• Thu
  • Oct 2, 2014
  • Updated: 8:53pm
Mr. Shangkong
PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 September, 2012, 5:07pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 September, 2012, 5:07pm

Big-sounding job titles in HK can cause confusion and embarrassment

Job titles for certain financial professionals are becoming the butt of jokes around Central, Hong Kong’s answer to Wall Street. It seems like five out of 10 investment bankers and private equity dealmakers you bump into these days in Central are vice-presidents.

Their colleagues who populate the district boast a dizzying array of titles, from managing partner to senior managing partner to all manner of directors – associate directors, executive directors and managing directors. But being a director doesn’t necessarily mean he or she actually sits on any company’s board.

This “title inflation” is even catching on at many Chinese banks and securities firms on the mainland. How long will it be before they are also laughing about it in the financial centre of Shanghai as well?

One of my friends has an MBA degree from a prestigious American university. He returned to Hong Kong after graduation, and joined a newly established private-equity firm as an associate, a typical entry-level job nowadays for MBAs looking for a career in the financial industry.

About a year later, my friend  was promoted to a more senior position and his boss created a new title for him: associate partner.

In Chinese, “associate partner” literally means more like a “co-partner”. But, technically, he was more like a senior associate.

One day my friend, then at the tender age of 27, visited a client on the mainland with his line manager whose title was director. It led to an awkward situation when the mainland client jumped to the conclusion that my friend was the boss.

“The client treated me nicer and took me more seriously than my boss at first, and the atmosphere was so strange when we tried to clarify who was whose boss,” my friend recalled.

What is the sense of all these creative titles that just confuse the pecking order that typically starts with analyst and ends with managing director?

According to conventional wisdom, many clients, particularly in Asia, want their business to be taken care of by someone with seemingly more clout than a mere manager. So, little by little, all the banks created different “more senior” titles, although in many cases they don’t mean much in terms of perks or responsibility.

In Hong Kong, many bankers have learned how to work the system of inflated titles. For instance, some say that as a recruitment tool, Bank of America Merrill Lynch hands out the title of vice-president more often, and more easily, to younger employees than other banks. After a few years, those people hop to other employers for higher-level jobs – and even more important-sounding titles.

So, is there any trick to figuring out who is more important when you encounter two financial types with business cards bearing different senior-sounding titles?

Here’s my tip: don’t just look for “vice-president” or “executive director”; look to see if he or she is the head of something.

If the card of your new acquaintance identifies him or her simply as, say, the head of sales and trading, then you are face-to-face with a VIP.

George Chen is the Post’s financial services editor. Mr. Shangkong appears every Monday in the print version of the SCMP. For more, visit scmp.com/mrshangkong

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