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Tailoring your HR strategy to offer Generation Y employees flexibility is worth the investment and professional development may help in increasing their numbers

This article was first published in the March 2014 Malaysia edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Malaysia’s population is one of the youngest in the region, with a median age of 26.2 years in 2010, according to the Malaysian Department of Statistics. This number implies a growing percentage of young people coming into the workforce, where they are typically known as Generation Y employees.

Gen Y are people born between the early 1980s and late 1990s. They are internet-literate and constantly connected with the web via their personal computers and smartphones. They also seek freedom of expression everywhere they go and are always looking for the next better thing to move on to.

In recent times, such characteristics have made it challenging for many sectors – especially financial services – as far as recruitment and talent management are concerned.

From wanting access to their social-media feeds all day, to demanding a highly diverse working environment with high remuneration and non-monetary perks such as flexible working hours, Gen Y have been seen as some of the most difficult people for businesses to recruit and retain.

Forrester Research notes that the aspirations of Gen Y tend to be largely short to mid-term.

The firm says that, generally speaking, Gen Y eschew fast-track careers and high pay for fewer billable hours, flexible schedules and a better work/life balance. ‘In financial services we think Gen Y are, by and large, attracted by the prospect of working in a large financial organisation, and the concomitant pay/perks,’ says Clement Teo, senior analyst with Forrester.

Teo believes that it’s not so much the recruitment of Gen Y that is the challenge as their retention. And the difficulty in keeping hold of Gen Y could be for reasons other than not being able to use social platforms at work; he cites poor work/life balance and small salary increments as among the reasons for Gen Y to decide to move on.

Addressing the issues

But though these challenges do exist in financial services, Chew Siew Suan of Alliance Bank Malaysia believes there are ways to address the issues. Chew is the bank’s executive vice president and head of group human resource, and she says Gen Y expect to fulfil their social, training and lifestyle aspirations at the workplace while pursuing their personal ambitions.

She adds: ‘From our interaction with our Gen Y employees, we find them to be extremely tech-savvy, always “connected”. They learn quickly and are engaged with their social network. They also read and process information differently; hence they often have a different viewpoint about work, ethics and relationships with the other generations.’

Chew says Alliance Bank has enhanced its recruiting capabilities by engaging target candidate groups at career fairs, universities and campuses to build a strong external candidate pipeline – efforts that she says have worked for the bank.

To retain Gen Y employees, Chew notes that it’s important to show appreciation for their individuality and allow them to have an input into the decision-making process.

It’s not just about giving orders or instructions but also about providing a logical rationale for every decision while also re-affirming their role in the organisation, she adds.

‘There are now inter-generational gaps that exist in the financial services sector, between the baby-boomers and the Gen Y,’ Chew explains. ‘This requires managers in financial services to appreciate Gen Y value systems to maximise their true potential.

‘Creating a collaborative and conducive work environment is important, as is promoting employee engagement across all generations at the office. For example, our bank has rest-and-relax or chill-out rooms equipped with wireless connections, TV, coffee machines, board games and comfy chairs for their usage. We also hold regular team engagement and activity-based projects, which helps inculcate stronger bonds among teams.’

On the flipside, Chew believes that Gen Y sometimes have unrealistic expectations, such as high salary demands, which makes it challenging for the financial services sector to entice more young talents to join it.

‘The Gen Y workforce tends to job-hop, which can be a threat to their success,’ she says. ‘They need to recognise that frequent moves can reduce their chances of their career advancement.’

Rethinking strategy

According to Soo Hoo Khoon Yean, partner and financial services leader at PwC Malaysia, the financial services sector as a whole needs to consider new thinking in HR strategy. For example, he suggests that companies consider flexible working hours, which are popular with working mums as well as Gen Y.

Soo Hoo says PwC has a work/life programme with three options:

  • flexible working arrangements, where people can choose to work between two and a half and four days a week;
  • an option for staff to plan in advance for additional time off beyond the annual leave entitlement;
  • career breaks, allowing staff to apply for one to three months off for personal/professional development.

Apart from this Soo Hoo says PwC allows staff at manager level and above to choose where they work, as long as they remain contactable and available to their clients.

‘This allows them to be more flexible and mobile. For example, if they are in between client meetings, then they may choose to work from a café that’s closer to where the meetings are rather than drive all the way back to the office and out again.

‘We also have a subsidy which allows managers and above to claim a capped amount from a range of categories, which include travel, well-being, self-interest and personal development, among others.’

As for the consumption of social media for Gen Y during work hours, Soo Hoo believes the trend is an unstoppable one and that it’s pointless trying to restrict staff using social media at work.

‘We suggest that companies provide the right guidelines and recommendations, so that they can leverage on their employees to be their brand ambassadors and help to attract more talent to the company. At the end of the day, it’s all about trust and having a common understanding of accountability.’

Rather than viewing social media as a distraction, Soo Hoo suggests that social media should be used to drive innovation through the sharing of ideas and social collaboration, which helps to speed up communications among employees in dispersed locations.

‘At PwC, we use an enterprise social business platform to connect with PwC staff across our global network of firms to exchange ideas, collaborate on projects and find solutions to business issues. We find it helps us work more effectively and systematically, even though we work in different continents and time zones.’

The fun factor

At the end of the day, Chew says that it is not merely the job description that entices Gen Y. She says that they are also looking for fun, quality social connections, good work-life balance, flexibility, personal development, and fast-track career advancement.

‘Despite the various challenges, Alliance Bank has seen a very encouraging outcome when Gen Y are integrated in the right manner with other employees as they are enthusiastic, optimistic and full of ideas,’ she says, adding that the positive energy, once harnessed, will ensure the continued creativity and progress of the financial services sector.

Forrester’s Teo advises: ‘Gen Y, as a group, constantly seek feedback and guidance, so managers should strive to keep them frequently in the loop, and offer constant praise and reassurance to their young charges. They will also benefit greatly from mentors who can help guide and develop their budding careers.’

Retention routes

PwC recommends that companies in the financial sector consider the following policies in their quest to retain Gen Y talent.

  • Implement a regional mobility programme in the organisation

 The approach should not be restricted to outbound secondment but also cover inbound secondment. The idea is to bring in overseas staff to encourage diversity in local teams.

  • Structured job rotation

Normally this happens at management trainee level. One suggestion is to extend the practice to middle-management level. Today’s Gen Y look for diversity in their jobs, so this would be a good way of retaining them and providing them with opportunities to develop without leaving the company.

  • New HR strategy

As well as implementing flexible working hours, the organisation should make long leave compulsory for high-pressure banking jobs such as investment banking in order to reduce the risk of burn-out.

Another option is to consider alternative work arrangements. Job sharing, for example, allows two part-time staff to cover a full-time job – it offers flexibility to the employees while helping to make sure you can still fill specific roles with the right talent.

Also, companies can rehire women who have left the industry/workforce for a few years to concentrate on their family but would now like to return to work.

  • Implement a corporate responsibility programme

CR is an area that resonates with the Gen Y as they believe in making a difference. PwC, for instance, has a range of CR initiatives – from mentoring and literacy programmes to carbon footprint tracking.

Edwin Yapp, journalist


Last updated: 13 Jan 2015