[Blog 24] The Chief Guru Chronicles 101: When In Rome, Do As The Romans Do

As a HR professional operating in a foreign land, what would you make of policies that encourage communality harmony rather than opportunities for growth? In an era of globalisation and cross-cultural interaction, is it wise to respect their regard for tradition or should said policies be amended to conform to what you deem as practical? The landscape for HR management in emerging economies is a stark contrast from what many are accustomed to, especially when there is a need to handle cultural issues sensitively.

I have encountered these dilemmas firsthand while heading the HR function of a luxury hotel chain in a developing country during a time when the workforce was experiencing post-war strains and the hotel union was just taking hold. The Singapore-based organisation garnered regional attention during a widely reported industrial dispute several years ago when two of its prestigious hotels — one in City A and one in City B — were primarily in the limelight of the en-tire conflict after some 200 employees staged a strike.

The cause of the strike began when management, with the intent of incentivising the workforce and sharing the profits achieved, put in place an incentive payment scheme where employees would be rewarded with an incentive payout upon attainment of a specific target/KPI. This incentive payment scheme would be over and above their regular wages. Management had painstakingly over several months communicated the incentive payment scheme to all its em-ployees in the country through focus group discussions, town halls and worked in close collaboration with the union. However, this scheme became an issue of huge contention when the target/KPI was achieved.

Due to an increasing flow of tourists in City A, the employees there were able to hit their target first. Accordingly, as a good employer which advocated transparency and governance, the employees in City A were accorded the due incentive payment. Shockingly, this payment caused much unhappiness and distress to the employees in City B, who due to the fact that they had not achieved the target/KPI and hence did not get their incentive payment, demanded that they should be similarly and equally rewarded as well. Rightly or wrongly, in their minds, they believed that they are entitled to the incentive payment regardless. The concept of pay-for-performance or incentive payments was something that was just not acceptable when they feel that they are being short-changed.

In order to reach a settlement, there was a series of discussions and deliberation between the management and the union. Many more issues surfaced but the strikes ended after they were declared illegal by the government, prompting the intervention of the local authorities to mediate a resolution between both parties that was eventually met.

This ordeal is a perfect illustration of how present day approaches may not always work; there is no one size fits all. It is clear that several policies and practices we take for granted in our modern society do not have a place in emerging economies because of norms and perspectives that differ significantly. This is apparent in the example of this developing country where fairness and objectivity reigns. Manoeuvring the ebb and flow of human resources in emerging economies can be extremely challenging when there are rigid views on motivation and complexities on how rewards should be provided. Essentially, adopt more flexibility when venturing in-to elusive markets or be prepared for a series of complications that are both disastrous and damaging.


This article is the first in a series of accounts as part of The Chief Guru Chronicles, a monthly column which recounts Chief Guru Tommy Ng’s experience and encounters in HR management across various countries and industries. The purpose of this column is to provide helpful information on the subjects discussed, and to edu-cate readers through challenges experienced. It should not be perceived and used as a professional advice.

Any views or opinions are not intended to malign any religion, races, ethnic group, organisation, company or individual. In addition, we do not make any warranties about the completeness, reliability and accuracy of the information.

As a disclosure, some names and information were intentionally concealed or edited in order to protect the identity of the involved parties.