To ensure integrity in the process of choosing the Best Employers in Hong Kong 2009, Hewitt Associates obtained relevant data, summarised reports and statistics, and then stood back. Final selection was left to an independent five-person panel of judges, who decided their own criteria for assessment based on the available information. They knew each contender by code, not company name, in order to remain objective. The panel understandably paid due attention to scores for engagement and alignment as well as the tenor of comments from employee opinion surveys. But against the backdrop of a difficult economy, they also wanted to see which of the short-listed companies were adapting best to the downturn and what HR practices they were using to maintain a 'people focus' and career opportunities. 'We studied this very comprehensively looking for moral issues,' said Steven DeKrey, associate dean for the School of Business and Management at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and chairperson of the panel. 'The top employers resisted cost cutting by staff elimination. They focused instead on team building and finding other solutions to the downturn.' Professor DeKrey said companies taking this line generally scored highly on other key drivers. Typically, the winners stood out through having passionate leadership, strong customer orientation, an innovative approach to HR and employees who were evidently proud to belong to the organisation. 'I am not sure there are guarantees in any strategy, but it is certainly true that dedicated and engaged colleagues would predict business success more than most other factors,' he said. For Michael Huddart, executive vice-president and general manager in Hong Kong for Manulife (International), it was significant that the best employers were committed to maintaining staff development even in a slump and that they continued to focus on a number of major initiatives. 'It is also important to have clear communication about policies for pay, career opportunities and company strategies,' Mr Huddart said. 'Actions must be seen to be consistent with these stated policies.' He emphasised, though, that success in any sphere of business was never a matter of just having agreed practices in place. It ultimately depended on effective execution, commitment and consistency in approach. What most impressed Theresa Lai, general manager of human resources for Modern Terminals, about this year's winners was that they had a clear vision backed up by the right HR strategies. 'The best employers take a long-term view and continue to invest in their people,' Ms Lai said. 'Communication is another area they do well [by] building trust through respect for employees.' She stressed that pay and benefits were not the only means of motivating staff. Employees also needed recognition and to be part of an environment where they could participate and contribute. Engaged employees strive harder to ensure customer satisfaction, and that translates into better profitability.' Aaron Yim, managing director of Ricoh Hong Kong, particularly noted the efforts now being made to retain good people. He felt this focus on staff needs and well-being would help companies ride out the current financial storm and saw higher levels of engagement bringing direct benefits in terms of productivity and customer service. 'I looked at whether companies had a mechanism for people engagement [and for signs of] good and frequent communication,' Mr Yim said. According to Andrea Zavadszky, editor, special reports and Classified Post editorial for the South China Morning Post, just participating in the awards was extremely useful. It was an opportunity to improve teamwork, engagement and employer branding. 'It is an excellent chance to audit strengths and weaknesses and, through that, to learn more about your own company and from the strengths of others,' she said.