I’ve been a careers coach to executives in Hong Kong for several years. Some of my clients are in senior roles in the finance sector, and I used to work for a U.S. bank myself before I became a coach.
Since June, when the protests first broke out in a major way, my clients have been increasingly voicing concerns about the unrest in Hong Kong and how it’s affecting their wellbeing, as well as that of their staff and families.
Put simply, the unrest has put a lot of extra pressure on leaders in banking and other sectors. On one hand, executives are under pressured to toe the line with China, but on the other they don’t want to risk offending some of their own local employees, who may generally support the wider aims of the pro-democracy movement.
This dilemma means that executives are cautious about openly taking a position for or against the protests or the Hong Kong government. And the need to sit on the fence and hold in emotions for months on end is causing them anxiety and confusion.
Many of the people I coach will keep their views to themselves at work, even while harbouring strong personal opinions about the crisis in Hong Kong. Some people face a similar predicament at home. Execs have told me that they’re uncertain whether to tell their pre-teen children what they really think and feel about the protest movement.
Instead of taking a firm stance either way, senior execs in banking are trying to support their employees by emphasising the importance of staying physically safe (e.g. while on the MTR). This has its limits, however. Some leaders are confused as to what the official line on the protests should be, because their head offices simply issue cryptic instructions to management such as “ensure people’s safety”.
Execs that confide in me also say that they are keeping social events and ceremonies going, despite the economic outlook being generally gloomy. Staff at banks and other large companies in Hong Kong are definitely looking to their leaders for comfort and reassurance right now – and providing a sense of ‘business as usual’ via these kind of events is important.
Having spoken to senior managers in Hong Kong regularly since the summer, I think they are treating Hong Kong’s current unrest far more seriously than the 2014 Umbrella Movement pro-democracy protests. These were seen as more of an inconvenience and less of a serious threat to the wellbeing of Hong Kong citizens.
Execs are now having to grapple with new and stressful issues such as how to react if a staff member is arrested and how to deal with opinionated employees. Managers may be keeping their own mouths shut about the protests, but that’s not necessarily the case lower down the ranks. Ordinary Hongkongers are increasingly concerned about their safety, their jobs and their futures – and as a result they’ve become more explicit in expressing their feelings.
Tammy Keung is a Hong Kong-based careers coach who previously worked for a US bank.
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