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Salaries soar as Hong Kong banks engage in poaching war to hire & retain talent

HSBC saw its headcount fall to 20,500 in just two years as part of its restructuring.

Hong Kong banks are shelling out large sums of money to attract, retain, and develop key staff amidst a shrinking pool of talent. This, coupled with tough competition from their peers, has pushed up offers and counter offers to their highest rate in a decade, recruitment agents told Asian Banking & Finance.

The city’s banks suffered their biggest decline in bankers since Asian Banking & Finance began compiling numbers in 2013. In just a single year total headcount declined by 9,181 across the 17 banks included in the annual bank rankings, 10.33% lower than in the previous rankings.

Hong Kong Shanghai and Banking Corporation (HSBC) cut the most staff, 8,500 roles in its Hong Kong office over the past two years. This is the lowest that HSBC ever experienced in the history of Asian Banking & Finance's rankings.

HSBC had earlier unveiled plans to cut 35,000 jobs across its global operations as part of a restructuring announced last February 2020.

ALSO READ: HSBC profit after tax rose to $9.2b in H1

Bank of China (Hong Kong) maintained its 12,000-strong headcount but with 400 roles less in 2021. 

Four banks hired more bankers and staff over the year, with three having parents outside of Hong Kong and China: DBS Bank, Citibank, and OCBC Wing Hang. DBS Bank (Hong Kong) reported the biggest rise, with 452 new hires in 2021. 

Citibank followed, with 300 new hires. The majority of these are to support the bank’s growing wealth management business, a Citi spokesperson told said. Another 90 people moved to work in Citi’s Hong Kong business from other cities.

OCBC Wing Hang also added 67 new faces to its Hong Kong staff.

The only Hong Kong-based bank to grow its staff in 2021 was Tai Sang Bank, which now has 36 employees, up from 30. 

Meanwhile, Standard Chartered kept its staff at approximately 6,000. CIMB Wing Lung Bank and China Construction Bank also saw their staff remain around the same size number of staff from 2020 and 2021.

Money will not solve all problems
More bankers are expected to leave the city amidst strict travel restrictions that require at least one week of quarantine upon entering Hong Kong. This is an issue for the city’s banks which clamour for much-needed talent as they scale up operations for new business lines.

“[There is] no external or new talent coming into the market from overseas for the last two years or so. That creates a different set of challenges than what we saw in 2020,” John Mullally, regional director-Southern China & Hong Kong Financial Services at Robert Walters, told Asian Banking & Finance.

More bankers may be tempted to switch jobs. Professionals with in-demand skills and experience will see up to a 35% jump in salary when they change employers this year, according to Rouella Landicho, associate director of banking and financial services at Randstad Hong Kong.

ALSO READ: Is Hong Kong’s role as offshore financial center under threat?

Senior roles, such as directors, assistant directors, and vice presidents, are especially sought. “This talent demand has been fueled by the expat exodus as well as significant business restructuring within the banking industry due to high-profile acquisitions over the past couple of years,” Landicho said.

The current hiring landscape in the banking and finance industry has also caused base salaries to shoot up between 4.5% and 10% to retain current employees. 

Robert Walters’ Mullally observed that there are bankers who are now being paid at the top percentile despite their expertise and experience not matching the role they are tasked to do.

“Financial services firms are kind of throwing money at the problem in order to get people in, and also to retain them because the rate of counter offers and buybacks now is at the highest I've seen in the last 10 years,” Robert Walters’ Mullally said.

“That just shows a degree of–for the lack of a better term–desperation that current employers have now because they're operating with very little fat, and they really need these people in the seats in order for the business to be operating effectively,” he added.

ALSO READ: Hong Kong banks face ‘brain drain’ as talents flee amidst strict travel restrictions 

The best way to retain talent is not just adding more zeros to bankers’ salaries, but offering better work-life balance and even hybrid working situations, said Olga Yung, managing director at Michael Page.

“Companies that have clear policies in place where they support and allow remote working or flexi-work arrangements are very attractive to candidates,” Yung said.

Companies that support international mobility, or the chance to work overseas, are also a huge sell.

“A lot more candidates are considering, ‘Am I going to stay permanently in one location? Or do I want the option that I could move somewhere else down the line?’ Having these options, which may not necessarily materialise immediately, is often appealing for them,” Yung said.

Hybrid working
Whilst the biggest banks in Hong Kong have resumed working back in the office, many are exploring or have opted to adopt hybrid working environments.

Standard Chartered Hong Kong has welcomed close to 60% of its employees back to the office. But hybrid working is not off the charts yet, with the bank’s “Future Workplace, Now” work strategy. Under this, staff have the freedom to choose to work either from home or the office if that fulfills the job requirement and regulatory expectations, a spokesperson told Asian Banking & Finance.

ALSO READ: Standard Chartered Hong Kong buys virtual land in metaverse

Citi Hong Kong is close to having 90% of its staff working back in the office as of May 2022. They have also enacted their own long-term flexible work model: “How We Work.” 

Under this, every role at Citi will have one of three designations – Hybrid, Remote, or Resident. The majority will reportedly be designated as hybrid workers, with the expectation of working in the office at least three days per week, a Citi representative said.

[Bank Rankings Table To Be Released]

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