SINGAPORE: One of the most common questions job seekers ask recruiters in the current economic climate is whether they should try to negotiate their remuneration package when offered an opportunity, or just be grateful and take whatever is offered.
Do those who try to negotiate risk being disregarded for the position altogether, even if the employer can afford to pay more?
The answer is as multifarious and complex as the impact of the current pandemic on the economy and labour market.
To put it simply, during a dire and prolonged crisis, employers are certainly going to cite economic conditions as a valid reason to lower salaries.
However, let’s not assume that all employers will have to do so.
TOP CANDIDATES IN CERTAIN SECTORS HAVE OPTIONS
During this crisis, contrary to popular belief, not all industries and sectors are seeing an employer’s market where traditionally, the number of openings decrease as the number of job seekers increase.
The COVID-19 crisis demands structural changes marked by accelerated digital transformation and while some industries have been devastated, others such as healthcare and technology are either unaffected or thriving.
Then there are companies that are looking to restructure and recover swiftly as they pivot in a rapidly digitalising landscape. To do this, they need skilled strategists and people who can execute high-level projects.
But the tech sector is plagued by skills shortages. Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative, Vivian Balakrishnan recently said that Singapore’s information communications technology (ICT) sector which currently employs about 200,000 people, will require another 60,000 in the next three years.
However, the education system produces only about 2,800 ICT graduates annually.
READ: Commentary: Singapore's new growth strategy for tomorrow involves luring 500 global tech leaders today
What this means is that top professionals in the sector such as developers, programmers and data analysts are in great demand. It is common for tech sector candidates we represent to have, at any one time, several attractive job offers on the table.
If employers don’t hire these individuals on reasonable terms, their competitors will and they will be left behind.
In fact, even dragging one’s feet could end up increasing hiring costs. We have observed that the longer companies in this sector take to make hiring decisions, the greater the probability of their competitors offering more attractive terms to candidates.
This can lead to bidding wars which result in companies having to raise their salary offers to attract top talent. All this can be avoided if companies moved more decisively.
READ: Commentary: Employers who lowball job seekers based on last-drawn salaries are shooting themselves in the foot
EVEN HARD-HIT SECTORS SHOULD INVEST IN RECOVERY
What about sectors that have been hit hard and had their hiring budgets markedly reduced?
It is indeed logical to assume that should a job seeker be offered a position in one of these, it would be wise to adopt a “take-whatever-you-can-get” mindset.
However, even this terrain is replete with complexities.
Employers in hard-hit sectors admit that they too need capable individuals who can help them pivot successfully in order to survive, recover and grow.
There are several examples of successful pivots in the F&B industry.
Home-grown eatery, Swee Choon Tim Sum Restaurant made up for its losses from dine-in sales due to COVID-19 by turning to online sales, boosting its digital marketing efforts and tapping additional food delivery platforms.
All of this has increased the restaurant’s sales from its food delivery service to about 60 per cent of its average monthly revenue during the circuit breaker from less than 1 per cent previously.
Swee Choon managed to do this with the support of Enterprise Singapore's Food Delivery Booster Package.
However, in spite of such success stories, considering the very real impact of the economic crisis on the immediate and long-term financial health of many companies, we routinely advise individuals applying for jobs in such sectors to lower their expectations.
LOWERING EXPECTATIONS – WITH LIMITS
More than 50 per cent of those we surveyed said they were willing to accept lower salaries during this crisis. The question is, how much lower?
Hiring managers may expect candidates to bend over backwards for a job amid a crisis, but recent examples have shown there are limits to how far candidates will bend.
Earlier this year, employer, Delane Lim made headlines when he shared his experience with seven job seekers who applied for a position with his company. One applicant “requested not to touch his weekends, and whenever possible to work from home instead of working on site.”
When he was told he would occasionally need to work on weekends and time off in lieu may be given, the candidate “asked for overtime weekend allowance and told me (Lim) it is the law.”
READ: Commentary: I’ve been career oriented my whole life, until the COVID-19 pandemic took my ambition
Another candidate asked for more annual leave.
Yet another said her last-drawn salary was S$6,000 and she was only willing to take a 5 to 10 per cent cut.
Based on these interactions, Lim concluded that “these young talents are not hungry for a job”, as they are “not willing to be humble and not willing to suffer”.
His account sparked a debate about whether job seekers are indeed being inordinately demanding, or whether employers are being exploitative.
The reality is that for every job seeker desperate for a job at this time, there are others who refuse to be short-changed.
HOW YOU TREAT THE DISPLACED MATTERS
Some employers believe that displaced professionals should bend further.
However, it is useful to remember that many displaced professionals were not let go due to incompetence or underperformance. They just happened to be unfortunate enough to be working in hard-hit companies that had to trim headcounts urgently.
Many of these are experienced workers who could add substantial value to the restructuring and recovery efforts of another company.
While acknowledging this, employers should not assume that these individuals would settle for just about anything out of desperation and use the crisis as carte blanche to offer them unreasonably dismal remuneration packages.
Even if the candidate chooses to settle for now, remember that those who feel as if they are being exploited will leave the first chance they get, usually when the sector recovers. Exploitative employers will then find themselves facing a staff exodus.
MEETING IN THE MIDDLE
That said, job seekers and employers need to meet each other in the middle, especially since the supply of suitable jobs is not exactly abundant.
Third quarter estimates from the Ministry of Manpower showed that the overall unemployment rate crept up by 0.2 percentage points from 3.4 per cent in August, which had already surpassed the figure recorded at the peak of the global financial crisis.
The unemployment rate among Singaporeans and permanent residents went up from 4.6 per cent in August to 4.7 per cent, while the citizen unemployment rate increased from 4.7 per cent in August to 4.9 per cent.
This brings the total number of unemployed residents to 112,500, of which 97,700 are Singaporeans.
While we understand that candidates may not unquestioningly accept what they are offered, all applicants should do their research on the company’s financial situation and strategic growth plans, taking into account what else the company might need to set money aside for in order to recover, before they ask for a higher salary.
They also need to be able to concretely justify a better offer. They have to demonstrate adaptability, agility and how they might be able to add value to businesses.
If a higher salary is not feasible for the prospective employer, there are other aspects of employment which can be negotiated in the candidate’s favour, such as working from home most of the week.
There is also a case for accepting less money if the job allows candidates to gain valuable work experiences that could burnish their resume for better career opportunities in the future.
THE LONG-TERM CONSEQUENCES OF EXPLOITATION
While candidates need to moderate their expectations, employers need to do their part to seriously consider benefits such as remote work arrangements, work-from-home allowances, growth and mentorship opportunities, and recognition and ad-hoc rewards when an employee does well.
Employers in Singapore should keep in mind that when it comes to talent, they could soon be competing more fiercely with companies overseas. With work-from-home arrangements becoming more acceptable, companies overseas could become more willing to hire Singaporean workers who can carry out tasks remotely.
Importantly, exploitative behaviour could have long-term effects such as tarnishing your employer brand, leaving you struggling to recruit and retain top talent crucial to business growth in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment.
Under the current circumstances, instead of focusing chiefly on the state of the global economy, employers would do well to also understand exactly how much the right talent is worth to them specifically and to the future of the business.
Companies need to recalibrate their talent strategy with this in mind as they assess the effects of the crisis on talent availability for critical roles.
Exploitation does not serve anyone, least of all, businesses.
Yes, prudence is vital in a crisis, but so are fairness and an investment in a holistic employee experience, which are integral elements of long-term business growth.
Jaime Lim is Group Business Leader of PeopleSearch, an executive search and outplacement services firm with a presence in six cities including Singapore.
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