Business Insights: Hong Kong Work Culture

Thanks to its unique history, Hong Kong is a melting pot of eastern and western cultures. While it is a lively and cosmopolitan city, its work culture is steeped in Chinese traditions with unspoken cultural norms. Whether you are setting up a new business in Hong Kong or looking to hire talents here, it is important to develop knowledge of local workplace norms and business etiquettes. Read on for more insights on Hong Kong’s work culture and what you should be paying attention to. 

Working in Hong Kong

As with most Asian cities, there is strong deference for seniority and age in Hong Kong work culture. Characterized by hierarchical structures, decisions are typically made at the top of the company. Subordinates will follow a manager’s instructions and are not encouraged to express opinions as challenging someone of higher status is considered rude. 

Dress code norms are fairly conservative. In Chinese culture, different colours have different meanings. For example, red represents luck while white is a traditional symbol of mourning. It is necessary to pay close attention to these meanings when choosing a colour scheme for the day. Dark and neutral colours are generally preferred. For any professional setting, even during business dinners, formal attire is the safest option, as it is associated with professionalism. Ladies are generally seen in knee-length and shoulders-covered dresses while men wear long-sleeved shirts. But in fields such as marketing, advertising and fashion, more casual attire such as non-matching jackets and trousers is acceptable. 

In terms of meeting norms, seniors are expected to run the show at meetings and do most of the talking. Meetings are efficient and there is no prolonging just for the sake of relationship building, which may take place at a different venue at a separate time.

Another important workplace etiquette is the concept of face. It means respecting others, especially those of a higher status. Even amongst co-workers, people rarely say no or confront others directly. Instead, they tend to adopt a softer tone or use alternative wording – “yes” is more of an acknowledgement than a direct agreement. 

The above workplace norms and practices are commonplace in most local companies in Hong Kong. Western companies that are headquartered overseas, however, are more likely to adopt a different approach to work than local companies, as reflected in the working hours, number of days of annual leave, special allowance, etc. 

Working Hours in Hong Kong 

Working hours in Hong Kong are notoriously long and demanding. In the UBS 2016 survey, employees in Hong Kong, on average, clocked in 50.1 hours a week, the longest in the world and 38% more than the global average. Unlike in the West, working overtime is not a rare sight in Hong Kong. Local professionals tend to work for longer hours, even though their contracts do not require them to work for so long. It is normal to see employees stay late to finish the outstanding task rather than putting it for the next day. But there are also people willingly working overtime as working longer hours are often regarded as a sign of importance and ambition. 

Working long hours over an extended period is known to take a drastic toll on the employee’s mental and physical health. It is thus not surprising that people endure a great deal of work stress in Hong Kong. According to a survey by the US insurer Cigna, Hong Kong is the fifth most stressed population globally. 92 % of those surveyed confessed facing stress in their daily lives, 77% of which said work and finance were the main culprits of their stress. 

In recent years, a shift in attitude towards work-life balance has been gaining ground. Attractive salary package is no longer as high as a list of other considerations. Companies that refuse or are slow to adapt are set to find it increasingly difficult to hire or retain talents. There is a growing number of employees in Hong Kong that regard work-life balance as more attractive than higher pay. Some are even willing to accept less pay in exchange for flexible working hours. 

Although openly discussing the problem of stress in workplaces remains a stigma for some local companies, more and more companies are working to address the issue by focusing more on employees’ wellness such as redesigning office spaces and offering better employee benefits. To tackle work stress issues and increase retention rates, employers must be flexible, offering greater choice and customization. As an employer, you should provide adequate support to employees when it comes to overly demanding client’s requests. 

Progressive corporate wellness programs should also be considered as part of a long-term employee strategy. Health-focused initiatives could be activities such as yoga and meditation or coaching programs. Other welfare initiatives could be the option to leave work at 4PM on Fridays or a no meeting policy for Friday afternoons. Employers will face significant challenges in attracting and securing future talent if they fail to understand that their employees increasingly want work to be a part of who they are – not just a way to make a living.

Common Hiring Procedure: Reference Check  

Conducting a reference check is a common practice during the hiring process in Hong Kong. It involves contacting previous employers, supervisors, schools, and so forth. It is commonly used in the hiring process because it provides independent insights into a candidate’s past work performance and cultural fit. It helps avoid costs associated with failed probation periods and poor performance. In addition to verifying whether a candidate’s claims about qualifications, length of experience or previous roles held are legitimate, a reference check also helps create a more level playing field. Candidates who did poorly in interviews could be excellent employees, while those excelling during interviews may lack the qualities needed to succeed in the role. 

To prepare for an employment reference check, employers should ask the candidate to give them a list of references. He or she should have contacted these references and obtained their consent to become the reference beforehand. It is important to explicitly let the candidate know that you wish the references to be those who supervised them, as this could give you a better picture of your candidate’s work performance. 

When you conduct a reference check for a candidate, you should first identify yourself, title, organization name and tell them you are calling about a reference for a candidate you are considering. Ask whether it’s a good time to chat – or if they would like to schedule a call at a later time. Make sure to reiterate that you have obtained the consent, and everything will remain confidential. 

After all these formalities, go ahead with a brief description of the role and specific questions pertaining to its responsibilities. Instead of asking vague questions like “do you think the candidate can do X”, give some context and list out criteria. It can be done by asking specific but open-ended questions. Ask about specific examples or for further detail on projects you are aware of. Remember to give them time to answers as the reference might not be able to recall instantly. 

Looking for talents in Hong Kong?

Links International is an award-winning recruitment agency in Hong Kong. We provide flexible and customized recruitment solutions for your recruitment needs. Our team of Links specialist has years of experience finding the best talents in Asia. We also help corporates build their employer branding strategy to attract and retain the right talent. Get in touch with one of our representatives today to see how we can help.