Cathay Pacific reimagines the employee experience

Author: Robert Jeffery | Date: 18 May 2016

Recruitment and onboarding need to match the overall brand, HR leader Tom Owen tells the HR Summit Hong Kong

Cathay Pacific customers can’t fail to have noticed the way its brand has been overhauled in recent years. But Tom Owen, the Hong Kong-based airline’s executive vice president of HR, noticed one key stakeholder group was failing to reap the benefits: its employees.
 
As he told the HR Summit in Hong Kong, a new look and feel – and a fresh customer service ethos – had begun to pay dividends, but many aspects of the employee experience still seemed locked in the past.
 
For Owen, that meant telling a compelling story – “If you can get your staff to believe in ‘why’, everything else follows on from that” – and ensuring the narrative was seamless right from the very first interaction with a potential hire.
 
Cathay worked hard at actively building a talent pool of like-minded individuals and overhauling the application process to turn it into an “experience” that included clearly understanding when and why someone chose to join the business.
 
“The whole way we approach potential employees is geared towards our brand,” said Owen. “We firmly believe it’s about attitude, not skills, even in very technical areas of the company – if you’re an engineer, we want you to feel passionate about flying and about customer experience, to feel emotional about that.”
 
The solution needed to take in every aspect of hiring, including a recruitment centre that “used to look like an interrogation room where someone shone a light into your eyes” and which was redesigned to resemble an airport lounge, with candidates even receiving a ‘boarding pass’ when they checked in.
 
When it comes to ‘onboarding’, no detail has been overlooked, said Owen: “Joining a new job is the most disorienting experience and if you don’t get [onboarding] right, you can end up really disillusioned.”
 
New joiners are sent a gift of a model plane, and a personalised note explaining the brand and their role in it. On their first day, new staff are welcomed by a senior director who guides them around the business, with the emphasis on the personal touch – you can’t deliver the right sort of experience through an app or other digital solution alone, said Owen.
 
Cathay has also been working on building a culture of recognition and informal feedback, based around a system that allows employees to thank each other for their efforts by sending a note. In the system’s first three days, 400 notes were sent. And the HR department has rethought competencies and the way employees can develop, to ensure the business continues to deliver on the promises it makes in those first few weeks.
 
It all adds up to a culture that benefits the bottom line as much as it does the employees, Owen added: “We firmly believe a compelling place to work leads to happier customers and increased profitability.”