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Banks in Hong Kong admit they face a clear and present danger: staff attrition to the corporate sector

Tired banker

It seems slightly counter intuitive, given that a lack of vacancies is forcing some workers to stay in their roles without any encouragement from their employers, but banks in Asia are facing a serious retention threat. An increasing number of people are leaving financial services this year for roles in other sectors, according to the 17 senior HR professionals from leading international banks who attended the recent eFinancialCareers roundtable in Hong Kong.

In an era of lower bonuses and leaner teams, some employees are asking whether working in banking is still worth the effort, especially when many corporate-sector employers seem more stable and less vulnerable to retrenchments. “I have to say that attrition has been high this year; there’s a percentage of people who have left the industry. Even HR teams have lost staff to the corporate sector,” said one of the roundtable delegates, all of whom asked not to be named in this report. 

Another attendee added: “Why work 17-hour days and take nightly calls from the US and UK when you don’t get the same bonus levels as you used to? People are looking at their hours, which seem to be going up and up each year, unlike their compensation.”

One panelist attributed the growing discontent mainly to the “shorter than ever” economic cycles that are plaguing the banking industry, with the 2008/2009 GFC-induced slump in hiring followed closely by the current downturn that began in Q3 2011. “By contrast, other industries are showing less volatility in recruitment and not as many lay-offs.”

Roundtable delegates identified audit and treasury as two of the professions that are most easily transferable into corporate jobs.

The retention dimension

Given this current turnover threat – not to mention firms being loath to spend money on replacing staff in a cost-conscious climate and the fear that pent up demand may trigger moving when the market picks up – it is no wonder that attendees identified retention as a priority for both line managers and HR.

The way in which employers handle the aftermath of lay-offs is essential to whether their remaining staff stay loyal, said a representative from a major European bank. Line managers at his firm have to meet employees and clearly explain the business case behind their colleagues’ redundancies. Having plans to redeploy, or at least offer career advice to, retrenched staff also helps to improve morale among the survivors.

Improving work-life balance can sometimes help to decrease attrition. Flexible working in the finance sector – while historically poor and still inappropriate for some jobs such as trading – is growing in importance as bonuses become a less potent retention tool. Yet HR professionals admit there are challenges implementing such policies in Asia, which does not have the same culture of part-time work as the West. In the words of one roundtable panellist: “People here are sometime reluctant to ask for more flexibility because their colleagues won’t see that they’re hard at work in the office.”

Although work-life balance initiatives are often company wide, some organisations are taking a more individual approach by allowing managers to authorise reasonable requests from staff without having to receive HR approval. Flexible working can also be targeted at particular groups, such as women returning from maternity leave. And importantly, employers should provide proper technical support to those who work from home, and establish ground rules to ensure they are not always tied to their mobile devices late at night. “Flexi working may not be as developed as in the West, but attitudes are shifting; we are seeing the signs this year,” said an optimistic roundtable delegate.

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