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Five weaknesses of the Vietnamese workforce in the hospitality industry



Ms Ha Dang (Founder of Respect Vietnam) :

"Thank you Mr Johan for accepting our invitation to be here in this program. We would like to get your insight and information and experience about working in Vietnam over the past 3 years in the hospitality sector, which I believe is one of the most emerging and fascinating industries in Vietnam. So, as a part of doing business in the field, you have a lot of opportunities to work with the Vietnamese workforce. We would like to hear from you about your experience with the pros and cons of working with the Vietnamese workforce"

Mr Johan :

I think the hospitality industry actually fits very well with the Vietnamese culture. I think that the people, in general, are very genuine and very accommodating, and they have a great smile at the start so really for people coming into Vietnam, it is really a warm welcome just off the back. And that's hard to get in many other countries. That is something we have to train but here becomes naturally to people.

But with that having people who like to interact with people comes with a few other things that make it a little bit difficult to integrate. International standards, for example. So my experience really when I first came in was I was overwhelmed with the genuineness and the willingness to accommodate, however, if they don't understand it still yes, and then when you go back and you ask why it didn't happen, they still say yes. But it's really that they don't understand exactly what you're asking for. So, what I've learned so far in the three years here is you have to be very specific in your direction and make sure that the directions are measurable because one thing that the Vietnamese workforce is custom to is compliance. When you set out rules and regulations, they are very good at following them. But in our hospitality industry, if the guess asks for something that is kind of outside the compliance, outside the rulebook, the workers get confused, they don't know if they're allowed to do it or if they should do it. So often their answer is no which in the hospitality industry is really a word that doesn't exist when a guess asks for something.

Mr Johan: But only you have just said that most of the time, they say yes.

Mr Johan: If it fits inside the rules and regulations

Mr Johan: Inside the box of rules and regulations, but outside the box, they say no.

Ms Ha Dang: Correct. The other interesting that I've learnt being here is that in the rest of the world we often talk about empowerment and allowing the workers or the ones facing the customers to make a decision and the problem is in the Vietnamese language there is no word for empowerment. So it's really a concept that's not familiar. So when you then add the compliance to it, it is hard to make a person at the front make a decision because they haven't been allowed to.

So even if you go all the way back to the 80s, Jan Carlzon wrote a book that's called ‘Moments of Truth’. He really turned the pyramid upside down and put all the decision power in the customer-facing position which lowered the number of dissatisfied customers but more importantly lowers the amount of money that the service industry payout to accommodate customers with complaints.

Ms Ha Dang: Well, your observation in your industry is very fascinating, actually refreshing because we don't hear that a lot from ex-pats coming to Vietnam mostly talk about the good things that Vietnamese workforce, but looking really into the critical part that is what we would like to learn from. So basically, overall with all the situations, you are facing with the characteristics of the workforce, what did you do to actually overcome all the challenges? What did you do to an individual employee or did you work with the boss above you? or What do you do to make the whole organisation change in the way of going together to the one goal?

Interviewee: So really looking at the Vietnamese workforce that really five items that I have experienced over the last three years and really looking at it in the five points is that they're sentimental, passive, also fear of accountability, a blaming game, and compliance. So if we go back to the sentimental, the Vietnamese culture is very people-centric and people like to meet after work or even at lunch hours, they all like to sit around and talk. And with that, comes to a lot of rumour spreading or talking about other departments really things that are breaking down the team from the inside.

Mr Johan: So when we're talking about the sentimental part is that when people talk about other people always somebody gets hurt. Over the last three years when I've been in Vietnam, I experience 5 things when I'm looking at the workforce. First is passive, second sentimental, and three really lack taking accountability, a blaming game, and compliance.

So if we start with being sentimental, the Vietnamese culture in general people like to hang out in crowds, they like to talk, and they like to socialize. And with socializing in a people-centric industry, people, of course, like to talk about other departments, talk about other people at work which is often resulting in conflict because somebody will say something that upset somebody else and when that person gets upset the people that are close to that person gets upset. So now you start getting different camps in the workforce, which is really counterproductive because it is breaking down the teamwork that hospitality is really built on.

Ms Ha Dang: So, how do you get around that? It is a little bit difficult because it is in the people's genes, because of the culture. So you have to try to understand how it works and who works with who and then you really need to set up a special team for you actually take people from the different cliques and mix them in so that they are forced to work with people that they're not normally hanging out with. By doing that it slowly starts breaking down the barriers that are naturally formed from the social norms that exist in the workplace.

Mr Johan: Now when you talk about passiveness. People, in general, are very laid-back in the approach and which is okay in the hospitality industry because you really don't want to force our customers on something other than what they want. So a lot of time in hospitality it is actually good to sit back and understand what the customer wants before they really know what they want. But, what happens is you have to tell the staff to do it once, you have to tell the staff to do it twice, you have to tell the staff to do it three times. But what I've learned in this culture too is that we go back to compliance. If you make a checklist and you train the people on the checklist, then it happens. But if it's more verbal and coaching as you go along, it doesn't stick. They will do it one or two times but not in the long term and be consistent. So the best way to interact with the staff when it comes to routine work and things that you want them to do on a consistent basis is really to do a thorough checklist and then trained the staff on the checklist. Because once they are trained on the checklist, they will follow it all the time.

Now accountability. A lot of times there are two things that come hand-in-hand here: accountability and the blaming game. This is where the rules and regulations that are formed in many companies here actually have some severe punishment if people don't follow the rules. So, by nature people will become very defensive and protect themselves or protect their friends. Again, it goes back to the sentimental game where people are protecting each other and now we go back to the clique.

Ms Ha Dang: How do you really address this? Again when you break the cliques down and you have them work in different groups now with the checklist now, they are compliant with the checklist so less chance of errors. But now who do you make accountable for the checklist? That's where each shift and each pre-shift is very important to continuously talk about the checklist and why it's important because the worst part that can happen to the checklist is that it is just a piece of paper that people always I did that is really not what I'm talking about. I am talking about a living checklist that the supervisor when he addresses the shift reminds them of at least 2, 3, or 4 points of the checklist every day so that it becomes a living document and then suddenly it becomes their habit and then once it is a habit it will happen automatically and you only have to spot-check.

Mr Johan: This is why it takes a lot of time to really set up the process of the checklist and then to let the team understand that they are accountable to the checklist as a whole not necessarily one individual. And this also will break down the blaming game between people but also between departments.

Ms Ha Dang: Now we are going to talk about compliance. So in general here in Vietnam, when we talk about quality, the quality department is called quality control whereas, in other regions of the world, it is called quality assurance. So what's really the difference? The difference is quality control is there to find out the problem, whose was that fault and to make them compliant. That's really what quality control is here in Vietnam in the hotel industry. When you look at quality assurance, quality assurance is about finding out what process went wrong, how it went wrong, and then going back to the department of the GM and giving them solutions about how we correct the process so that the problem doesn't reoccur. So the two different ways of looking at it, quality control is understanding the problem and then automatically assessing whose was that fault and then taking care of whose is that fault. With quality assurance, we look at what went wrong in the process, what can we learn from the mistake so that it doesn't reoccur again and then educate the staff on the process. So that are really two fundamental differences when it comes to compliance understanding what went wrong and then fix it and let people learn from the mistake or you find a mistake and you issue a warning to the person that made the mistake. Now, which one is going to reoccur? The one where you only issue a warning to the person that broke the rule or made a mistake. The rest of the team doesn't know. Where if you fix the process and it let everybody learn from the problem, now, you actually address a big audience, which means that it won't reoccur again.

Now I've talked about how to really understand the labour force but there are two sides to the labour force when you come into this market and in the hospitality in Vietnam. Of course, you have your team in the hotel but you also have to manage your relationship with the owner or the owning company, which can be a little different to what you are used to outside Vietnam.

Mr Johan: The one thing that I've learned over the last three years is that as a manager of a hotel, you need to understand that you need patience and what I mean by patience is that when you suggest changes or you suggest new ways of doing things, it's not just to suggest and implement. It's really about educating and letting the owning company or your manager know how the process is going to work and what the benefits are not just to the operation but also to the company as a whole. And once you understand how to communicate with your managing company, it becomes a lot easier to manage folk up and manage down.

Ms Ha Dang: And how to do that? Of course, the difference is based on whatever company you work for. However, it's very important to us that when you communicate, you be short and to the point. Don't try to write a 5-page essay about a process or procedure. Really think about how you can be precise and specific in a very short document because it's less chance of misunderstanding based on language, but also a lot easier for people to read and implement. So it's really about thinking about the core that you want to communicate and then writing it about that, not about all the things around it, really stick to the point.

Mr Johan: When it comes to organizational changes, one thing that you need to bear in mind is that the hospitality industry in Vietnam is still fairly new. So a lot of the Vietnamese companies are looking at the rest of the world and they're seeing what is happening in Singapore, seeing what is happening in Hong Kong, they see what's happening in America, and in Europe. Now, they like to make the best out of each and then implement and what happens is that they do that today, but then 3 months from now they hear a better way and then they will change it again.

And then what happened is that you just started to get the momentum of the one that you changed 3 months ago, and now you have to retrain everybody and change it again. And then what happens is often as the year goes by, we go back to the first one again, which means that there's a lot of changing, and going back and forth before you get to the process that you are happy with but also the one that the company's happy with. So when I talk about patience earlier is that a lot of things that you do is trial and error and not just trial and error for the customers and for your team, but it's also trial and error for the owner and the owning company to understand what fits them and their culture the best. It might not be exactly what you propose, it might be slightly twisted or slightly changed, but it is still your idea and I think it's important to understand that when you present an idea, be open-minded because they might take 20% of your idea, they might take 80% of your idea. But you need to be open-minded and tailor it to what they exactly want but also what they need. And once you understand that, it becomes a lot easier to operate, not just up but also down and laterally.

Throughout my 3 years here in Vietnam, I've had the opportunity to work with We at work on a few different occasions where I have encountered either conflict with one of the teams I work with or conflict with one of the employees I work with and each time. I reached out to We at work in order for me to better understand how to address the situation or get a suggestion on how to communicate my idea and for that I thank We at work.


​"There are no great organizations.

There are only great people who make great organizations"


Respect Vietnam prepares purpose-driven leaders

& people-centric organizations

in the face of the fast-changing world of work


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