The knowledge

Your quarterly run through of essential skills, with expert commentary

1 Conduct a strengths-based interview

The interview process doesn’t always result in the most appropriate candidate being chosen for a role. Even if their skills and experience match the position, you could still end up with their resignation letter on your desk a few months later, leaving HR with the expensive and time-consuming task of finding a replacement.

Better interviews, say the experts, can go a long way to solving these woes. Strengths-based interviews (SBIs), which have their origins in positive psychology, are thought to be particularly effective in identifying where passion and competence converge to create value. Whereas traditional competency-based interviews aim to assess what a candidate can do, a strengths-based interview looks at what they enjoy doing and have a natural aptitude for. After all, goes the thinking, if an employee enjoys a task, that leads to a shift in consciousness known as ‘flow’, which results in complete engrossment in the task and a higher level of performance.

Neha Mohunta, senior consultant at Aon Hewitt, believes HR should use the SBI technique to test for best fit, particularly in white-collar roles. She points out that for graduates – who often have a limited track record in the workplace – this technique offers a good way to evaluate potential.

“SBIs seek to identify what energises and motivates the employee,” she says. “If this closely matches the culture of the organisation it is a win-win situation. And the process itself is interactive, relaxed and engaging. The candidate is likely to discover more about their own personality as part of the interview process, which makes rejection – when faced – easier.”

An SBI will feel more personal, and allow the interviewer to get a feel for who the interviewee actually is. This environment stimulates the candidate to be more natural and talk easily about what motivates them. Questions could include: what kind of situations are you likely to excel in? What tasks do you find most engaging? And: can you describe in detail an example of where you feel you performed your best in the role?

A candidate cannot prepare for an SBI by cramming facts and figures beforehand, nor can they pull the wool over an interviewer’s eyes by giving ‘expected’ answers. “However, if the candidates know the likely behaviours and traits that are necessary to define success in the position, they can prepare in advance by recalling examples of how they demonstrate similar capabilities,” says Mohunta.

“For the experienced hire, it helps understand what drives them and where they can achieve mastery. It easily distinguishes employees who will naturally enjoy the role and are likely to push the frontier from those just performing tasks.”

A good example is Google, where the interviewer spends 20 per cent of their time pursuing topics the candidate is most interested in. “The SBI is likely to highlight such preferences upfront. It is a great way to drive innovation and creativity at work,” says Mohunta.

Interviewers should be aware that to gain maximum value from such interviews, it is critical to match the identified strengths with the competencies required for the role, otherwise the process may be engaging but the relevance and outcome could be low. The SBI should be supplemented with additional tools to enhance predictive outcomes, especially to evaluate technical competence.

Four of the strangest interview questions

Employee review site Glassdoor regularly compiles lists of the most confusing questions asked in job interviews. Here are some of its favourites:

  • If you had only 24 hours left on Earth, how would you spend them?
  • Which magic power would you like to have?
  • How many basketballs would fit in this room?
  • What was the last thing you Googled?

2 Motivate a blue-collar migrant workforce

There’s no shortage of bad press about the working environment for migrant blue-collar workers in the GCC. And while some of this may be exaggerated or misunderstood, it’s often a challenge for HR to ensure migrant employees’ wellbeing is a key consideration – and to get the message across that attending to their motivation is not just the right thing to do, but good business sense too.

Turnover can be the key to this conversation, say experts. Migrant workers can be seen as expendable by some business leaders, but a high turnover is expensive and needless. Businesses that go beyond the legal minimum normally save money in the long run.

“People think ‘I’ll just get another employee’ but attrition needs to be tracked, so that HR can inform the finance department, board and CEO that the cost of hiring a person is ‘X’,” says Steve MacLaren, regional head of distribution, human capital and benefits at Al Futtaim Willis Co.

Taking care of employees’ physical health is intrinsic to their wider wellbeing and productivity. Instead of opting for the minimum level of medical cover, companies should look at how they can give improved accessibility to better-quality clinics and hospitals by paying a bit more. “It’s relatively inexpensive to do this,” says MacLaren. “Companies should also look at their percentage for attrition and try to reduce it – then show the savings.

“Spending just 50 per cent more on medical insurance gives a far better return than the cost of losing employees. Improving people’s health and making them happy makes them more efficient at work.”

The next stage is behavioural change. “A lot of migrant workers are not educated enough to know about health and safety – for example, why it’s important for them to wash their hands, or why they should drink enough water,” says MacLaren. He believes there is a good argument for HR to employ coaches for migrant workers. “The majority won’t have emails, so the best way to do it would be face to face,” he adds.

Motivating blue-collar migrant workers can prove difficult because of a lack of career aspiration or the simple fact that there is no progression on offer. However, for a minimal investment it is possible to show workers they are cared for, argues MacLaren. This could be done by having a Tagalog, Hindi or Urdu-speaking mentor educating and motivating workers about how to look after themselves.

Employers could also consider diet or exercise as easy wins. “Maybe we should try to change food to ensure employees are getting a healthy, balanced diet,” suggests MacLaren. “This wouldn’t involve a huge cost, but most employers will not take that spend on board. I don’t know of any company that has looked at that for blue-collar workers.

“It would be beneficial to have a happy migrant workforce. Employers could put a wellness or happiness committee together, which is very appropriate in Dubai given there’s now a minister of happiness.”

Migration in numbers

In construction and domestic work in the Gulf states, migrant workers make up more than 95 per cent of the workforce

The Arab states hosted 17.8 million migrant workers in 2013, with the majority from Asia and a sizeable number coming from Africa, especially Egypt

Migrant workers make up the majority of the population in Bahrain and Oman, and more than 80 per cent of the population in Qatar and the UAE

Migrants in the six Gulf states account for more than 10 per cent of all migrants globally, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE host respectively the fourth and fifth largest migrant populations in the world

Source: International Labour Organization

3 Introduce an internal social network

The way people communicate has changed dramatically in the past 10 years. Employees spend an increasing amount of time on social media networks, and tend to speak to their colleagues via email or instant messaging apps more than face to face or over the phone. Why wouldn’t workplaces want to follow suit?

The recent introduction of Workplace by Facebook – as the name suggests, a version of Facebook for the workplace – is the latest step in a trend that began with the likes of Yammer and Salesforce. These networks help people talk in the office by offering chat facilities, but they can also facilitate access to shared documents and act as ways to ‘broadcast’ corporate news.

Gerard Moss, senior vice-president of HR at Atlantis The Palm, points out that, by 2020, nearly half the workforce will be millennials – “and let’s face it, they practically live on social media platforms”. The hotel uses Facebook in the workplace, because it is easily accessible, popular, user-friendly and adaptable, says Moss.

“Because only a fraction of colleagues have access to work email, we must be realistic and creative with how we reach out and communicate with employees of different age groups and from 82 countries,” he says. “We aim to ensure that our 3,200 colleagues are kept well-informed on happenings that concern them in an instantaneous manner – quick and relevant information increases happiness and ultimately retention.

“We encourage happy and useful posts, alongside well thought-out feedback on matters that directly influence employees’ lives – for instance, feedback on the free laundry service, accommodation or staff restaurants. And we constantly reinforce messages about industry awards we win, and the various events and sporting competitions that are organised for employees.”

Social media has to operate as a two-way communication platform to be effective – employees need to be able to voice their opinions as well as receive information, and companies must ensure the messages they broadcast are appropriate for the medium. But how much control should be exercised over an internal social media platform? Too much and you appear controlling; too little and you risk conversations spiralling out of control. “Not all messages that are posted by colleagues are positive,” warns Moss. “But one way of filtering negative and destructive messages is to use the function that allows the administrators to pre-approve a post before it appears live.”

Negative sentiment isn’t ignored, however, he says, but instead of being posted live, the employee will receive a detailed, private response from the HR team. “This works very well for us, because it still allows colleagues to express themselves freely and receive a response to their query or suggestion. By operating this way, we encourage two-way communication in a controlled and orderly manner that is not detrimental to the organisation.”

The end of email?

It’s claimed internal social networks will end our reliance on email to speak to colleagues. But that doesn’t seem the case just yet:

  • 46% of employees regularly use email to communicate with co-workers
  • 10% send more than 50 emails every day
  • 30% of staff would rather talk to someone directly than use email

4 Make ethical people-related decisions

“Who’s the conscience of your organisation? Where’s its moral compass? Does it have one? Does it need one?” asks the CIPD’s director of people and strategy, Laura Harrison.

These may seem like esoteric questions, but they are increasingly crucial. When scandals such as the VW diesel episode become public, the ethical finger is pointed at those employees who initially buried their heads in the sand, or who got caught up in unethical behaviour, allowing it to perpetuate. An early failure to apply wider ethical thinking to business decisions can lead to massive reputational damage.

But is HR responsible for being the ‘conscience’ of an organisation? “These questions tend to divide opinion in our profession,” says Harrison. “Some argue that it’s HR’s role to develop and nurture healthy cultures and to alert leadership colleagues or decision-makers about ‘bad apples’. Others claim that everyone owns the culture. It’s everyone’s accountability – and therefore, troublingly, nobody’s – and HR’s role is to deliver the business strategy within the system.”

It’s too easy for some departments to turn a blind eye to unethical behaviour, which is why HR needs to step up and take broader responsibility for ethics. “It’s interesting that as a profession we seem uncomfortable with talking about ethics. Surely ethics and professionalism are intimate bedfellows?” says Harrison.

The CIPD’s Perspectives on ethical workplace decision-making report shows there’s no HR/business divide here. The business leaders it surveyed want to do the right thing as much as HR practitioners do, but the same research demonstrates a worrying gap between ambition and practice.

HR professionals should hold themselves to a standard, says Harrison. “This means not only that you’ve acquired relevant knowledge – there’s a lot to learn about human beings and businesses, neither of which are particularly straightforward – but that you keep it up to date and you abide by a code of ethics that places the esteem of your profession and your behaviour, as being a worthy recipient of that esteem, at its centre,” she says.

“Let’s move on from the idea that ‘HR is common sense’ or ‘anyone can have a go’, to pride in our profession, in its role in championing better work and working lives, and in delivering social and economic benefits that are wider than short-term organisation goals.”

In the Middle East, questioning the decisions of those in authority brings its own issues. At the Middle East Ethics & Compliance Summit in 2016, hosted by Parsons and Ethisphere, a roundtable participant pointed out: “When you do business in the UAE you realise how important it is to understand the nuance of culture and relationships. You have to figure out how to be respectful and faithful to those relationships, while not compromising a global standard of ethics and business practice.”

But knowing when you’ve made the right decision isn’t as complicated as many think. Studies show most people are more considerate in their decision-making when they are at home. At work, we become compliant robots. Corporate philosopher Professor Roger Steare put 130,000 individuals through an online test to assess which factors come into play when they make decisions, and concluded that, for people to make more ethical decisions in the office, they should remember to bring their innate sense of humanity to work.



Staff in GCC businesses believe ethics are being taken seriously, according to PwC’s Middle East Economic Crime Survey 2016. Ethical behaviour is part of HR procedures, according to 77 per cent, while 74 per cent said their senior leaders “convey the importance of ethical business conduct in all that they do”. Almost two-thirds are trained in ethical behaviour. But the survey also hints at the challenges businesses face: 33 per cent of employees expect to encounter bribery and corruption in the next two years, compared to 24 per cent globally.