Q&A: Kabir Julka: “We’re encouraging women to raise their hand”

Author: Kate Whitehead | Date: 23 Mar 2016

American Express’ head of HR for Hong Kong and Taiwan discusses the initiatives that really make a difference for women at work

Kabir Julka, American Express’ head of HR for Hong Kong and Taiwan, has worked for the financial firm for more than six years. Before relocating to Hong Kong, he worked at American Express India supporting a large global services center, and was responsible for implementing a range of talent and people initiatives.
 
People Management spoke to Kabir about what workplace initiatives make the biggest difference for employees, and why American Express scooped the Best Employer for Women award from the American Chamber of Commerce.
What initiatives has American Express launched to make it a good place for women to work?
Ten years ago we started our Women’s Interest Network, which connects female employees who are keen to the support development of other women. They work closely with senior leaders and help develop programmes that will improve engagement, work-life balance and career development for our employees. This includes programmes such as offering breast-feeding facilities in the office to flexible work-life arrangements, as well as opportunities for women to network with senior leaders.
 
How do these programmes differ from offered by American Express in India?
As an organisation, our focus doesn’t change irrespective of the market – but the initiatives will look and feel very different because of the culture. So in a market like India, if there is an opportunity a lot of women will raise their hand because it is acceptable culturally to stand up for your rights and raise your hand if an opportunity comes up. Whereas in a market like Hong Kong, it is expected that if an opportunity comes up, someone will tap you on the back and say: ‘this an opportunity, why don’t you raise your hand for it?’ And that’s why we’re trying to create a network where women feel more encouraged by their leaders or network to raise their hand, when they might not otherwise because of these cultural differences.
 
What is your organisation’s attitude towards flexible working?
In Hong Kong we’ve got a few programmes running to help women manage their work-life balance. One example is a kids’ exam leave. If a child has an exam coming up, the whole family gets involved because of the stress that children experience at school. So during the exam period, women can choose to work one hour extra a day in a particular week and then take a day off the following week to support their children through their exams. We run this programme in sync with the school exam period and have a 68-70 per cent take up of the programme.
 
Why does your office have a healthcare centre?
If you have a healthy workforce, they are more productive. In Hong Kong we realised we were spending a lot of money through our health insurance plan on providing preventive healthcare facilities to our employees.
 
When we asked our employees what they wanted, a large number came back and said they wanted preventive healthcare, and the opportunity to reach out to a doctor before they fall ill. The idea of an onsite wellness centre came from this. We worked with a leading health provider and have a doctor on site three days a week, both Western practitioners and Chinese herbalists.