Extraneous prejudices bad for business

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 September, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 September, 1995, 12:00am

LOCALISATION is not a new subject in Hong Kong, but is seen by many as taking on a new form which goes beyond what it was originally designed to achieve. It is worth looking at where it is going and asking if it is becoming a means to an end which no one any longer understands, or worse still, an insidious form of racial prejudice? A decision was made several years ago to pursue a localisation policy, which would benefit local Chinese. This initiative is written down in the Civil Service's recruitment policy and was taken to fill a perceived gap as Britain withdrew from its role as administrator. It was also in line with politically correct thinking on equal opportunities. The policy filtered down into commerce and education, and rightly strengthened the local Chinese position in Hong Kong. Britain may be a shrinking colonial power, and many people with good reason welcome this, however, few if any colonial powers have introduced localisation in good faith and made it work. Most countries have cut and run from their colonies, or just faded away leaving chaos.

There are two issues raised by localisation. One is the perfectly laudable aim to get more Chinese into positions of responsibility and therefore control. The second is to debar overseas or non-Chinese from these positions. It is extremely important which angle you approach the problem from. Responsible recruitment managers will look for Chinese staff who can effectively fill a position. Conversely those whose aim it is to debar non-Chinese, are in danger of adversely affecting their recruitment, as such attitudes divert attention away from the quality of a candidate.

A less tangible but more insidious form of discrimination is being increasingly identified by non-Chinese working in organisations. They claim that they do not receive the same amount of information as their Chinese counterparts, and are largely kept in the dark about where the organisation is going and what the future plans are. Information is power. Managers should know that having staff in their organisation who do not know what is going on, flies in the face of all modern thinking on communications and weakens the organisation.

There is a big question mark against how wisely localisation is being managed in terms of organisational effectiveness. When I first came to Hong Kong several things struck me about the level of English.

The first was the amount of English spoken at street level. The second was the high quality of English spoken by a large number of Chinese in commerce and in the public sector. Although English as the business language of the world is rewarding to learn, this standard was quite surprising.

Whilst spoken English in Hong Kong is of a very high standard, written English often leaves a lot to be desired. Bilingual signs and notices often contain some highly creative English and are of no great consequence. Much more serious are the gaffes which appear in the communication of some quite substantial companies. Managers who deal with customers should be aware of the importance that first impressions make, particularly in instilling confidence. Yet companies turn out pamphlets touting for business which contain nonsensical grammar. That first shot to a potential customer is often the only contact that an organisation has.

Many organisations are now advertising for 'Cantonese speakers with excellent written English and preferably Mandarin'. Whilst there are undoubtedly thousands of Cantonese speakers who can write English better than the average native English speaker, and who even speak Mandarin, there are nowhere near enough to go round, especially when there is a requirement to have a professional qualification as well. These organisations will have to make up their minds what they actually want, and if a high standard of written English is a requirement they will have to think about employing native English speakers.

There is an expression in the business world which applies to Hong Kong as much as anywhere, that is 'market forces'. It refers to the fact that effective organisations, if left free from artificial constraints, will rise to the top. It means making decisions based on sound financial and qualitative evaluations, not on extraneous prejudices based on attitudes, feelings and beliefs. This applies as much to recruitment as it does to the purchase of goods and the signing of contracts. For employers who are not convinced by any of these arguments, then think of this. If your competitors employ a more effective workforce than you do, where does that leave you? Whilst it is often dangerous to look back or dwell on the past, it is also dangerous to dismiss historical facts which have had a bearing on present circumstances. One of the great strengths of Hong Kong's business sector has been its multinational and multilingual workforce. Such workforces are developing in many parts of the Pacific Rim and worldwide, not to mention China. Whichever area gets its communications skills right, could very well be the area to come out on top.