Sunday, November 28, 2004

Pride & Prejudice

The following are my views on an article by Pranay Gupte entitled “Letter from Singapore" ( I thought it was important to comment on it because it touches on issues like prejudice and speaking up which I hold dear.

I really enjoyed the article by Pranay because I thought he wrote with great magnanimity and objectivity even after what he had to go through (whether perceived or real). I also thought it was a well balanced article.

It is good that he detailed his experiences. On the one hand, I think it was unfortunate that he had to experience such attitudes in this nice country. But on the other hand, we will all agree that we will meet with these kinds of attitudes everywhere. As such, I am “grateful” that it has happened to someone like Pranay who is able to speak and inform others about it. I also happen to believe that he has done so in a very even-handed way. By raising awareness that such attitudes exist and perhaps, prevail in our society, we can hopefully begin to realise how we are behaving towards others and hopefully begin to change the way in which we relate with others.

I agree that "racist" is word that should never be employed lightly. But to me, it is just semantics and how you define the label. Many, if not all of us work with stereotypes and generalisations. It makes life easier and more convenient. It does however have the unfortunate effect of alienating and even offending others if we are not careful with the degree with which we use it.

I think that in Singapore, in addition to the normal generalisations, there is the “Zimbardo” effect at play amongst the citizenry. (This refers to the Psychologist P. Zimbardo, who showed in a classic study in 1971 how power, established by authority, negatively influences otherwise saner minds.) As the vast majority of Singaporeans are Chinese, they have a major say in the running of the country. Unfortunately, this position of authority (and power) may tend to give some people the attitude that other races are lesser mortals. In addition, the pre-eminence of Singapore’s position on the world stage is also a source of pride as to what the “Chinese” are capable of. Nevertheless, the days of Singapore being a British colony are not so far behind it such that the “whites” are still looked up to in our behaviour and attitudes, grudgingly or not. This general attitude then extends across borders and illustrates itself with the examples Pranay has given.

I have seen exactly the same thing across the border in Malaysia except that it is the Malay race that is in a position of authority and the “other races” who are lesser mortals. The slight difference there is that for the Malays, religion plays a larger part in their lives. As such, they tie their ancestry with their religion and are therefore more proud of their religion and heritage and are not so easily influenced by issues of pragmatism and economics. I believe this is why they are stronger in their “resistance” to “white” influence. The Singapore Chinese are more secular and pragmatic (yes, it is my turn to generalise!) and economic issues then take precedence.

Although many of us see this happening, we give the upper hand to the status quo by remaining silent. The few that are left who disagree with the attitude also remain silent feeling (I think rightfully) that they are in the minority. This is why I think it is good that Pranay has highlighted his experiences. If only more would follow his example, I believe it could well lead to the necessary changes in attitudes in our lifetime.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

HR - Sorry, It's Confidential!

How often have we asked people about something only to receive the terse reply that “I’m sorry but it’s confidential!”… assuming of course, they are polite enough to even apologise! I have heard it so many times in my life. In the business world, we often here it from the HR department. I find it sad, coming from the HR profession. I really think that on many occasions, the secrecy is unjustified.

Confidentiality like many other things, can be used for good and also, definitely for bad. The problem is that since what those in authority are keeping confidential is well… confidential, then how are we to figure out whether what these people are doing is justified. In most cases, it is just not possible. However, I do not think that being meek about all it will help. Despite the Chap upsatirs saying that the meek shall inherit the earth, our inheritance is probably still awhile away and in the meantime, we should stand up to all this shit that people throw at us and fully expecting us to lap it up! As a rule of thumb, I think we should always be bold enough to ask probing questions. Specifically we should ask something like, “It may be confidential but tell me why it is so?” Surely the reasons why something is confidential is not confidential as well! Puh-leeze!

The many times I have seen confidentiality used in an unjustified manner, I have been on the “inside” as it were. This is when I have seen confidentiality used as a shield to protect what could not be publicly justified with a good degree of confidence. Yes, there are issues in business (especially HR) that will always be sensitive and emotional and it may be naïve to think we will always be able to appeal to people’s good / common sense. As we should all be aware, common sense is not that common! However, we in Asia need to be more confident of our methods and our own people’s maturity. In more developed countries and societies, the general level of education is higher and people have a greater compunction to fight for their rights and question those in authority. It is time for us to get off our backsides and follow suit so that those in authority are more accountable to us, the people. In a business sense, those that are in a position to keep confidences ought to be accountable to the company and its shareholders.

In Asian politics we often here the refrain that our people / society are not ready for this, that and the other, mostly the so-called western concepts of transparency, liberal attitudes etc. To me, this is at best, over cautiousness by the powers that be and at worst, a ploy to safeguard the status quo (and subtly retain the reigns of power) for as long as possible.

I will be the first to concede that change, too fast, too soon, could be detrimental to all and sundry. Witness the events which caused the USSR to disintegrate. On the other hand, we can see how Deng Xiaoping’s cautious approach to capitalism has played a major part in making China what it is today. But I digress…

We in business, especially those of us in HR, need to loosen up! Engage the people (whom we in HR are supposed to be championing) in debate! Increase the level of transparency in our practices and decision making. If you really think that even a cautious opening up will cause anarchy, I seriously question your policies or practices in the first place! Yes, running a business may not be the same as running a democracy but we must never forget that we need our employees' buy-in and support to get things done. And dear employees, this is where we need to stand up and be counted!

We as humble employees or shareholders are also at fault. We do not hold our employers or companies sufficiently accountable for what they do. We are insufficiently assertive enough in our approach. And we blame companies for running roughshod over us! As a group, shareholders or employees have tremendous power. If we begin to vote with our feet, market forces will ensure that Companies pay attention to us. If many employees (i.e. a critical mass) are unhappy with a company’s policies, the company will have no choice but to change and reform.

Wake up and smell the flowers! HR is supposed to be championing us (amongst their other equally important strategic and administrative activities). They are not supposed to be keeping us in the dark. Its time to clean house and help them open the windows ever so slightly so that the sun may begin to shine through... So that fresh air can blow away the stuffiness that permeates many a HR dept. We may find a couple of skeletons here and there in the cupboards but really, its water under the bridge. We can be magnanimous. After all, I believe that it is in all in our interest and for our own good as employees! And if you don’t want to fight the status quo, then us all a favour and stop whining and go be an entrepreneur and follow what the “gahmen” has been asking people to do!

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Towards A Systematic Approach to Finding a Mate

Dating is often seen as an enjoyable time. A time where both genders meet up (assuming heterosexual unions) and pair off to see if they form a good “match” in terms of interests, values etc. The ultimate objective of this trial-and-error process is usually to identify someone with whom you would like to spend the rest of your life with (assuming you believe in the sanctity of marriage and it is for life etc…).

I am wondering whether, considering it is a decision that will impact our lives for life…, in the midst of all the fun and frolic, the movies and parties, the dinners and dancing…, are we treating the whole process with the seriousness it deserves? In fact, I am sure there are many who do not feel it needs to be taken all that seriously as it takes all the “fun” out of dating. I find it curious that we all take a job search seriously (well, perhaps not everyone) and we do not really even intend to stay with the employer for until we are 55! However, most of us treat the process with which we choose our life partner with barely any degree of planning, thought or seriousness. I am generalising of course, but that is the way I see it. If we truly believe in this marriage-for-life thing, ought we not approach the process in a more systematic (read: proper) way? Approaching something in a serious and systematic way does not necessarily remove the fun factor. Competitive sport is a serious matter but people still have fun doing it. You could also try having a look at a sex manual and the author will probably suggest that since we all lead busy lives, we need to make time and therefore “plan” for sex.

There is also the argument that marriage is about love, and love is not something that can be distilled into a “system”. Doing so would make the whole process of dating mechanical and the thought of “systematizing love” for want of a better phrase, is just unacceptable. It takes away the whole “spirit” of the process and objective. In summary, many people say that you can’t approach with the head, what is a matter for the heart.

In my opinion, those who voice these kinds of views believe the current hit and miss process has been going on for decades (if not centuries) and we have all lived with it, so why fix what does not appear to be broken.

I beg to differ and I believe this kind of thinking neglects and indeed is even perhaps wilfully blind to a host of issues that arise from the current process. What do we make of the misery of those who are “forced” by societal pressures to stay trapped within a loveless marriage. What about the increasing number of separations and of course, divorces that we are seeing today by people being freed by more liberal attitudes within society. What about the spousal and child abuse that goes on in some marriages? I am aware that there is a cultural shift happening towards views on the institution of marriage and this is partly causes the rise in the divorce rate. However, I also think that our current process of finding a mate is flawed and this leads to many mistakes which could have been avoided. I am advocating that we use more of our heads (not just our hearts) in determining who we partner for life. So, where do we start?

If we are looking for something, it is a reasonable assumption that we should have an idea of what we are looking for… or at least we have an idea of what we do not want. I think many people already stumble at the first hurdle. Many of us do not really go through a thorough self analysis and we therefore do not really know what we are looking for. I suggest we start by asking questions of ourselves.

What values do I hold dear? What do I think is important in a good, solid relationship? What am I looking for in a man/woman? What is my stand on the sensitive but critical issues of race, religion, money, family and children (how many, if any)? We can even extend the questions to touch on issues like educational level, social status/caste, views on bringing up children, role of in-laws etc. Which are the issues that we are “negotiable” on and which are “non-negotiable”? For example, we may want our potential spouse to share the same religion and this may be a “non-negotiable” item. So many questions and this may be just the tip of the iceberg but is any of this being asked at the dating stage? I doubt it.

I am well aware that if such “heavy” issues are raised at the first date, you may not be getting a second one! However my take is that these issues need to be raised and raised at an early stage of the dating game and not prior to a wedding and definitely not after!!

All of us should have an idea on where we stand on these very critical issues. Then our search will be more efficient. How can we search when we do not know what we are searching for?

Once we have “sorted ourselves out”, we can venture into the search process and begin parallel dating. We should essentially start meeting as many people as possible with the objective of “making friends”. This way, there is less expectations, a more informal atmosphere and we can then gather better info. The speed dating concept where a group of people meet up to 10(?) people on one night is interesting as it helps us cast a wider net in a shorter space of time.

In my view, there should be none of this “going steady” nonsense until very much later. The making friends approach allows one to truly date and meet many people simultaneously without giving in to exclusivity before it is warranted. When we meet others on a “friendly basis” we should, of course, be attempting to subtly find out if the person matches our criteria.

Yes, by all means have fun but I fear the fun factor or “chemistry” sometimes clouds out all judgement and we leave out the serious part (assessing the other person against our criteria) altogether, or until it is too late! Again, I am not suggesting we ask the other party how many children he/she wants to have on a first date! However, we should not be asking him/her on the wedding night either.

We really need to be mindful of our core purpose when we date. After all, we do not go for a job interview and not ask the company vital questions about the job and all it entails, correct? We ought to treat the dating game with equal seriousness if not more.

The small fly in the ointment is that we all do change over time and our needs and desires may change. Such things are not easy to forecast. However, if we were to place more effort in the initial part of our search and if we approach the whole process in a more responsible fashion, there is a greater possibility that we will be doing ourselves and our children a great service. As families form the building blocks of society, a more systematic approach may perhaps help us make better and wiser decisions that will ultimately impact us for the rest of our lives and perhaps build a more stable society for the future.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

HR: Do Search Firms "Search"

Some company's selection processes appear to be like a meaningless ritual. However, in the times that I have felt this, I have also felt that either the interviewer or the company culture, does not give the process the seriousness it deserves. If a company really believes that recruitment is an important process and adopts approaches which have been proven to be effective, the professionalism of the process and its proponents will show through and the results normally validates the means.

There are, of course, some who claim that they are able to tell a good candidate the minute he or she walks through the door! Yeah, right! Such selection methods (if you can call it that) simply pander to the hirer’s personal prejudices. Such hiring managers will then, many a time, make the best of his/her own decision, thus making the selection appear valid. In my opinion, such “gut feel” approaches have no place in professional set ups. It was the late scientist, Carl Sagan, who said (in response to a question on his “gut feel”) that he tries not to think with his gut. I share his sentiments! As humans, we need to retain our subjective judgements, but not till it becomes mere whim and fancy!

We need to "hedge our bets" and consider a multidimensional approach. In this way, one obtains more comprehensive info on a candidate with which to make a selection decision. But how many companies are willing to invest the money and time to adopt such approaches? Perhaps not until “the market” demands greater professionalism in HR approaches. Or perhaps not until we as humans begin to be aware of our own prejudices and adopt more scientific approaches into our recruitment repertoire. This is to ensure we blend a greater degree of objectivity, into our subjective judgement (which is just as important).

On the topic of investing in HR, I find it curious that companies choose to spend exorbitant amounts on so called “search” firms but do not invest in developing a proper selection process or training their recruiters in effective recruitment techniques. After all, shouldn’t a company’s own executives be in a better position to identify suitable candidates rather than a third party? If an agency’s role is simply to shortlist suitable people for a company to interview, is it worth the amount we pay such firms? At the very senior end of the spectrum (the so-called “C”-level hires) and for positions where relevant talent is scarce there is perhaps some true “search” taking place. And at the junior and temporary staffing levels, the charges are perhaps negligible. But how about the large bulk of executives and managers who fall in the middle of this spectrum? I disagree with the often quoted dictum that good performers will not be looking for jobs and they therefore need to be “sought” out.

People move from one company to another for a multitude of reasons. Many of them can be strong performers if they are placed in a position that matches their motivations. So, if at any time there are many people looking for a different career opportunity, do you really need a search firm to help you “search” for them. I cannot help but wonder if company’s who hire such firms are fully aware of their options. I also wonder if the increaseing number of serach firms are taking such companies for a ride and have tapped into a lucrative vein of ignorance and are feasting themselves on the results.

Companies generally, and HR Managers specifically, should reclaim what I feel is their rightful authority to have a major say in the whole recruitment process. Be careful of outsourcing (a large chunk of) the responsibility for identifying your supposedly “most important asset” to outsiders, and paying them good money for the privilege!