Email this article Government Homepage
PSL Speech on Family-friendly Practices (English only)

    Following is the speech by the Permanent Secretary for Economic Development and Labour (Labour), Mr Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, today (November 22) at the 2006 Hong Kong Institute of Human Resource Management Annual Conference ¡§Building a Happy, Productive and Talented Workforce¡¨ hosted by the Hong Kong Institute of Human Resource Management.

Mr Lai, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

     I am deeply honoured to be invited to deliver the opening address on this very important occasion.

     The Hong Kong Institute of Human Resource Management (HKIHRM) Annual Conference has established itself as a prestigious annual fixture in the local calendar of major events. It brings together many heavyweights, leading lights, well known preachers and seasoned practitioners from the human resource management field, both from within and without Hong Kong. The conference has also become an international intellectual banquet: it provides a valuable opportunity for the sharing, cross-fertilisation and showcasing of professional experience, expertise, excellence and best practices.

     The HKIHRM is a highly valued and strategic partner of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government and, in particular, the Labour Department. For a long time, we have been working hand in glove in promoting good people management practices in Hong Kong.  In May this year, we jointly organised a seminar on labour relations which brought together over 300 HR professionals as well as business executives for a fruitful exchange.  Both the President, Mr K T Lai and Mr Eddie Ng, President of its International Committee, spoke at our tripartite seminar on good labour relations a fortnight ago. HKIHRM is also instrumental in illuminating the way for employers and employees alike on pay movements in the private sector. Its regular pay trend surveys provide an instructive and impartial source of reference for many in the audience today.  We owe the HKIHRM a huge debt of gratitude.

     I would like to start by giving a broad-brush picture of the current labour relations and employment scene. I think that you would agree that the management of human resources operates within the wider environment of the labour market. Such an overview should lend a useful backdrop to the well-chosen theme of ¡§Building a Happy, Productive and Talented Workforce¡¨ for this conference.  

     On the labour relations front, Hong Kong has all along been blessed with harmonious labour relations.  Industrial peace has underpinned our economic and social stability.  In the last four years, our average man-day lost to work stoppage was only 0.05 day per 1,000 employees, the lowest in the world. In the first 10 months of 2006, we handled 21,244 labour disputes and claims, down 2.5% on the corresponding period last year. The successful rate of conciliation reached 70.7%, an all-time high since 1994.

     As for employment, the labour market has recently been rather buoyant in tandem with the revival of the local economy. The number of private sector vacancies captured by the Labour Department for the first 10 months of this year exceeded 410,000, up 15% on the same period in 2005. What is more: we are most encouraged to see the jobless rate subsiding steadily from an all-time high of 8.6% in the summer of 2003 to the present 4.5%, the lowest since the second quarter of 2001. Total employment hit a record high of over 3.5 million. Despite these upbeat figures, I must hasten to make the caveat that in face of our economic restructuring and mismatch of human resources, tackling unemployment in specific sectors still remains our long-term challenge. There is simply no cause for complacence.

     Inevitably, the invigorated labour market has brought with it higher staff mobility and turnover.  More and more employers are finding it increasingly difficult to attract talent and retain the right people. Meanwhile, according to the findings of a survey conducted by the City University of Hong Kong and released last week, Hong Kong people¡¦s average happiness index has dropped slightly from last year¡¦s 7.32 marks to 7.25 marks. This is partly because the respondents were unhappy with their work pressure and long working hours. For this reason, the theme of this conference is particularly timely and pertinent.

     No doubt, happy employees are more ready to contribute their talents and increase their productivity.  A happy, productive and talented workforce can surely help create a competitive edge for an establishment.  Some employers may see offering higher salaries as a cure-all solution to attract talents and keep employees happy and motivated. Whilst monetary rewards are important, it must be remembered that employees will also want to feel valued, respected, and genuinely cared for by their employers. If the workplace provides a happy environment and becomes a place where employees always like to visit or linger (or even refuse to leave after work!) the organisation concerned is definitiely on the right track to success. For the workplace has clearly become a ¡§pleasure vessel¡¨ (with employees reluctant to get off) rather than a ¡§pressure vessel¡¨ (which all and sundry will shun without hesitation)!

     Against this background, I think that the term ¡§HR¡¨ not only denotes  ¡§human resource¡¨ but also ¡§happy relations¡¨. One of the roles of a HR manager is to bring harmonious relations into the workplace.  In line with the theme of this conference, we also have to make employees productive and talented. Admittedly, this is a tall order and is easier said than done, particularly given the harsh realities of cut-throat competition, rising cost of doing business and the challenges arising from globalisation. However, these goals are not beyond our reach and I would venture to offer a recipe of success made up of three key ingredients.

     The first ingredient is DIALOGUE. We need to talk and understand each other in order to develop happy relations. Whatever the size or type of organisation, people need to exchange views and ideas as well as discuss problems. I should stress that the process must be two-way and not just top-down. In particular, employees should have sufficient opportunities to make their views known to management on issues that affect them. Provision of information on operational matters and employment rights alone is not enough. Organisations that are successful in people management will ensure that systematic communication and consultation take place on a much wider range of subjects.

     There are obvious benefits that a regular dialogue between the management and the employees can offer in enhancing staff motivation and empowerment. Employees will perform better if they are given regular, up-to-date information about their jobs such as targets, deadlines and feedback. Their commitment is also likely to be enhanced if they know what the organisation is trying to achieve and how their job can fit into the organisation as a whole. Their job satisfaction will increase if they are actively encouraged to express their views, knowing that they, as individuals, are also part of the decision-making process. Mutual trust will follow as a natural by-product.  

     Frank and open dialogues enable the management to understand the needs of their employees, not just what they need at work but also what they need for family life and personal development. It brings out the second important ingredient for happy employee relations, that is, CARE.

     As we all know, employees have different family roles to play. They may be sons or daughters, husbands or wives, or parents of their children. They need to take care of different family responsibilities, such as getting married, giving birth, raising children, taking care of the elderly or other chronically ill or disabled family members. Only if they can find a way to balance their work requirements and family needs will they be able to contribute to their work whole-heartedly. A caring and considerate employer can adopt appropriate family-friendly employment practices to help employees fulfil their work and family commitments simultaneously.

     There are obvious advantages in implementing family-friendly employment practices.  Employees¡¦ stress caused by conflicts between work and family responsibilities can be reduced.  As a result, the employees¡¦ physical and psychological health is improved, thereby reducing absenteeism and enhancing productivity. In addition, a supportive and positive working environment where each employee feels valued and needed is created. There are also other positive effects, such as higher morale, team spirit and better staff relations. Knowing that the employer has genuine concern for their well-being, employees will be happier, more committed to their job and more loyal. As a result, staff turnover will naturally drop.

     To understand the prevalence and pattern of family friendly employment practices adopted in Hong Kong, the Labour Department recently conducted a questionnaire survey with 326 member organisations of our Human Resources Managers¡¦ Clubs.  While we should interpret the findings with caution as they may not reflect the full picture of the overall labour market, they do, however, provide a useful source of reference for what they are worth.    

     Let me highlight some of the interesting findings. Currently, the most common family-friendly employment practices adopted in Hong Kong is the provision of extra leaves on special occasions.  Altogether 71% of the companies surveyed offered compassionate leave on death of family members, 69% offered marriage leave while 15.6% offered paternity leave. The common duration of these leaves ranges from 3 to 5 days. And the majority of these companies offer holiday pay for the leave.

     Some companies also introduced flexible working arrangements to enable employees handle their family duties more easily. Among the survey respondents, 37% implemented a 5-day week, 17% set ceiling on working hours and 10% adopted staggered working hours. Yet, work arrangements like home office or job-sharing have yet to take root as they were only found among 1 to 2 percent of the respondents.

     Some companies adopted other innovative practices to cater for the well-being of their employees. About 23% of the respondents organised open day, family day or sports days for the family members of the employees; 21% percent offered stress and emotion management counselling or workshops while   11% provided parental and family recreational activities. We also identify several cases in which employers provide unique services to their employees with small children, such as provision of child-care services, nursing rooms and family resource centres.

     The findings suggest that there is considerable room for promoting the concept of family-friendly employment practices in Hong Kong. It is noteworthy that of the companies surveyed, 43% indicated that they have never heard of the concept. (I believe that many of them have been adopting such practices without knowing the meaning of the newly coined buzzword ¡§family-friendly¡¨.) We also observe a positive correlation between the employment size of a company and the number of family-friendly employment practices adopted. This is understandable as larger companies should have more resources and flexibility.  However, I must stress that introducing family-friendly practices is not the monopoly of big enterprises. More importantly, it does not always cost much to be family-friendly.  Even acts of small kindness can deeply touch the hearts of employees. Sometimes, what we need is just a little thoughtfulness, compassion and creativity. Even if additional expenses are needed for implementing these practices, the benefits will far outweigh the costs. And it should be well worth the candle to do so. In fact, this lays the groundwork that builds employee motivation, morale and loyalty. Herein also lies the key to creating employers of choice and also a work environment that attracts, keeps and motivates the workforce. This explains why some employees would rather work for a good and caring employer than hop to another job with better pay.

     I feel rather encouraged that most of the organisations participating in the survey were receptive to the implementation of family-friendly employment practices and to achieving a better work-life balance.  About 32% of them clearly stated that they would consider adopting more such practices in future.   The Labour Department is committed to promoting family-friendly employment practices in the community and will launch various projects and activities in this area.  Allow me to take this opportunity to publicise a large-scale Seminar to be organised by the Labour Department on this theme in June 2007. Please join us if you are interested and have the time.

     On this note, let me say that the HKSAR Government has taken the bold step of implementing a 5-day week since 1 July this year. Some 59,000 civil servants have benefited under the first phase of the initiative so far and another 8,400 civil servants will migrate to the 5-day week in phase two starting January 1, 2007. A recently completed review has shown that the quality of government service has been maintained and the public has generally accepted the new arrangements. Staff feedback has been positive: with stress reduction, better work-life balance, more time for self-development, voluntary and community work and, above all, more harmonious family life.

     I would like to turn to the third and final ingredient. This is STAFF DEVELOPMENT. It helps to build up a talented and productive workforce at the workplace. A company¡¦s overall success hinges on the ideas and efforts of its people. In fact, ¡§people-oriented¡¨ is the new catch-phrase in human resource management and governance these days. It pays good dividends to help employees grow and develop.  I believe that to stay positive in face of a rapidly changing world, a person must keep on learning and unlearning. This means acquiring new knowledge and skills on the one hand, and doing away with old habits and outdated information on the other. Where employees are confident learners, their ability to deal with and lead change is also enhanced.

     It always pays to provide new employees with structured orientation so as to help them adjust to their new environment. Some companies set up ¡§Mentorship Scheme¡¨ under which experienced employees are assigned to help newcomers overcome problems in a new environment.

     As for existing employees, the management can provide various incentives to encourage continuing education, for example, by giving the employees study leave and allowances.  In this respect, I would like to say that the government is vigorously promoting a culture of continuous and active learning by putting in place programmes like the Continuing Education Fund.

     Employees should not be developed just for the sake of fulfilling their present duties. As an establishment¡¦s best source of future leaders is from within its organisation, the management will need to consider the organisation¡¦s development needs and prepare their employees for their future career paths.  It is important to analyse the knowledge and skills required by the organisation currently and in future, and plan accordingly to help employees acquire them. Moreover, if the employees can have a clearer picture of their career prospects, they will be happier and better motivated to give their best.

     Apart from providing appropriate training and development, it is also desirable if the management is seen to be employing open and fair processes in assessing and rewarding good performance. Those who perform well deserve recognition, financial or otherwise. On the other hand, employees whose performance is not up to standard require timely feedback and assistance such as training, coaching and counselling. I would also suggest that sufficient opportunities should be provided to those under-performers to improve themselves before any disciplinary action is imposed.

     I have set out three ingredients, namely, dialogue, care and development. Together, they constitute a recipe for an all-win situation and are conducive to building a happy, productive and talented workforce.  With your professional knowledge and experience, you can build up a long list.  Let us all join hands to make sure that people-oriented management practices are adopted and that there are always happy and harmonious relations in our workplaces.

     I would like to conclude by congratulating the HKIHRM very warmly once again on staging this 26th annual conference.  I wish you all a very happy and productive two days.  I am sure that all of you will come away far more talented than before.

Ends/Wednesday, November 22, 2006
Issued at HKT 15:14