The staff RBS wants to keep on in Asia are already looking for work elsewhere

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RBS has a retention problem in Asia. Yes, the bank is cutting to the bare bones – from 2,800 employees to just 200 across the region – but sales and trading form the rump of those it wants to keep. The trouble is that some of them are already looking for other jobs and more are expected to follow.

Despite wide-ranging cuts to the firm’s investment banking and Asian operations announced last week, Singapore will remain (alongside the UK and US) as one of only three countries where RBS will maintain sales and trading operations – largely serving UK and Western European customers.

The bank is expected to drastically reduce its overall workforce in Asia to just 200, down from 2,800 at the end of last year. Singapore sales and trading staff will make up much of this remaining Asian rump, say headhunters with knowledge of the firm, and RBS is keen to keep them on board to retain their market knowledge and avoid recruitment costs.

This may be easier said than done. “To stay attractive to sales and trading employees in Singapore, RBS will need to reinvent itself as a proper boutique bank rather than just a shell of its former self – an unattractive add-on to its UK operations,” says a recruiter in Singapore who asked to remain anonymous because of client confidentiality. “This will be tough and if it can’t reinvent its image, it will have all sorts of problems holding onto these people, some of whom will now see both boutiques and large banks as better places to work.”

RBS’s potential retention problems in Singapore are compounded by its trading focus on foreign exchange, interest rates, commodities and debt capital markets. The Asian job market for these functions, while not booming, is more buoyant than in equities, where Standard Chartered and other banks in the region are cutting staff.

Several senior managers in Asia have already left RBS in the past year, including Madan Menon, formerly co-head of markets and international banking for the region. Following news of the firm’s Asian restructuring on Thursday, recruiters in Singapore have taken an increasing number of calls from RBS employees – both traders considering whether to remain in the revamped business and corporate banking staff looking to leave before likely layoffs.

RBS plans to sell or close its Asian corporate banking business. "We are exploring options for the sale of the affected businesses, and if this was not successful, then the activities would be wound down," a spokesperson for the bank in Asia told us. A source close to the firm in Asia told the Financial Times that the unit could struggle to attract buyers because it wasn’t generating enough profit and was too closely tied to the bank’s main technology infrastructure.

“The situation is very uncertain for RBS staff – it’s not surprising that many are already looking for other opportunities and aren’t waiting for a potential buyer to come along and possibly save their jobs,” says the anonymous recruiter. “And whatever your role at RBS, if you get the chance to move elsewhere, even at the same level for the same money, you’d be crazy not to consider it. After all, RBS keeps on saying it wants to be a UK-focused bank, which isn’t a great thing to hear if you’re working hard for them in Asia.”

While the top 15% to 20% of performers at RBS should expect recruiters and rival banks to seek them out, others face a more challenging job search. There is less hiring in corporate banking than there was 12 months ago, although (as we reported last week) local Singaporean banks are expected to snap up some of RBS’s staff. “If the job market were better, there’d be a mass walk-out from RBS right now,” says the anonymous recruiter.

A stint at RBS in Asia shouldn’t damage your CV, however. “I wouldn’t see it as negative as long you didn’t have a very short tenure. If you’ve been with the firm for a while, through tough times, that might even be a positive,” says Eunice Ng, director of search firm Avanza Consulting.

“The bank and its staff in Singapore have been through a lot, but actually whenever I talk to current or former RBS employees, they always say it’s a great place to work,” adds Craig Brewer, director at recruitment firm FiveTen Group in Singapore.

RBS would not reply to questions about its Asian employees.

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