This time of year, the annual bonus is the talk of the town. Expectations in banking circles are running high, but the talk itself is kept pretty low. That's because since the 2008 global financial crisis, rewarding bankers has become a particularly sensitive topic.
At the mainland's home-grown top investment bank, China International Capital Corp, Swiss bank UBS and Wall Street's Goldman Sachs, bankers are eagerly awaiting a bonus letter from their human resources managers. These banks were involved in several big initial public offerings (IPOs) in Hong Kong in the second half of 2012. And bankers have come to expect that if they make money for the bank, the bank shows its appreciation with a bonus. It's been a win-win relationship.
Of course, the size of the bonus depends on the size of the contribution you or your team makes to the bank's coffers. Take, for example, the US$3.1 billion listing of People's Insurance Company (Group) of China. It was the largest IPO in Hong Kong in two years, and any banker who brought in a major so-called cornerstone investor  to ensure a successful launch will definitely be considered a hero in-house. Over at Goldman Sachs, there are several who convinced American International Group to chip in for US$500 million worth of shares.
For those bankers who haven't done a single deal, a year-end bonus is likely to remain the stuff of dreams. And they should be worried about keeping their jobs, no matter what their level.
Judging by the market buzz, many middle-ranked bankers at firms deemed to be in relatively good business shape expect to get a bonus equal to at least two or three months' salary. People who think they've put in a heroic performance will also push for a promotion to, say, managing director from executive director rank. Some big mainland investment banks are likely to pay one or two months' salary as a bonus to their Hong Kong-based employees, regardless of their deal flow.
Companies that can't justify paying cash bonuses this year should take note of the results of a recent survey by HR consultants Robert Half: of 100 HR directors polled in Hong Kong, 91 per cent found that offering non-financial benefits, such as letting staff work from home, was an effective way to attract and retain employees. About 40 per cent of respondents said they already had policies enabling staff to work remotely, while 54 per cent said they would consider allowing individuals to work outside the office.
And according to the survey, 68 per cent of Hong Kong's top HR bosses provide workers who need them with mobile devices such as smartphones, laptops and iPads.
The reality is that some companies have to wait until March or April, when their financial year ends, to wire the annual bonus to the bank accounts of their employees. That's when many staff opt to change jobs, especially those who missed out.
So, here's a practical suggestion to hold on to talented staff: if you can't afford to pay a bonus in cash, how about trying to make employees happy in other ways that don't hit your bottom line?
George Chen is the Post's financial services editor. Mr. Shangkong appears every Monday in the print version of the SCMP. Like it? Visit facebook.com/mrshangkong