hong Kong. But recruiters also say that Mandarin is starting to appear on a few operations and governance job descriptions which have no obvious connection to China.

When headhunters believe banks’ language requirements for a particular job are too strict, they are having to push hard to get non-Mandarin speakers considered. “Undoubtedly roles are advertised specifying language skills where they’re not actually necessary,” says ex-Jefferies trader Warwick Pearmund, now a senior consultant at search firm at Bo Le Associates in Hong Kong. “I’ve seen numerous recent examples of this – and it takes a good headhunter, or a switched-on internal recruiter, to get around this.”

“I had a client looking for a head of their HK office and I had a native English speaker up for the role. But they insisted on a Chinese speaker because – at some undefined point in the future – they wanted to expand into the PRC,” adds Pearmund. “I pointed out that if that happened, they would need someone else on the ground in Shanghai rather than in HK, but they ignored me and hired a Chinese speaker with considerably less experience than my candidate. That person lasted four months.”

A belief that Mandarin, if not required in the role right away, will be needed in future, is also behind the drive to hire Mandarin speakers at a junior level to help with banks’ succession planning, says Adam Jeffes, associate director of financial services at recruiters Morgan McKinley in Hong Kong.

“Even if candidates are being hired into junior positions that initially don’t have any Chinese client interaction, longer term their jobs could become client focused and then language skills will become an advantage to the bank when doing business in mainland China,” says Cunningham from Anton Murray Consulting.

Image credit: Anil Bolukbas, iStock, Thinkstock

Comments (1)

  1. I can read and write Mandarin in both simplified and traditional, but no one approach me… why?

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