The apathy that makes expats quit

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 July, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 July, 1996, 12:00am

'If I had been encouraged to stay - just a few words from my colleagues or my boss - I wouldn't have decided to go. But I don't feel that I am welcome,' said a senior expatriate official who will soon leave the Government.

Sadly, the departing official is not alone in having such feelings. Similar murmurs have come from others in both the police force and the administrative service. These officers feel unwanted and are going.

Under these circumstances it is not surprising that the number of expatriates choosing to leave the Government is bigger than some people would like to see.

Up to last week, about 37 per cent of the 540 members of Her Majesty's Overseas Civil Service (HMOCS) had opted to retire; 48 per cent have decided to stay, while another 15 per cent remained undecided.

Of the 199 retirees, about 60 have left since last summer and the remainder will go between now and 1997.

Serving under the crown, the HMOCS officers are seen as a privileged group in the civil service because they are entitled to cash compensation for the loss of sovereignty protection after 1997.

Under the compensation package, they will receive a lump sum in excess of $1 million, whether they are staying to serve beyond 1997 or retiring before the changeover.

This flexibility is meant to encourage more to stay, but the latest statistics suggest a disappointingly high rate of departure.

In absolute terms, the number of retirees is not alarmingly high, yet with the majority of the HMOCS officers in senior grades - in the police force, the judiciary and the administrative service - some officers argue that it's the loss of valuable experience that counts.

Adding to the problem are the resignations of senior local civil servants, as impending departures in the senior ranks of the Government Information Services (GIS) and elsewhere show.

And it is being suggested that the locals, too, have not been encouraged by their seniors to stay.

In particular, senior professional officers have shown a higher departure rate than their counterparts in the administrative service grade.

While it is true that China has repeatedly pledged that it values the contribution of Hong Kong civil servants and has urged them to stay, and that the present Hong Kong administration has assured its staff that the service is holding together, many officers, expatriates and locals alike, would have preferred a more personal touch from their superiors and colleagues to boost their morale.

Policy secretaries and a handful of other officers who enjoy a personal relationship with their bosses are an exception. Many further down the ladder have been ignored. It seems that senior management have taken it for granted they will leave.

Presently, apart from the expatriates in the police force and the administrative service, local senior professionals in departments such as Social Welfare, Education, and Information Services and experienced executive officers are said to be joining the exodus.

Many of these locals obviously are not leaving because of a lack of promotion opportunities. Their chances of reaching a senior rank have already been boosted by the departure of their expatriate colleagues.

Their main concern is more doubts over the future. Will their pension entitlement be safeguarded? Will the management culture of the civil service change dramatically under the new regime? True, a number of these departing officers have already reached their normal retirement age and have the right to go.

But under normal circumstances, many would wait until they turn 60 instead of leaving now when they are only 55 or have just reached 50.

Government insiders concede that there are people who had their plans laid well in advance. But for those who are still deciding whether to go or not, a personal gesture would make a difference.

They believe that with personal encouragement from their seniors, the civil service could have saved far more marginal cases and persuaded more to work for the Special Administrative Region (SAR) government.

It is all very well for the Chief Secretary, Anson Chan Fang On-sang, to urge her colleagues to stay, but many officers have taken that as an impersonal message. They don't know whether it means anything at all.

The police offer a good example of the problem. Based on HMOCS statistics, 45 per cent of expatriate police officers have decided to retire while another 14 per cent haven't made up their minds.

The Government's estimate is that about half the undecided officers will also opt to leave later this year.

'Some of them had said that if there had been just a friendly word indicating that they were welcome to stay, they would not have opted to go. Against the background of accelerated localisation, a lot of people do feel more vulnerable about their position,' said an insider.

'In the disciplined services, morale is definitely a special factor affecting people's decisions. The police, in particular, are a very morale-conscious body.' Their feelings are confirmed by unpleasant experiences of their colleagues.

An example cited by officials is the departure of a senior expatriate officer last year. Regarded by both local and expatriate officers as a hard-working, competent colleague whose promotion was overdue, the official, ranked at deputy secretary level, had been hoping for a career advancement.

But no indication of an imminent promotion had been given to him. Nor had there been any word that his contributions were valued.

After assessing his own prospects against the background of accelerated localisation, the official decided to call it a day.

But as soon as he handed in his retirement papers, he was told by the central administration that they had planned to promote him soon. Again, nothing was said to encourage him to change his mind. So with deep disappointment and frustration, the officer retired. His local and expatriate colleagues expressed sympathy, but the central administration didn't seem in the least concerned. Overseas officers have detected similar apathy from their local colleagues.

'Hardly anyone has encouraged us to stay and very often, it's only after we have made up our mind to go that we hear people say that they are sorry to see us leave,' said an expatriate officer.

This is an understandable attitude on the part of the locals. The expatriates' departure means faster promotion for them.

'Instead of waiting for seven years, they may only need to wait three or four before they are promoted,' said another officer.

This is particularly visible in the administrative service grade, the creme de la creme of the civil service. In the past two years, a handful of aspiring locals have been promoted out of turn. In the old days, promotion from deputy secretary to secretary, or from deputy secretary to head of department, or even from principal assistant secretary to deputy secretary, normally took six or seven years. Now that can be cut to two or three.

'Consciously or subconsciously, many of the local administrative officers will have wanted the expatriates to leave,' an officer said.

Out of 68 HMOCS administrative officers, only 31 have decided to stay; 29 have opted to retire. Most of the remaining undecided eight are also expected to go.

The single most frequently quoted reason for their departure, according to an official, was their doubt about whether they had a useful role after 1997.

'Some retirees think that they have had their day and it's the locals' turn now. There aren't any bitter feelings at all,' he said.

But others say these retirees could have offered timely help to a service rapidly losing experience.

More can be done to halt the exodus of officers in the run-up to 1997. The question is whether the central administration realises that sometimes a small gesture, in private, can be more effective than big talk in the public arena.


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The apathy that makes expats quit

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