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Profile News: Motivating Staff - Why Is Cash Still King in Hong Kong?

In the December ’17 edition of Human Resources, the official journal of the Hong Kong Institute of Human Resource Management, Profile's Richard Letcher shared insight from our recent Working in Asia survey about what motivates professionals at work. The article is extracted below.


  • Data collected recently in an Asia-wide survey points to financial rewards being the main motivator among professionals in Hong Kong

  • Why is this and how can the findings help HR professionals motivate, attract, and retain talent?

The number one motivator at work among professionals in Hong Kong is “financial rewards”, according to a recent survey entitled Working in Asia – Key HR and Leadership Priorities for 2017  by Profile Search & Selection and Roffey Park.


The survey polled 1,800 professionals across Hong Kong, Singapore and mainland China covering different sectors and functional areas, with a third of all respondents working in the HR sector. In terms of seniority, 85% of respondents had job titles ranging from manager to board director.


The same question, “What motivates you at work?”, was asked in the 2016 edition of the survey, and the same result was found.


Yet, in mainland China and Singapore, “financial rewards” was ranked third and fourth respectively in the 2017 survey as a motivator, with the far more altruistic, “opportunity to make a difference”, being number one in both countries. In Hong Kong, this was ranked fourth in priority, while “good leadership” and “achieving results” came in joint second place.


“Insufficient financial awards” is also a key reason why professionals in Hong Kong would consider leaving their organisation. From a list of 15 different choices, professionals ranked it third, next to “a lack of career growth and development opportunities” (first) and “organisational politics” (second) as reasons to look for a role elsewhere.


Many global studies have shown that money, an extrinsic motivator, does not buy engagement, and can actually suppress more intrinsic motivators, such as finding a job challenging and enjoyable or being engaged in a learning experience.


So why is money so important in Hong Kong, compared to its neighbours in the region, when it comes to motivating staff? Hong Kong’s job market is a mature one and couldn’t be described as a particularly buoyant one in the current business environment, so what are the factors at play?

Cost of living - a key culprit

An obvious answer lies in Hong Kong’s high cost of living. From going to the supermarket to children’s education, and from dining out to exorbitant rents, Hong Kong is not a cheap place to live.


Hong Kong has the world’s highest residential property prices based on square footage and they have been rising consistently for the last 18 months. A survey by ECA International in July this year – Has Hong Kong’s ability to attract multinationals and expatriates declined over the past 20 years? – points to Hong Kong being the most expensive location for rental accommodation in Asia-Pacific, using the cost of a three-bedroom apartment as a benchmark. Rental prices in Hong Kong are actually nearly 30% higher than they were 20 years ago whereas prices in Shanghai, Beijing and Singapore have actually decreased over the same period, most probably due to an increase in accommodation supply in those locations.


In another ECA International survey – Hong Kong is the Asia Pacific region’s most expensive location for expatriates, carried out in June 2017, Hong Kong was found to be the second most expensive location for expatriates in the world, next to Luanda, in Angola. In Asia-Pacific, Hong Kong took the top spot, and the survey doesn’t take into account accommodation and children’s education costs.

With these increasing costs of living in Hong Kong it might not be a surprise that financial rewards are important as a motivator.


Salary increases have not kept up either, according to figures from the Hong Kong Institute of Human Resources Management – the average annual salary increase earlier this year was 3.3%, and 3.5% in 2016. This is compared to increases of between 4.2% and 4.5% in each of the years from 2011 to 2015.

Financial services predominance

The second reason could be the predominance of financial services organisations in Hong Kong, where financial rewards can be a main driver for staff.


In a recent global survey by, a website which advertises jobs in the financial services sector, the number one driver for finance professionals thinking about their next employer, was “a competitive salary”, from the US to Europe to Asia.


Many commercial multinationals, for example in the pharmaceutical, e-commerce and technology sectors, have relocated their Asia-Pacific regional headquarters to Singapore over the last two decades, leaving a relatively high proportion of professionals in Hong Kong working in banks and other financial institutions. Of those surveyed as part of the Working in Asia – Key HR and Leadership Priorities for 2017 survey, 49% of respondents in Hong Kong worked in financial services, 29% in Singapore, and 8% in mainland China.

Cultural and historical legacy

Thirdly, historical influences and cultural legacies might be at play. Many Hongkongers originally came to the city to escape the civil war in mainland China in the 1940’s and the Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s and 70’s, where a considerable number of people lost most of their hard-earned property and assets. Money therefore has an understandably important part to play in Hong Kong’s psyche in terms of the security that it can give.


This, coupled with the influence of min zi (面子) (which translates as the need to gain prestige, of which financial rewards are a major source, in order to elevate one’s status in society), means it shouldn’t be a surprise that financial rewards are important. As the Cantonese proverb goes, “no money, no talk”.

Solutions for HR

The importance of money as the main motivator in Hong Kong cannot be ignored by HR functions. Many organisations, globally, have used creative means when it comes to the structure of rewards packages, to attract and retain staff. Long-term incentive plans, deferred bonuses, stock options, and attractive pension plans are all widely used and appeal to employee’s extrinsic motivators, but these are longer-term strategies and don’t really tackle the daily cost of living issues faced in Hong Kong.


There is also the issue of expatriates being put off coming to Hong Kong when they baulk at rental prices and school fees. If these are not offered by an organisation, competitive base salaries are really what potential employees are looking for to cover them.


The big fear with money being a main motivator though is that staff will focus less on learning, having fun at work and enjoying what they do and, ultimately, individual and organisational performance will suffer.


Perhaps HR departments and leaders need to focus more on enhancing intrinsic goals for their employees. E-commerce and technology companies have been particularly good at ensuring that their staff enjoy what they do, as well as developing, learning, and feeling challenged, with everyone working towards a common purpose.


HR functions can also focus and develop their employer brand in order to attract and retain staff. In the Working in Asia 2017 survey respondents were asked, “What are the things you look for in an organisation?” The top five in Hong Kong were (in order), good leadership (the most popular), a culture that embraces professional development and learning, financial stability, flexible work policies, and a culture that is non-political. These could be a starting point in moving people away from thinking of money as a motivator.


As the Working in Asia – Key HR and Leadership Priorities for 2017 survey collects data in future years it will be interesting to observe how “financial rewards” ranks as a motivator in Hong Kong. Millennials, who are becoming a bigger cohort of the working population, have a different mindset and the need to make a difference, to have autonomy, and to work in a collaborative environment seem to be more important than financial rewards for this generation.


This article originally appeared in the December ’17 edition of Human Resources, the official journal of the Hong Kong Institute of Human Resource Management, and is reproduced with permission from HKIHRM and Classified Post.

To view the full article, please click here



Richard Letcher, Managing Director, Profile Search & Selection


December 2017

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