TODAY 20071020: I felt guilty, I felt valued


As a labour-stat’d minion who was previously paid peanuts and has been jobless and trying to land a job for the last four months, I cannot help but feel confuzzled about all this talk about talent crunch. I feel like I’m living a mirage (Where’s Bear Grylls when you need him?) or worse, trapped in an alternate universe (Please, Scottie, beam me home!)

This story was printed from TODAYonline

I felt guilty, I felt valued

The highs and lows of Singapore’s biggest talent crunch since 1997

Weekend • October 20, 2007

Christie Loh
christie@mediacorp.com.sg

SHE went over the carefully-picked words for the umpteenth time in her head. After a deep breath and a timid knock on her boss’ door, she slowly walked in. Before she could speak, he did.

“Are you sure this is a good decision? I thought you were happy here? How can you leave after all we’ve done for you?”

And so started the guilt trip that Ms Frances Lee (not her real name) never expected her boss to pull. For the next 20 minutes, the government scholar sat cringing in the increasingly-oppressive room, pummelled by a lecture against her intention to quit after four good years.

In what is Singapore’s biggest talent crunch in the last 10 years, employers have been resorting to every trick in the book to draw new talent and keep existing good ones.

With the economy humming, the scramble for A-list staff is not abating — and both hunters and the hunted are discovering that the old rules of the game may not work anymore.

Weekend Xtra tracked down the likes of Frances Lee — they all requested that their real names not be used — for their real-life stories about the good, the bad and the ugly in this war for talent.

Still in the dark

Not all companies realise that in this tight labour market, it is the talent that has the upper hand.

Recently, the hiring manager of a large local company kept a candidate for a senior post waiting for 45 minutes. When the tardy manager finally showed up, he didn’t offer a shred of an apology and proceeded to conduct a “cursory” interview for the next 30 minutes. No surprise — the candidate was rejected and via a curt email at that.

Rude? Yes. Rare? Not at all, said Mr Charles Moore, Singapore managing partner of search firm Heidrick and Struggles, recounting the incident told to him by the candidate concerned.

Imagine the blow to the company’s name should the candidate spread the word to his family and friends.

Other faux pas at the hiring process include a company cancelling an interview at the last minute, wasting the candidate’s time. Some are so ungracious as to fly in candidates, invited from half way round the world to interview for a top position, on economy class instead of business, said Mr Moore.

Also important is the moment of receiving a resignation letter from a valued worker. Ms Lee’s boss could think of only two reactions: Guilt-trip the 20-plus girl, then suggest that a promotion and raise will come … um … next year.

“That’s so arbitrary and promotions in my company are pre-determined anyway,” she said.

On the whole, Singapore firms are not very creative when it comes to staff-retention methods. A recent poll of 723 employment decision-makers in Singapore showed that 71 per cent of them use counter-offers to try changing their employee’s mind, said mid-level recruitment agency Hudson.

Unfortunately, counter-offers are also one of the least successful strategies, said Mr Mark Ellwood, director of recruitment firm Robert Walters International. Since the bond of trust between the worker and his boss has been damaged, the working relationship is unlikely to last beyond another 12 months unless non-financial remedies are in place, Mr Ellwood said.

Some employers unwisely put their faith in guilt-tripping as a non-financial method.

Even after Ms Lee stood by her decision to quit, the month leading up to her last day saw her bosses continuing to remind her about honouring the six-year commitment she made when she signed on as a scholar and how “it’s not too late to turn back now”.

Recalling those days with a groan of frustration, she said: “If they had given me confidence about their plans for developing my career in the company, I might have reconsidered.”

Enlightened employers

Now, Frances is with a multinational corporation (MNC) that is not only paying her about a third more than the government agency, but it also paid off her remaining bond with no new strings attached.

From the very start, her new employer showed it was “sincere”.

It was the Singapore head of the MNC who approached Frances, who was not even looking to move, with a job offer.

“Effectively, it was a stamp of approval. I didn’t get that kind of affirmation in my previous job, where it was like: ‘We paid for your education; you’re indebted to us, and if you’re good, you’re supposed to be’,” she said.

The four months before the big move were stressful. There was a gruelling series of written tests on her creativity and character traits, and two formal interviews.

The MNC needed to fill the position urgently, yet they repeatedly assured Ms Lee that if she wasn’t sure about signing on, they would continue to wait.

“I felt very valued,” she said.

Many companies are realising that in this talent-short market, they need to show a personal touch and a big heart to improve their proposition.

Both of financial analyst Bernard Low’s former bosses have kept in touch with him, even occasionally “bouncing ideas off each other”, said the 30-something.

Going overboard?

Then, there is the case of Ms Shirley Tan, who stretched the patience of a prospective employer to the hilt but still enjoyed its magnanimity.

She, like Ms Lee, was headhunted to take up a job with a foreign MNC. Right after she tendered her resignation, the two top bosses of her communications firm sat her down and convinced her that if she were to go, she would be leaving the company high and dry. They needed her, they said.

Shirley then informed the MNC she would have to back out of the contract. What did the MNC do? It deployed a handful of its managing directors to persuade the 30-something Singaporean that the regional post they were offering held better prospects. After a long four-hour chat, Shirley remained set on staying with her company.

The MNC’s reaction stunned her. Instead of long faces, they walked her to the lift, kept a smile, shook her hand and said their door would always be open.

That is “model behaviour” by the prospective employer, commented a recruiter, whereas it is more common to see rejected firms go into “sulk mode”.

But Ms Tan, some felt, did not handle the situation well; going back on an agreement lacks professionalism.

Recruiters are especially annoyed with candidates who “make use” of them to receive a job offer, only to bring the contract back to the current boss in the hope of receiving a counter-offer.

“Playing organisations off each other wastes a lot of our time,” said Mr Ellwood.

Will recruiters blacklist a fickle candidate? It depends on the circumstances.

Recently, a woman living in Australia with her Singapore-born husband received an offer to work with a bank here.

She accepted, went through the paperwork, and was all set to prepare for the move when her hubby revealed a secret he had kept for a very long time: He had left home as a young boy to avoid National Service, so he could not return to Singapore without facing punishment.

The woman and the bank, both shocked, had to rip up the contract. As for the global recruitment agency, it decided not to drop her from its database.

Hiring, as Mr Moore put it, is basically about dealing with “the funniness of people”.

At this point in history, it would seem that those in demand can afford to be “funnier”, while companies in need find themselves having to think farther “out of the box” to snag the good people.

To put it simply, said Mr Moore, “the war for talent is over. Talent has won”.

Copyright MediaCorp Press Ltd. All rights reserved.

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