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How to keep your banking career on track as unrest grips Hong Kong

The ongoing civil unrest in Hong Kong has plunged the economy into recession and slowed down the recruitment process in the city’s banking sector. But that’s not all you have to contend with if you’re a finance professional in Hong Kong these days.

If you want to stay in your job and not fall out with managers and colleagues, you may now have to be more cautious about what you say and do – both online and offline. Several bank employees have run into trouble as Hong Kong’s political crisis has escalated. If your priority is to remain gainfully employed, here are some potential lessons from these recent events.

Exercise extreme caution on social media

In late September, BNP Paribas lawyer Jason Ng quit the bank after his Facebook post, which criticised pro-Beijing supporters, was the subject of a backlash on the mainland. Ng’s departure suggests banks take a dim view of employee social media posts that threaten their businesses in the lucrative mainland market. Beijing has plenty of leverage over global banks, which are competing with each other to grow onshore as China liberalises its financial system. Cora Sheung (not her real name), who’s studying finance at HKUST, says students with ambitions in the banking sector are “cautious” about expressing themselves online and tend to make their posts about the protests only available to close friends. Felix Yip, a lecturer in management at Hong Kong Baptist University, told the Financial Times that HR teams at Chinese firms are stepping up their background checks of applicants’ social media accounts.

Avoid discussing politics with colleagues who may disagree with you

A banker at a Chinese bank, who is a local Hongkonger, says he doesn’t discuss politics with mainland colleagues because he thinks it would lead to disputes that could affect working relationships. This fear appears to be widespread, and some employers have told staff that politics is a no-go subject for workplace conversation. At Citi in Hong Kong, some pro-Beijing staff are now socialising less often with their pro-democracy colleagues, reports Bloomberg. A consultant who advises crisis-stricken businesses told the FT that since August his company has received more enquires about how to “de-escalate” arguments that threaten to bubble over into conflict. If you want to talk about the protests (and still keep your career on a steady footing), it may be better to do so with family and friends.

Be careful what you say on behalf of your bank

Law Ka-chung, a former chief economist at Bank of Communications, said earlier this month that he was forced to resign because he was a Hongkonger holding a top job within a Chinese company. More specifically, Law said the bank wanted to “censor” the views he was expressing in the course of his work, in particular his remarks during a radio interview that the 2003 SARS crisis had a greater impact on Hong Kong’s economy than the protests, an opinion that runs counter to that of Hong Kong’s government.

Avoid inflammatory language

In October, a JP Morgan employee, believed to be a private banker, was punched by an anti-government protester outside the firm’s Chater House office. The banker had been surrounded by photographers, and by protestors shouting “Go back to the mainland”. He had responded to them in Mandarin, at one point saying “We are all Chinese”. A Hong Kong trader told us at the time that it was unclear whether the man was referring loosely to people of Chinese descent or (more provocatively) to citizens of China. Either way, if avoidance of violence had been his priority, the banker may have been better off heading straight into his office without responding to the protestors.

Stay incognito

Some banking professionals have done their best to disguise their participation in the lunchtime flash mob protests that have taken place in Central in recent weeks, worried about a backlash from workmates who don’t support the pro-democracy movement. “I don’t think my colleagues would agree that I left work to come here,” a young employee from a Chinese bank told Time last month. “I left my heels on so I can just take off the mask and be a normal worker again,” she said.

Don’t argue in English with the police

The Citi banker arrested in Central last month initially spoke Cantonese and told a policeman to search his wallet while covering his eyes after being pepper sprayed. But when he then spoke English to explain that his office was just 500 meters away, the policeman suddenly acted aggressively. “I tell you. I am [not a college graduate]. I have nothing to lose,” the policeman was heard saying in Cantonese, likely in response to the usage of English, which is considered a middleclass language in Hong Kong. “I will [expletive] arrest you. Don’t get arrogant. Don’t say useless things.” Meanwhile, American Samuel Bickett, a director in BAML’s anti-bribery and corruption unit, was reportedly arrested on Saturday after an argument and scuffle with a baton-carrying off-duty cop in an MTR station. The incident is not thought to be related to the protest movement, although the arming of off-duty police with batons is a new measure introduced in response to Hong Kong’s ongoing civil unrest.

Don’t get caught up in a violent protest

The arrested Citi banker was leaving work in the evening and was not caught up in a violent clash between police and protestors. His apparent lack of involvement may potentially spare him from dismissal, says a former HR director in Hong Kong. Bankers arrested in a violent protest (or even identified taking part in one) may not be so lucky. “If you’re charged with any illegal act, be it rioting or not, then a major financial institution is likely to look at your employment situation,” says Benjamin Quinlan, a former UBS banker who now runs a finance consultancy. A mainland Chinese partner at the Hong Kong office of an international law firm told the FT he would not recruit anyone who had taken part in violent protests. An employee from a Chinese brokerage in Hong Kong says managers have told staff that they’ll be fired if they participate in pro-democracy rallies, reports Bloomberg.

Lay low as an intern

Being identified as a supporter of the student-led protest movement is particularly perilous for interns at Chinese banks. HKU finance student Ryker Mou (not his real name) says he pretended to be sick one day during his recent internship at a mainland bank, so he could attend one of the big summer demonstrations. “My mentor there was a Hongkonger and he reminded me to be very careful and not to act in an obvious way,” says Mou. “The Chinese market provides the majority of deals for bankers and the majority of job opportunities for Hong Kong students, so we local finance students can’t always speak our minds,” he adds.

Photo by Hiu Yan Chelsia Choi on Unsplash

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AUTHORSimon Mortlock Content Manager

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