Business in Hong Kong

Business in Hong Kong will expose you to a multi-cultural workplace. From Hong Chinese, newly-arrived expatriates (not just Western), expatriates with permanent residency (PR) to returning overseas Chinese.

business-in-hong-kongThese demographics can be somewhat misleading, with overseas Chinese requiring work visas being classed as ‘expats’ and expats with PR being classed as ‘locals’. As many local families left Hong Kong for Canada prior to the handover, their returning children often appear as ‘Canadian passport holders’ in surveys. If  surveys were taken on face value, you would imagine that Vancouver and business in Hong Kong were intrinsically connected!

Since the handover, the demographic mix has changed subtly; Less Westerners (also less British, more Australians) and an increased focus on Mandarin as an essential business skill. This has also been reflected in the level of language competencies, as Hong Kong has moved from a two-language workplace to three-languages. Hong Kong is regulary recognised as being one of the best and easiest Cities in the world to do business in (Bloomberg, A.T. Kearney). PwC in their Global Cities of Opportunity 2014 report noted that some of the advantages to doing business in Hong Kong are:

  • Airport-City Access
  • Attracting Foreign Domestic Investment
  • Broadband Quality
  • Cost of public transport
  • Digital Economy
  • Ease of Commute
  • Ease of entry (visa)
  • Ease of starting a business
  • IP Protection
  • Shareholder Protection
  • Maths/Science Skills
  • Level of Operational Risk
  • Corporate Tax Rate
  • Workforce Management Risk
  • Working Age Population
  • World University Rankings

New to Business in Hong Kong?

Most expatriate executives who do business in Hong Kong will notice several changes to their working environment. It’s worth stating the obvious at this point. If you are doing business in Hong Kong you probably have some special attributes; the ability to affect change, improve performance, generate revenue, reduce cost or knowledge of a specialist commercial area. You are probably being well rewarded for that and your employer is going to expect to get a good return on their investment.

You may find that you have increased responsibility, less resources and less corporate support than you are used to and that you are working >50 hours a week.

If you are expected to undertake ‘frequent travel’ in Asia, that could mean every weekday or weeks on the road.

The differences that brought you here will create business opportunities and tensions in the workplace. You may or will:

  • Think out of the box
  • Look for outcomes, not follow processes
  • Be transparent and expect the same
  • Think bluntness is a virtue
  • Push harder when faced with resistance
  • Expect stretch goals to be embraced as a challenge
  • Accept change as a constant
  • Make assumptions
  • Expect problems to get flagged
  • Not look for unexpected relationships and back-communication channels (extending within and outside of the organization)
  • Normally accept what you are told on face value
  • Deal with issues constructively, rather than looking to apportion blame

My favourite expression in this context is ‘knowing what you don’t know’. If  you expect to adopt the same work style with regard to the characteristics above when you arrive in Hong Kong, you don’t know what you don’t know – sorry. What is your process for figuring out what you don’t know, before you hit the problems as you create or encounter?

Take lots of advice on doing business in Hong Kong and do it soon. Find out what passive-aggressive resistance to change looks like, so you know it when you see it.

Once you figure out what you need to change to deliver a successful outcome for your business in Hong Kong, you will be faced with at least one of several facts:

  • Overseas templates and expectations don’t fit Asia without compromise
  • Compromise looks like more investment, less return, more risk, more time, processes flexibility, staff development or change and extra corporate support
  • You will need to change local processes to change outcomes. This will be met with resistance.

Communicating this back to the overseas office that sent you to Hong Kong may make you an unpopular messenger. Be sure to take your stakeholders on the journey with you.

When you understand all of these points, you’ll understand why applying for Hong Kong jobs was so difficult!

Treasure your staff that believe in you and create outcomes. Believe in them, trust their advice, make them role models and let them reach those you can’t. Have values and be seen to stand by them. Take them for dinner or lunch and consider doing team-building activities.

Genuine Friendships

Not surprisingly, many new friendships will be generated through doing business in Hong Kong with suppliers and customers, which will blur the work/home divide and will also lead to closer business relationships. The Chinese attach particular importance to relationships in business and it very difficult to be successful if you try and remain professionally aloof, or think ‘short term’. It’s never about the transaction and always about the relationship. As a result, expect to be socializing hard as well as working hard. Also expect to compromise on terms already agreed to improve relations.

Political Correctness

Business in Hong Kong is governed by raft of legislation covering sexual harassment and anti-discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy, family status, race and sex. These are often underpinned by employer codes of conduct within contracts of employment. However, the Hong Kong workplace is less ‘politically correct’ than one would expect. Also, if an employee is legally dismissed (for example, an employer dismissing an employee on jury duty or who has served notice of pregnancy is illegal) and is fully paid up, an employer does not have to give grounds for the dismissal, leaving the underlying reasons open to speculation.

Social Niceties when doing business in Hong Kong

Examples are the giving and receiving of business cards with both hands (Chinese side up when offered to a local) and paying for staff when entertaining socially. Unlike in the West, the bill is not divided and the boss always pays! Offer to serve others before helping yourself ans don’t serve with the chopsticks you are eating with.

Speak with respect and empathy, always passing out credit where appropriate. Be self depreciating and spend time with junior staff.

Give out Lai See to your staff at Chinese New Year.

There are lots of networking business opportunities through the Chambers of Commerce.

You’ll pick up a few Cantonese phrases, but if you’d like more structured learning there are numerous Cantonese courses, which might be eligible for some HK Government reimbursement.

This page on business in Hong Kong was contributed by our Guest Editor, Peter Udall.

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