Managing in Hong Kong
Working in a Diverse, Thriving Culture
Hong Kong is an exciting, cosmopolitan city, and many people are thrilled when they learn that they'll be relocating to it to manage a team.
If this describes you, then you might have several questions on your mind. Is working in Hong Kong different from working in mainland China? And how can you manage your new team effectively, and avoid making cultural mistakes?
Working in Hong Kong is an incredible opportunity for any manager. It also presents its own unique set of challenges. In this article, we'll look at what you need to know to work, and manage a team, in Hong Kong.
Keep in mind that, like any country, Hong Kong has a unique and diverse workforce. This is a general guide, and it's important to adopt a flexible approach to account for differences in personality, culture, and age-group.
Language and Culture
Hong Kong is a vibrant, culturally diverse city, with a large number of foreign workers. Its public transportation system is superb, and the city provides excellent healthcare, with most of its citizens enjoying a high standard of living (even though it is one of the most densely populated cities in the world).
Hong Kong is technically part of China, but it has its own laws and constitution.
Hong Kong has two official languages: English and Cantonese. Although more than 90 percent of the population speaks Cantonese, English is also widely spoken, and is taught in most schools. This means that most business professionals in large organizations speak it fluently, which is often a relief to English-speaking foreign workers.
You'll make a good impression on your new team if you try to learn Cantonese words and phrases.
Hong Kong's low tax rate also makes it an attractive place for foreign workers. In many cases, your overall salary before tax may be close to what you'll take home as income each month.
From 1847 to 1997, Hong Kong was a British colony. However, in 1997 the British handed control of Hong Kong back to the People's Republic of China.
Although Hong Kong is technically part of China, it has its own laws and constitution, known as the Basic Law. This means that residents arguably enjoy more freedom and liberties than citizens in mainland China. The People's Republic of China monitors the border between the mainland and Hong Kong, and restricts the number of mainland citizens who are allowed to visit the city.
See our article on Managing in China for more on working and managing a team in other parts of China.
You may find that you'll work long hours in Hong Kong. Most organizations will expect you to stay later than your contracted hours, no matter how early you arrive.
Most people regularly put in 10-hour days, and often work Saturday mornings as well. Overtime is common, and, in many cases, you won't be compensated for this extra time. If you're in a managerial role, you may also be expected to entertain clients, in addition to your daily duties.
Hong Kong law says that every worker gets at least seven days of paid annual leave. Many people get more than this, but it's unlikely that you'll receive more than 14 days.
The Hong Kong government also sets all religious and national holidays. It's wise to avoid scheduling any projects or meetings on these dates. This is especially true around major holidays such as Christmas and Chinese New Year, since many people take time off around these times.
Chinese New Year (also known as the Lunar New Year) is by far the most important holiday, and you're likely to find that most businesses close for an entire week to celebrate it. (The date changes every year, but is typically early in February.)
All employees, regardless of their length or level of employment, are also entitled to the following holidays off:
- New Years Day – January 1.
- Ching Ming Festival – April 5.
- Labour Day – May 1.
- Tuen Ng Festival – June 18 in 2018. (The 5th day of the 5th lunar month.)
- Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Establishment Day – July 2 in 2018.
- The day following the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival – September 25 in 2018.
- National Day – October 1.
- Chung Yeung Festival – October 17 in 2018. (Usually in October.)
- Chinese Winter Solstice Festival or Christmas Day (employer option as to which is granted as time off).
As you can see, several of these dates change yearly, depending on which day of the week they fall on. So it's important that you check each year's specifics before scheduling project dates or meetings.
For more information on holidays and employment law in Hong Kong, see the GovHK website.
Managing a team in Hong Kong is very similar to managing in China. People respect rank and position, and the people that you manage will likely treat you with honor and respect as soon as you begin working with them.
Your team will look to you for leadership and direction. Although younger people are starting to show initiative, keep in mind that most professionals will expect you to issue detailed instructions on how you want projects to be completed. When assigning tasks, make sure that you spell out exactly what you'd like to be accomplished, at least until you know your team better. Hong Kong professionals work incredibly hard, however, some things are unlikely to get done unless you specifically request them.
Because of respect for rank and position, your team may also be unwilling to convey bad news to you. You'll likely need to push them to tell you everything you need to know. It's important to check, and double-check, that you have all of the facts before you make an important decision.
Your team may use the words "yes" and "no" differently from the way that you do. For instance, "yes" can often mean that your group needs more time, or that they want to think more on your proposal. The word "no" isn't used often. Words like "maybe" or "we'll see" are often used in place of "no."
Just as in China, "saving face" is incredibly important, and you can quickly lose the trust of your team if you don't understand how to save face for your team members. For instance, a light rebuke of a person in front of his or her colleagues can cause a devastating loss of face for the person concerned. All feedback, whether it's positive or negative, should take place in private, one-on-one.
You can also inadvertently cause a team member to lose face with an ill-timed or ill-considered joke, so humor is best avoided until you know your group better. (See our article on Cross Cultural Communication for more on communicating effectively with a culturally-diverse team.)
To get to know your team, ask them questions about their well-being and their family. Offer up your own impressions about Hong Kong (as long as they're positive!). Avoid sensitive political issues, such as the transition to full Chinese rule in the coming decades.
Thanks to the long British influence, conducting business in Hong Kong is often quicker and more straight-forward than in mainland China. However, there are still many nuances that you need to be aware of when working and managing in this culture.
- Always arrive on time to work and meetings. Lateness shows a lack of respect, and is sure to cause offence. If you do arrive late, apologize profusely to your associate or host; this will help them save face within their own group.
- Showing emotion, especially negative emotions such as anger, annoyance, or impatience, is considered embarrassing. Always manage your emotions when you're in the company of others, whether you're at a social gathering or a business meeting.
- Just as in China, gift-giving is widespread and expected. If someone gives you a gift, it's good manners to return the gesture. Always offer your gift with both hands, and don't expect the other person to open it in front of you. And, never open a gift you've been given in front of a group; it makes you appear greedy. (See our article on Gifts in the Workplace for more on gift-giving.)
- Age is highly respected in Hong Kong. When greeting a group of business associates, always try to greet the oldest person first, and then work your way down to the youngest person.
- In most business meetings, you'll be offered a cup of hot Chinese tea. It's rude to decline this offer. Also, wait until the host or the most senior associate has started drinking before drinking it yourself.
Further Tips for Working in Hong Kong
- Many offices in Hong Kong are designed and decorated using principles from Feng Shui (an ancient Chinese system of aesthetics). It's often wise to check with a colleague before moving anything, or redecorating. Moving items or redecorating on your own could cause offense or damage morale.
- If you're invited to someone's home for dinner, keep in mind that this is considered an honor. Always accept the invitation, if you can. Then, bring a small gift such as candy or chocolate, and don't be late. It's also prudent to avoid excessive praise of anything in the home (such as a picture or figurine). The people of Hong Kong are incredibly generous and giving, and they'll likely feel like they have to offer you the item if you really admire and like it.
- It's best to dress formally and conservatively for work. For both men and women, suits in dark colors are appropriate. Bright colors and loud patterns are best avoided. Women should dress stylishly, and avoid tight-fitting or revealing clothing.
- If you're communicating through a translator, make sure that you talk to and look at your business associate, not at the translator. This is a sign of respect and consideration.
Hong Kong is a culturally diverse city that can be a pleasant and exciting place to work. Many people speak English, especially in larger organizations, and the standard of living is relatively high.
When working with your team, keep in mind that saving or losing face is incredibly important to them. Never rebuke or reprimand team members in front of their colleagues. Avoid jokes, and offer all feedback in private.
Until you know the personalities and working habits of your team or your team members, it's best to give clear instructions that detail exactly the tasks you'd like accomplished. Your team will work hard for you, but their respect for your position might prevent them from taking initiative on their own.
Age and seniority are highly respected; when meeting with a group, always try to greet the oldest person first, and then work your way down. And, when someone gives you a gift, it's good manners to reciprocate.