Sunday, 24 May 2015

Sinking Feeling

When my family moved to live in Hong Kong in the late 1970’s the issue of the Vietnamese Boatpeople was global headline news. By way of a reminder: In September 1978 1,200 Vietnamese had been unloaded onto an uninhabited island belonging to Indonesia and a month later another ship tried to dump 2,500 refugees on Malaysia – Malaysia denied them entry and the boat sat offshore until third counties offered them homes. Over the following years many boats made the voyage away from Vietnam; a significant number of these were attacked by pirates or sank. People spent exorbitant sums of money to secure “safe” passage on inappropriate, overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels with no guarantee of a warm welcome on a foreign shore. Thousands of people died. Current events in the Far East and the Mediterranean feel like déjà vu.

This picture, taken on May 14 2015, shows Rohingya migrants 
on a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman Sea

“What have the Boatpeople’s plight got to do with the world of work?” you might ask. Although, clearly not so desperate – work is seldom a matter of life or death – the situations present an extreme example of how humans behave, particularly when under pressure. Unscrupulous people should be avoided in any environment. If an organisation is unpleasant to work in, or management are toxic in the way they interact with employees, or there is concern over the financial stability of the business, then good employees, who are able to do, will leave. It is possible to turn the tide on a flood of valued individuals leaving a business, provided that you are honest about the issues and take action to address the problems? I was working in Professional Services when the global economic crisis hit and the firm I was with was severely impacted - it had traditionally acted as a top advisor to leading banks and financial institutions and, although our areas of expertise fell outside the area of products and approaches that people now say triggered the collapse, our clients were under severe pressure. Many customers indefinitely delayed or even ceased paying our bills, usually without prior warning. (So much for mutual respect and collaboration.)

We had to reduce headcount and restructure. We could have simply made people redundant and focused our efforts on the remaining business, but we knew that not only was that morally wrong (and in addition would cast us in a poor light in front of our clients, competitors, the media and other third parties) but also that by doing so we would damage our reputation as an employer with the people we wanted to attract and retain in the future – employees (and prospective employees) were unnerved and they needed to know that we cared and wanted to support them. We went out of our way to find opportunities to redeploy skills: internally we encouraged people to cross into new practice areas; we flew representatives from Australian and New Zealand firms (both areas where the global economic crisis had minimal impact) to London to meet with our best Antipodean-originated employees. Many of our Australian and New Zealand colleagues had stated, on joining, that they intended to return to their homelands when commencing families or to care for aging parents when the time was right. We provided them with an opportunity to return home, with a good job and security, thereby reducing the pressure on those employees who wished to remain. We supported all leavers in finding new roles, sometimes in collaboration with other businesses. I myself was subsequently provided with a fascinating employment opportunity through a colleague whom I had helped to relocate to Egypt. As a firm, we did the right things and I am proud of it. My former employer has continued to flourish (it has just opened yet another influential office in Asia) and is respected as a leader in its field. True leaders lead by example.

But, back to the Boatpeople… The reasons for migration are complex and emotionally charged – usually there are economic, social or religious causes at their roots. Some reasons for the 2015 Boatpeople are economic - farmers are committing suicide in India and Bangladesh due to crop losses caused by persistent bad weather. (Indian cotton producers have tough times ahead – last year’s harvest was abundant resulting in a slump in prices, this year’s yield will be poor, so farmers will only have a small amount to sell with deflated prices.) The thought of watching your family starve is enough to drive people to desperate acts. Oppressive governments force people to flee – all of the 900 Boatpeople who died trying to reach Europe last month were Eritrean - Eritrea is one of the world’s most repressive regimes. In Asia, the Rohingya Boatpeople from Myanmar are Moslems who face persecution and potential annihilation in their villages and hence choose to risk losing their lives in order to escape.  

Myanmar migrants crammed into the hull of a fishing boat,
as seen by Myanmar police on 23 May 2015
Photo - Myanmar Information Ministry
Governments are beginning to respond to this humanitarian crisis. About 7,000 migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh have spent weeks at sea, but finally Malaysia and Indonesia have offered to provide temporary shelter (to those who manage to land on their soil) and Myanmar rescued two boats of migrants on Friday. However, I remain concerned, the root causes and some of the worst evils are being ignored. European leaders’ proposed solution to the problem in the Mediterranean is to capture and destroy the traffickers’ vessels – by sending warships into Libya’s territorial waters. To me this feels like a reaction rather than a solution – people flee countries to seek a better life elsewhere. The reason for the Boatpeople is not the availability of boats, it is the conditions they have to endure in their home countries that compel them to leave. Surely a better solution would be to tackle the root causes and hence remove the need to flee? Morally it seems wrong to trap would-be migrants in what we know are appalling conditions of persecution or hardship with no safe alternative routes to escape. If we can help these people to enjoy positive, productive existences and feel safe in their home countries, by resolving the problems there, than the need to trust their lives to unprincipled extortionists and con men and embark in unsafe boats will cease.

Migrant boat in distress in the Mediterranean
Photo: TORM A/S
People trafficking is a trade that has gone on via Thailand for years. But now, it isn’t just buying and selling bonded labour, it is a ransom trade with huge sums of money being made by evil people. Entire Thai communities are now getting involved – bought off by traffickers to prevent the hostages escaping. Holding camps exist in the bush for trafficked migrants  - originally exploited Rohindras from Myanmar were the victims, but it is now expanding with people being held from Bangladesh.  Impoverished families back in home countries are extorted into paying large sums (thousands of pounds) to release relatives. It requires political will to make this practice cease.

Rescue workers in southern Thailand inspecting a mass grave.
There are many deaths in trafficker camps in the Thai jungle.
Another aspect of the current situation that worries me is the on going issue of resettlement. Both Indonesia and Malaysia have stipulated that they will help Boatpeople, on condition that there is resettlement of these migrants into other countries within one year. This feels reminiscent of the situation I experienced in Hong Kong over two decades ago.

Between 1975 and 1995, despite the tiny size of the territory, it is only 426 square miles, Hong Kong took in more than 200,000 Vietnamese Boatpeople and the government established 40 refugee camps at different times to deal with the crisis. The last camp, Pillar Point, was closed in 2000.  The fall of Saigon (and hence the shift from capitalism to communism) was the trigger that commenced the exodus from Vietnam. In mid-1975 circa 50,000 Vietnamese (mainly former US employees and ex-government officials) left by air or sea. From late 1975 to 1977 a monthly average of 1,500 people fled, mainly in small fishing boats, these numbers rose significantly in 1978 – when syndicates from Macao, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, with links in southern Vietnam, accepted money from people wishing to escape (would be refugees paid on average ten taels of gold for each adult and five taels for each child, to be transported in abandoned freighters. A tael is 50g of gold (circa £1,251 in today’s money) and would have been significantly more than the average annual salary of a Vietnamese citizen at the time.

Vietnamese refugees scramble from a sinking boat which they beached at Kuala Terengganu, Malaysia December 1978, file photo  

From January 1979 Malaysia and Thailand stopped accepting Boatpeople, this example was swiftly followed by Indonesia and the Philippines. The situation was declared an international crisis and a conference was held in Geneva, in July 1979, to determine what to do. Unlike other locations, during this time Hong Kong did not turn people away. In the late 1970’s, when I lived in Hong Kong, my mother and I assisted as volunteers in a camp established for Boatpeople. The migrants in Hong Kong were referred to as “I.I.s” – short for ”Illegal immigrants” and were a cause of local as well as international concern. The discrepancy between local poverty and those in the camps provided with food, shelter and comfort was a problem in itself. International aid was offered – I remember a consignment of highchairs, with sturdy wooden seats and legs, being delivered. I also remember these going missing and then seeing odd-shaped chopping boards suddenly appearing in the local market (with four distinctive holes, where chair legs had once been, and other indentations for struts and backrest). Local people begrudged the money and support being given to the I.I.s when they themselves were living close to the breadline.

My comments are not intended as a criticism of Hong Kong and its people, despite the financial and social pressure, every migrant was granted temporary first asylum. No boat was ever refused. However, part of the agreement made in Geneva was that resettlement host countries were allowed to select whom they would take – this caused significant issues as many found it hard to gain opportunities overseas and those that did were usually offered menial jobs, such as civic cleaning despite their qualifications and experience. 

Demonstration against boat people in UK, 1979
Their plight was harsh, but so too was that of the many left waiting in camps in unhappy and unfulfilling existences. This latter issue is one that many of us have ignored. I was very struck by the comments in a book, The Invisible Citizens of Hong Kong by Sophia Law Suk-mun, published late last year. It is a compilation of memories of Vietnamese Boatpeople who migrated to Hong Kong and includes art and poetry. I was moved by the words of Le Huynh, an inmate in Hong Kong, who described their refugee camp as 
“This bestial prison … a thousand miles long, With its head in Vietnam and its tail in Hong Kong.” 
Vietnamese refugees in Kai Tak East camp, Hong Kong
 And I would like to leave you with words from a poem: 
Freedom… Freedom!
Those simple sweet words
For us, poor people escaping the homeland
Sailing across oceans
Trying to find happiness
That’s all we need 
People of the world, we looking to you
Please help us to be free
Please let the children
No longer cry
For their forgotten fates
Please, the free world
Open your arms
To rescue us
Poor people without a country.

Please Do Not Abandon Us, by Kieu Mong Thu, a former Vietnamese Boat Person who was in a camp in Hong Kong (published in Aug 1991). 

We need to break what seems to be becoming a shameful repetitive cycle.

Cartoon from Melbourne Herald, 1979

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Watching for Eagles

“Instead of this absurd division into sexes they ought to class people as static and dynamic.” Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall (1928)

Although written for comic effect, there is more than a grain of truth in Evelyn Waugh’s proposed classification of the sexes. 

A study, triggered by the UK’s financial services industry’s regulatory body’s requirement to assess risk tolerance in investors, has demonstrated that there is a profound difference in male and female approaches and attitudes to risk. Geoff Trickey and So Yi Yeung, of the Psychological Consultancy Limited, published the research in 2012. They had assessed a group of 2,000 men and women in 20 different fields of work worldwide and found that the gap between men and women when it comes to taking risks, was “unexpected in its magnitude’. They concluded that this difference is genetic in origin and would have been a crucial contributor to the success and survival of our species. Women were found to be more than twice as likely to be cautious and prudent, whilst men are prone to being adventurous and carefree.

I was discussing this very factor with three members of my team earlier this week and both Pav and Alice told me I should blog about it. We were considering the annual performance appraisal process and looking at the variations in ratings. Throughout my career, I have often found that women tend to rate themselves lower than men in their self-appraisals. I admit that this is a sweeping generalisation, but it has seemed to be a common occurrence wherever I have been employed - and I have been a senior HR leader, with access to the data, in Financial Services, Professional Services and Technology organisations. I commented to my colleagues that I suspected this difference comes down to genetics and is deep rooted in hindbrain responses. The hindbrain or rhombencephalon evolved more than 500 million years ago. It resembles the brain of a modern reptile and is responsible for many of our automatic reflexes such as the control of breathing, heart rate, digestion, movement and sense perception. In prehistoric times women were most probably responsible for looking after the children and were based in land close to the home-base, perhaps tending crops and preparing food and necessities for the tribe’s survival – they would have spent much of their time on the look out for danger (“watching for eagles”).

 NB above video is a fake 

In contrast, men in early times were responsible for hunting and feeding the tribe – we know this from numerous cave illustrations from around the world. By necessity men needed a greater appetite for risk and adventure than the women, to help them cope with the dangers and stress of hunting wild animals armed with only sticks and stones. If you are off to get a mammoth or rhino for supper you need a degree of chutzpah.

Mammoth from Rouffignac, France. Painted circa 13,000 years ago
Women remain more cautious than men, or so it appears from a study undertaken by the Pew Research Centre in 2012 that found that, when using social media, women are careful about setting privacy settings (restricting access to their profiles to close circles and deleting people from their networks) whereas over ¼ of the men in the study chose the most public settings for their profiles and also expressed a higher rate of regrets for posts they had made or shared. Similar findings have also been espoused in relation to job applications – most notably the Hewlett Packard report that appeared to indicate that men apply for a job when they meet 60% of the required qualifications and criteria, but women apply only if they meet 100% (as quoted in Lean In, The Confidence Code). Subsequent research has shown that these statistics are misleading, as they are not based on women’s lack of confidence but rather on a desire not to waste anyone’s time and hence perhaps a misconception of the hiring process – most job descriptions are an ideal for the role and allowances are often made for people who need to “grow into the role”. Clearly more women need to become aware of this.

Part of women’s outlook may be historical, based on their experience once large numbers started entering the workforce. Economic necessity, especially during the downturn of the 1970s, often resulted in both husbands and wives taking on employment to cover household expenses. However the work available to women was usually administrative or clerical as few had professional qualifications. I remember in the early 80’s being advised that I should aspire to becoming a secretary, nurse, teacher or shepherdess – all admirable roles but perhaps not ones that would fully utilise my law degree. My paternal grandmother (one of the brightest women I have known) told me that she was “banned from taking a degree” by her family, who saw further education for women as no more than an unnecessary extravagance. It was not until late in the 20th century that women started breaking into the professional workspace and their jobs were attained through the qualifications that had attained. It is possible that bias still remains in some workplaces and hence women need to meet the criteria for a role more closely than their male counterparts – this was demonstrated in a McKinsey report that concluded that men are often hired or promoted for their potential, whereas women were selected due to their experience and track record.

According to social-cognitive theory, most performance raters have difficulty overcoming their ingrained stereotypes in relation to how they perceive men and women; it is probable that preconceptions encourage many of us to apply certain behaviours and characteristics to others we work with. For example Del Boca and Ashmore’s research in the1980s demonstrated that (in Western cultures) stereotypical male characteristics include competence, rationality and assertion; whereas female characteristics include warmth and expressiveness – this results in the risk of women being seen as

“Nice but incompetent, the typical man as competent but maybe not so nice.” (Susan Fiske, 1998) 
St George and the Dragon by Paolo Uccello
Here is one of my favourite poems inspired by this picture
In their 2002 paper, Cara Bauer and Boris Baltes make some proposals on how best to go about reducing the effects of gender stereotypes on performance evaluations - they propose that although “women who are evaluated by raters with traditional stereotypes may receive less positive outcomes than their true performance dictates” this can be overcome by a “structured free recall” (meaning that “raters are instructed to recall behaviours that they have observed and to rely on these observations when completing the rating”). I must confess to being a bit un-nerved by this. Most employees and managers complain about the annual performance management process – in particular the length and time required to complete an appraisal. A structured approach usually requires formal questions being answered and then the responses being used to support a decision – this can mean adding an extra step to the process. Rather than doing this I would hope that sufficiently informed and trained raters would know to rely on specific evidence and incidents that had occurred during the past year rather than just writing how they feel about a person.

Using evidence based decisions to hit the target
Regrettably, this is not the case in all organisations. According to an article in Fortune published in August 2014 the approach and words used towards men and women in appraisals differs. The research into the words used in the documentation of 248 appraisal reviews (from 180 people, 105 men and 75 women), within a number of technology businesses certainly provides food for thought – women tend to be given critical, personal feedback more often than men (negative personal observations were made in 2 out of 83 critical reviews received by men in the sample, but adverse personal comments were included in 71 of the 94 critical reviews received by women). The use of particular words seems to be common when criticising women – namely “Abrasive”, “Bossy”, “Strident” and “Aggressive” in relation to their leadership style and “Emotional” and “Irrational” for the manner in which they raise objections. Of these words, only “Aggressive” was applied to men and of the three instances recorded two were seeking to encourage the individual to be more aggressive. This also seems to hark back to stereotypical responses grounded in our hindbrain reaction. 

To create the world of the future, we need to rise above being reptilian. Perhaps that is the most important reminder we need, to help each of us avoid being biased when assessing others.

Right…I’m now off to prepare mammoth steaks for the family’s lunch – can you keep an eye out for the eagles?