Hong Kong headhunters berate banks: “Mandarin shouldn’t always be mandatory”

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Global banks in Hong Kong have been increasing their recruitment of Mandarin speakers for at least five years and the range of roles requesting them continues to expand.

But although most vacancies listing Mandarin as a must-have do legitimately require the language, recruiters say mandatory Mandarin is now unnecessarily creeping into some Hong Kong job descriptions.

“Too many front-office roles that don’t involve liaising with any clients in mainland China are advertised with Mandarin, yet English is still the dominant language for financial markets in Hong Kong,” says Michael Cunningham, a partner at search firm Anton Murray Consulting.

Another recruiter, who asked not to be named, cited an recent example of a algorithmic trading job description which had an “unwarranted” mandate for Mandarin. By mentioning Mandarin in technically-focused jobs like algo trading, banks may be missing out on applications from foreign-based candidates, current expats and even Cantonese-speaking Hongkongers, say headhunters.

“If banks are too fixated on language requirements, they might turn down non-Mandarin speaking candidates who could be a better fit for the role – compromising other skills that are more important than Mandarin,” says John Mullally, director of financial services at recruiters Robert Walters in Hong Kong.

In the middle office of global banks, Mandarin is a justifiable prerequisite for many jobs, especially those in Greater-China audit, compliance and risk that liaise with mainland financial regulators, says says Nick Lambe, a partner at Space Executive in Hong Kong. But Mandarin is starting to appear on a few operations and governance job descriptions that have no obvious connection to China.

When headhunters believe banks’ language requirements for a particular job are too strict, they are having to push hard to get non-Mandarin speakers considered. “Undoubtedly roles are advertised specifying language skills where they’re not actually necessary,” says a trader-turned headhunter. “I’ve seen numerous recent examples of this – and it takes a good headhunter, or a switched-on internal recruiter, to get around this.”

“I had a bank looking for a head of their HK office and I had a native English speaker up for the role. But they insisted on a Chinese speaker because – at some undefined point in the future – they wanted to expand into the PRC,” he adds. “I pointed out that if that happened, they would need someone else on the ground in Shanghai rather than in HK, but they ignored me and hired a Chinese speaker with considerably less experience than my candidate. That person lasted four months!”

A belief that Mandarin, if not required in the role right away, will be needed in future, is also behind the drive to hire Mandarin speakers at a junior level to help with banks’ succession planning, says recruiters.

“Even if candidates are being hired into junior positions that initially don’t have any Chinese client interaction, longer term their jobs could become client focused and then language skills will become an advantage to the bank when doing business in mainland China,” adds Cunningham from Anton Murray Consulting.

Image credit: AndrewLinscott, Getty

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