Organisations in search of a blueprint for success and improved all-round performance don't need to look very far. In fact, they can just study the practices and principles of the six companies adjudged the Best Employers in Hong Kong 2009.
'The results at the top level are quite consistent,' said Philip Wixon, practice leader at Hewitt Associates, which did extensive research to identify the leading candidates and analyse what separates the best from the rest.
'Any company of a reasonable size will have processes, but it's not the toys and tricks you have, it's the execution and consistency,' he said. 'No one has it 100 per cent right, but what we see is that the best employers reflect certain key practices far more and are able to stitch it all together.'
Hewitt's starting point for the biannual study is to gather information on participating companies from three main sources. There is a questionnaire completed by the most senior executive, focusing on staff management issues and the philosophies that drive the business.
The human resources (HR) department returns a people practices inventory detailing their programmes and overall approach. And an employee opinion survey gets feedback from the broader workforce.
By interpreting this data, Hewitt can determine how well each company measures up in terms of engagement and alignment. The former relates specifically to levels of employee commitment - what they say, why they stay and how hard they strive for the business. The latter concerns the degree to which leaders and staff understand each other and are working towards the same goals.
What gives these measures significance is that past surveys, and corporate results, have repeatedly shown that making these things a priority is a major factor in building a successful organisation.
'The crux of our research on engagement is that there are five areas that differentiate,' Mr Wixon said. 'And when we look at positive employee perceptions and engagement, there is often a 20 to 30 per cent gap between the best [employers] and the rest.'
Getting things right, he stressed, began with the senior leadership team. They had to understand that 'people issues' not only underpinned everything but, when handled correctly, also gave a distinct competitive advantage. Leaders therefore had to emphasise ethics and integrity, aiming to create a working environment that encourages learning.
Next came the need to deliver on the promise to employees that companies explicitly made when anyone came to work for them. It was unrealistic to think you could win the hearts and minds of staff without sticking to the essential terms of whatever bargain, or contract, had been concluded. Employees who had reason to feel short-changed or overlooked would always be inclined to hold something back.
To maximise engagement, leaders also had to ensure staff at every level could connect with the main thrust of the corporate strategy and the logic behind it. Experience showed that when people had a reasonably clear idea where the business was going and understood their part in the long-term strategy, they became much more involved, both emotionally and intellectually.
'It can't just be an HR initiative; the leadership team must be on it,' Mr Wixon said. 'They must walk the talk and actually be out there to reinforce the message and take difficult questions on the fly.'
The fourth area, he noted, in which the best employers definitely stood out was in their dedication to building a high-performance culture. This was seen especially in the way they addressed issues of bad performance, confronting problems and not simply trying to sweep them under the carpet.
'They see who and what is not a right fit and get career issues out into the open,' Mr Wixon said. 'Managers are armed to have discussions about the tough issues and deal with them head on. They also manage expectations, so employees understand the career possibilities and know the rewards for good performance.'
Ultimately, what tied it all together was the alignment between stated company practices and what really went on in the workplace. Aware there could be major discrepancies here, Hewitt paid particular attention to analysing the replies from employees to test how closely their anonymous views tallied with those of the senior decision makers.
'We are not just testing what the CEO says, but want to see if everything aligns with what they are saying about the company,' he said. 'The real test is how your people practices deliver against the promise and support the other things.'
He added that work on this year's survey, which began in mid-2008, also shed light on how the best employers were dealing with the effects of the financial downturn. In general, they were taking a measured, less panicked approach, with no slashing of headcounts and more consideration of ways to redeploy or reduce work hours.
'There are no knee-jerk reactions; they understand the need to train and retain and not cut long-term development budgets just because of tough times,' Mr Wixon said. 'They nip and tuck in other areas first and see the importance of frank and frequent communication with employees about what is going on in the market and the impact.'
Best Hong Kong employers
Convoy Financial Services
JW Marriott Hotel Hong Kong
Renaissance Harbour View Hotel Hong Kong
Pret A Manger (HK)
American Express International
Federal Express (Hong Kong)