Current State of HR Woes in Myanmar Financial Sector
Theta Aye
October , 2017

While I’m no HR expert, I’ve seen and witnessed quite a lot of common mistakes of recruitment in the financial sector (local and foreign banks, securities companies, investment advisory and management, etc.) in Myanmar, so I thought I write myself a note. I’m leaving out micro finance (MFI) and non-bank financial institutions (NBFI) from the topic of the write-up for now. As the financial sector opens up in Myanmar, there will be more and more differentiated roles and work scope with the organization. However, the key problem seems to be that business owners and HR managers in these organizations are totally unfamiliar with various financial functions and respective requirements in terms of skill set, knowledge and experience for specific roles. There needs to be a general understanding among HR managers who are working in financial sector recruitment for Myanmar. Basically 3 general areas including front office (M&A, sales & trading, advisory, Equity Capital Market (ECM), Debt Capital Market (DCM), etc.) –> revenue generating / client facing, middle office (risk management, treasury, corporate strategy, etc.) –> critical roles that may not generate revenue directly but nonetheless support the revenue generation process of the front office and back office (compliance, accounting, finance, technology, operations, HR, etc.) –> related to processes and systems that must exist regardless of revenue generated. These are just common terminologies and I’m not saying front > middle > back office. On average, in other countries, front office staff salary will be higher than the other two and the placement into front office positions tend to be very competitive and are often filled with the most qualified candidates from the best universities.

In Myanmar, proper front office positions are just starting to develop over the past 4-5 years. In fact, you can probably count in two hands the number of Myanmar finance professionals who have returned that have actually worked in front office roles overseas. Thus far, the roles, salaries and bonuses are not differentiated at all in financial sector, so most employees try to go for the highest title and pay, regardless of whether they have relevant experience or capability to execute in that particular role. This is also related to the fact that there is significant shortage of human capital and HR managers are already facing a tough time finding quality candidates. Another issue is that most of the companies in Myanmar are family owned businesses, so they also tend to hire relatives, and friends and place them relatively high up in the chain of command, without having any proper knowledge and training to lead and take charge in that particular position which can result in organizational biases, and inefficiencies.

Although I like to view the workforce as a single entity and not be divisive, in reality, there are 3 main groups of workers in Myanmar business organizations: (1) returnees; (2) locals; and (3) expats and quite a few people have written articles that ring true to a lot of us. More often than not, there is always a contentious undercurrent as the lines of divisions are not too clear between these 3 groups including the competitive element of time as a divider: how long do you have to be outside of the country to be considered one or the other? “Oh he just went to study overseas and come back, so he’s just a local, not really a repat.” “I’ve live abroad for 15 years so I’m practically an expat,” the jealous element of salary as a divider: USD vs. MMK earners. “She’s still holding a Myanmar passport and only studies overseas for a short time so why should he get paid in USD.” “We are working in the same team/ function and he’s not even performing that well but I got paid in MMK because all my work experience and education is in Myanmar. It’s not fair.” “They are reporting to me but they are earning more and in USD,” and the controversial element of race as a divider: even between expats, where you originate from can garner different types of reaction, expectation and respect. “She’s from Asian country, so she’s not really an expat.” “I’m originally from Myanmar but I don’t hold Myanmar passport, so I’m actually an expat.” “I speak Myanmar, studied and worked overseas at the best places and also understand the culture and business environment well in my own country but when it comes to being promoted, an expat is recruited for the C-level role.”

Anyone who has worked and done business in Myanmar would have come across these expressions often. In addition to lack of access of qualified pool of talent, business owners and HR also need to manage all these elements sensitively but unfortunately; there is no easy or immediate solution to remedy the situation right now.

Issues with Returnees

A lot of Myanmar returnees are recruited into positions in which they have never had any training or experience. Management and HR also needs to know that not every returnee coming from US, UK, Singapore, etc. will have the same kind of professionalism, training and experience, even if they were employed in financial sector. Not every undergraduate, graduate or MBA degree produce the same calibre candidates. Even if one has gone to the best schools or employed by the most well-known companies, they may not have the right tools and know-how to work into financial sector roles. Appropriate background checks have to be conducted and past pay slips need to be verified thoroughly without agreeing to salary and package demands. Just to give a few examples: IT/back office person who was working in a global bank was recruited to head a front office role, jumping in salary and position but has little knowledge of banking products/ processes and managing a large team; a MBA-grad from the US who has never worked professionally in finance or any other organization was recruited to head a front office advisory role; front office investment banker with M&A experience overseas does not make the returnee is suitable for change management or restructuring or operational turnaround for retail banking.

I guess it’s unrealistic to dig within oneself for integrity in the face of high position/salary to simply say ‘I’m not right for the role as I don’t have any relevant experience and I don’t think I can be the head of that particular business.’ Or returnees seem to think that whatever they do, they will be able to perform better than the locals because of all the ‘international’ exposure they have gotten but I’ve seen it proven wrong many times. There are also many pretenders in the market where returnees have over-inflated their resumes and after recruiting them, it was realized that their actions and capabilities are far below what was mentioned on the piece of paper.

That being said, returnees are still the best candidates to close the gap of knowledge, skills and professionalism that the Myanmar organizations lack, even if they themselves may not have relevant industry experience. Hiring them into the high positions without proper assessment is not being recommended unless they have proven themselves within the organization over a certain period. Other potential returnee hires are also turned away when they see that inexperienced person is in charge. The collaborative and noncondescending attitude the returnees have towards local workforce would be more important than any previous experience that they have garnered elsewhere.

Issues with Expats

It is a bit of an over-generalization but the expats who come and work in Myanmar are generally not the ‘creamof-the-crop’ in their respective sectors. Here I’m mostly addressing to middle to senior management level hires in the financial sector and not the summer internship, young traveler – back-packer – English teacher type jobs that last for 6-24 months. After all, Myanmar is not an easy place to live and work and if the person is earning top dollar in their own home country, chances are slim for them to lug their whole family across the world and try ‘new and challenging’ job. Of course, there are exceptions but you tend to get people who are of retirement age who’s wishing to get the final hurrah for the “big boss / all-knowing wise advisor” status (or) the career switchers (or) people who have been out of job for a while and as a last resort come to Myanmar to get paid decent money with housing/car/kids’ education covered. I suppose you can say the same about returnees as well and to some extent it would be true, if a Myanmar person has a good job and quite established overseas, they would not come back home either, unless there are elder family members to take care of (or) they genuinely want to come back and help the country (or) they want to take a chance and see if they can climb the corporate ladder faster since the assumption is that there will be less capable competition. Another discriminating point is that if a Myanmar person decides to come back even after a decade, most employers would not offer additional benefits like they would for expats. Most jobs here don’t really cover healthcare, insurance or schooling, so overall it can end up being more expensive to move the family over. Again, you get a mixed bag of quality with returnees and not necessarily super high flyers. In my experience, a lot less problematic than the quality of expats and with the proper guidance, they can actually do wonders for the organization. However, perhaps due to the hospitality of Myanmar people’s culture, expats are given free rein in their roles, until it’s too late. Why should a risk management person dictate how the front office should acquire new clients? Support functions should not be the decision makers to client strategy, just because they are expats, rather everyone should work together and come up with what’s best for the organization. How can a retail consumer banker know much about proprietary trading or investments? How can a low-end equity sales broker lead and manage securities and investment advisory business, which involve getting companies to listings on the stock exchange and executing M&A deals? And the list goes on with all the wrong types of recruitment.

Back to the expats, a word of advice would be cultural appropriation. It’s probably true that you probably have the right knowledge and skills for the job but when you come to Myanmar, the first thing you should do it to build trust – not just with the business owners only – with your immediate team and subordinates who will be the ones to carry out and implement your strategies and communicate to the wider workforce. Every expat boss that comes to Myanmar tries to shake up the whole ecosystem with a big bang as if to announce that “I have arrived”. More often than not, that approach will fail. Without a support base, regardless of any brilliant vision for change or transformation will not be materialized. Spend a few months to learn about the workplace culture, the people who have built up the organization and legacy (no matter how mess up it may seem, compared to wherever you worked before) and assess the real capabilities of the workforce. Only then you would know what’s appropriate in terms of restructuring (time, speed, resource and capital requirements, etc.) for Myanmar institutions. Try to integrate as much as possible with the supporting staff, beyond 3-5 people who has the purview of the direction the organization is heading, and communicate your intentions as much as possible to the organization, instead of just staying in the office and working with a few other expats only. Then you won’t get the real story of the state of the business, its people and the challenges. Without frequent communications, a lot of staff will feel anxious, uneasy, over-challenged and threatened for their own positions. Perhaps the intention is to weed out everyone who is resistant and/or not aligned with all the changes but it is also the fastest way to destroy and destabilize the front line support base, who will feel unappreciated; worse yet, not properly communicated as to what they should be doing and how they would be needed to contribute to the betterment of the organization in the near future. The causalities will be those with multiple alternate options who will leave the organization amidst all the chaos and silo-ed ways of working. What the organization will end up with is lots of bad apples, who only care to do the bare minimum work, get fixed pay at the end of the month and just go along with whatever’s happening since they have nowhere else to go.

One thing to remember is that there’s not enough 1-to-1 replacement for the good employees you lose in Myanmar and hiring expats will just be a temporary solution, albeit costly, since they will not stay forever. The HR managers should also be weary that expats also fudge and oversell what they can do for the organization and just because someone works as IT manager for a large regional bank in Asia does not mean that he would be qualified to decide technology strategies and initiatives for a retail financial institution in a country like Myanmar. Again, if you do hire expats, try to find people who can and are willing to get their hands dirty to train and develop local workforce. Not the ones who treat local staff as their beck and call while they just take the credit. For any expat hire position, the goal should be for the returnees and locals to take over that role in 3-5 years and part of the KPI of the expats should include the aspect of staff development and training.

Issues with Locals

Myanmar people can be quite jealous and most of the time, are not happy to see someone doing well. Just look at Facebook comments and you will know. The times have changed. Don’t hold on to the title of “Aba”, “Saya”, “Amagyi” forever. The work place tradition of “old is gold” will soon be over. Give a chance and make way for the young, hungry about them outshining you or taking over your job. Try to share what you know and impart your wisdom as much as possible. Information gate keeping is very prevalent at senior management who is locals. Also, if you stick to that the attitude that we are in Myanmar and we should speak Myanmar only, then you will get left behind. Of course, for Myanmar clients, by all means, communicate in Burmese. Fortunately or unfortunately, English is now the universal language of business communications and as Myanmar financial sector gets more developed, you will be have to deal with more and more English interface.

To the young Burmese professional employees, work hard and never stop learning whether it’s English, technical financial knowledge or soft skills. Don’t job hop for a monthly salary increase of 10-20 dollars. When you’re checking out new jobs, at least pretend to be interested in what the job scope is, instead of always asking how much the salary will be. And do note that promotions don’t happen every 6-12 months. Don’t be discouraged by expats or returnees. You can get to where they are if you persevere. If you don’t understand, ask questions. Don’t make the same mistakes twice. In finance, regardless of front/middle/back office roles, you have no excuses; you need to master Excel, Power Point and Word, at the very minimum. Put in a few extra miles every time you’re assigned to a task. Don’t sleep on your desk if you have no work. Let your manager/ supervisor know you have bandwidth and what you find interesting to do. Try to arrive before your boss does and don’t be itching to leave at 5pm sharp. Find a few good mentors within the organization and plan out your own career path. Speak up and get notice by the right people who will champion for your growth and development. Once, I was told by a junior employee – “I only get paid this much so I’m not going to work more. If they pay me more, I will do more” – then you would be shooting yourself in the foot because how is your boss supposed to know you’re better than the others. Why would a manager pay you more when there’s no guarantee that you would actually do better at higher salary? You haven’t even shown that you deserve better pay. That kind of poor attitude will kill any chances of your progress within the organization. So proving your worth first and demonstrating that you’re reliable is the most important. It is imperative for HR managers to do proper background check beyond 2-3 references and there should be other kinds of assessment for numerical analysis, presentation and critical thinking, depending on the job scope.

In conclusion, these are just a few issues I have come across within the financial sector. Some will also apply to other industries as well. We should all do what we can, in our own ways, to reduce all these human resource problems in Myanmar. However, it’s all easier said than done.

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