Knowledge is power, and it’s always a good idea to be familiar with the customs and societal norms of an unknown place when you’re the new kid on the block. As a new joiner or expat, understanding the generally accepted behaviours and avoiding ones that can be seen as ignorant or even offensive can be even more important in a new workplace, because those relationships can become useful connections later in your career.
If you’re entering a role in a Hong Kong workplace, are an international firm setting up an office in the financial hub, or looking to hire talent here, congratulations - and here are a few tips that will set you up for forming strong business relationships, communicating smoothly with new colleagues, and on track to building a healthy work-life balance.
What is work culture?
Work culture or company culture is the set of beliefs, values, and behaviours held by the majority in a workplace. This forms over time through interactions at the employee, managerial, departmental, organisational, and even regional and country level. Positive and toxic work culture is established at all of these levels, the effects of which ripple out to the other levels.
When applying for jobs, company culture is an essential factor for candidates to be aware of because it influences long-term job satisfaction, productivity, and career growth.
It’s also important for high-level employees to have an understanding of the elements of work culture, as they can have a significant impact on what it looks like in the trickle-down.
Strong hierarchical structures
While Hong Kong is celebrated for its mingling East and West values, the adherence to hierarchies based on position and age established through Hong Kong’s Chinese culture remains prevalent. While ideas from all employees are valued, in traditional firms, senior management (which can also mean the eldest associate, in some cases) are most highly respected, lead meetings, and are the first to be acknowledged in both greeting and departing.
Long working hours
Home to Asia’s most stressed employees according to a 2022 report, Hong Kong is notorious for long working hours. With little concept of the 8-hour-day, the average working week is 50.1 hours long. Depending on the firm, working days sometimes include Saturday (i.e. only one rest day). Overtime is normally given at the same rate as regular contractual pay and at the employer’s discretion.
Few annual leaves
Employees in Hong Kong are legally entitled to a minimum of seven days’ annual leave with pay per 12 months. This can go up to 14 days depending on how long an employee has stayed with the company. However, employers do have the discretion to increase their employees’ vacation days, with many firms offering a greater number of paid holidays to attract talent.
Hong Kong has a relatively high number of public holidays at 17 each year, compared to Iran’s 27 (ranking first internationally).
Flexible working laws
Working laws such as probation, resignation notice, and termination notice period are quite flexible according to Hong Kong law. There is no set probation period, and it can range anywhere from one to six months, depending on the negotiation, type of job, and company. Resignation and termination notice periods also don’t have many guidelines. The notice period is usually mutually agreed upon in the contract terms but must not be less than seven days.
The dress code in traditional Hong Kong offices is conservative, with an emphasis on cleanliness and looking put-together. Subtle accessorising like a branded watch is noticed and appreciated, as is displaying of brands. Dress codes in certain industries (such as marketing and fashion) as well as co-working spaces are more casual.
As part of Hong Kong business culture, men are expected to dress in a formal shirt, tie, and trousers, with or without a suit jacket. Women generally wear modest dresses, blouses, and skirts. Another factor at play in Hong Kong formal dress code is colour. Red is a lucky colour and welcomed during holiday seasons and Chinese festivals, while white is considered a mourning colour. Black is relatively neutral, except for during festivals related to ghosts such as Hungry Ghost Festival (also called Zhongyuan Festival).
Gift giving has an extensive set of etiquette attached to it. First, the price of the gift given to business associates and colleagues is a highly important factor. The packaging should be beautiful and clearly show the brand name of the item as that’s a significant indicator of how much it cost. Monetary value is absolutely something the giftee uses to measure the value of their gift, which for them, mirrors the value you place in the relationship. Giftees will initially refuse the gift, but it is expected that the gifter insist on bestowing the gift; eventually, the giftee will accept.
Maintaining calm façade
Remaining calm and well-mannered in the heat of negotiation and in-company communication is a very important value for conducting business in Hong Kong. Furthermore, ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are communicated in non-direct ways, as a direct ‘no’ could be taken as too harsh. It’s best to avoid pushing senior colleagues and clients to make decisions or reply to an email, even if they’re late in doing so. This can be seen as aggressive and hot-headed, affecting your professional reputation and the potential of future dealings.
Hong Kong business etiquette
The business etiquette in Hong Kong is a collection of the previous points, with the most essential to remember being: exude a calm and patient persona and show respect for authority. When meeting associates for the first time, be punctual and identify the senior members, greeting them in order of rank by their title and last name and a handshake.
The majority of Hong Kong’s population speaks excellent English and often has a Westernised first name, but it is prudent to learn how to properly pronounce Chinese names. Incorrectly pronouncing a potential client’s name can leave a terrible first impression.
Exchange business cards at the beginning of meetings, both receiving and handing over cards with both hands as a show of respect. You should also study the card for a moment instead of immediately putting it in your pocket or briefcase.
While Hong Kong has internalised more Western values than some of its surrounding neighbours in Asia, conservative and traditional Chinese values are engrained in its business traditions and work culture. While proper etiquette is very important, what’s even more important is showing willingness to learn and openness to the culture, no matter where you are. If you do, then both within your company and in your wider business circle, improper pronunciation and gestures can always be forgiven.