Sixteen tips to clinch an internal transfer into Asia

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If you want to move to Asia for a banking job, you’d better stay with your current company. Cost-conscious banks in Singapore and Hong Kong are under financial and political pressure to hire more local staff. And when they do relocate people from abroad, they prioritise candidates who already work for them. Here’s how to score an internal transfer into Asia.

1) Be clear about company rules

If you work for a large financial institution, there are restrictive guidelines governing the application process for internal transfers. Learn them before you do anything else. An HR manager at a European bank in Singapore, who asked not to be named, says her firm only transfers staff under two circumstances: When an existing role is being relocated or offshored; and when filling a permanent vacancy or fixed-term assignment. Speculative candidates need not apply.

2) Stay glued to your careers site

Most banks advertise jobs exclusively to employees for about two weeks. Make sure to monitor your employer’s careers website so you can apply for new vacancies during this window, says Farida Charania, chief executive of Singapore search firm Nastrac.

3) Stay in the same division

Be realistic about the roles you apply for – internal transfers and career changes don’t mix. You are far more likely to move within the same division doing a similar job, says Craig Brewer, director of banking and financial services at recruiters Hudson in Singapore.

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4) Understand Asia

You won’t snag a transfer by being a star in your home country. You must also demonstrate that your understand business issues in Asia, according to Bin Wolfe, talent leader for Asia Pacific at Ernst & Young in Hong Kong. “Asia is rich in diversity. It’s a mix of mature markets (such as Singapore and Hong Kong), developing markets (such as mainland China), and emerging markets (such as Indonesia and Vietnam). The more you address these distinct differences, the more credible you will be.”

5) Connect with Asian colleagues

Nothing says you understand Asia like working with colleagues in the region. “People like to hire people they know. If the team in Shanghai has never heard of you, it may not be enough that you are already employed by the company; you will just be seen as another resume,” says Mark Verrall, practice director, financial services, at Hong Kong search firm MRIC.

6) Take a trip

Do as many work trips to Asia as you can. Failing that, go on holiday and meet your colleagues socially. Get to know the managers in your department and the people that make hiring decisions. “Leveraging these experiences to build relationships can be really beneficial when you make an official request to transfer,” Wolfe says.

7) But don’t overtly sell yourself while you’re there

Don’t meet with human resources while in Asia as it risks giving the impression that your trip is just a front to land a job. “This is also not the time to give your resume to your Singapore counterparts or ask about vacancies,” Brewer says.

8) Approach your manager first

When you have established some Asian expertise and contacts, kick start the transfer by speaking to your home country manager. “We encourage staff to discuss it with their line manager first, but it's not mandatory,” the Singapore HR manager says. “The manager can’t stop them from applying unless they provide a robust business case against the move and I’ve yet to see this happen.”

9) Plan the meeting carefully and name your job

The timing of your managerial meeting matters. “If your half-yearly review is coming up and you have performed extremely well, this is a great time to have the chat,” Brewer from Hudson says. And be specific about the role you want, adds Verrall from MRIC. “You have less chance of success if home management senses you are mostly interested in a three-year paid life experience.”

10) Keep your interview professional, not personal

If you’re lucky enough to get a first interview about an internal job in Asia, don’t harp on about your personal reasons for wanting to move or ask questions about housing, schooling and other personal matters. “The interview should not be about how much you want to learn about business in Hong Kong, or experience the growth of Indonesia, it should be about what you have to offer the company,” Verrall says. “For example, highlight your familiarity with products and processes, and your head-office relationships.”

11) Don’t mention money

You may be a valued employee, but don’t let this make you over confident. Treat your in-house interview like you would an external one. Don’t mention salary, benefits and relocation expenses too early in the process, says Annie Yap, group managing director at Singapore headhunter, AYP Asia Group. And unless you’re the CEO, don’t expect an expat package. “When it eventually comes to negotiating compensation, remember that most transferees are now negotiated on local terms.”

12) Cultural questions are critical

Don’t treat cultural awareness and adaptability as fuzzy concepts. Interviewers in Asia will grill you on them at an early stage. “Many organisations have experienced individuals who came here to work but were unable to adapt to Asian culture,” Wolfe says. Demonstrate how you have adapted your working style to fit in with colleagues and clients from different cultural backgrounds. Such examples can be a “critical differentiator” in you eventually getting the job, Wolfe adds.

13) Be open to other Asian locations

Being fixated on a single country in Asia may backfire as your employer wants to use your skills, not pander to your geographical tastes. “Show flexibility in terms of location. It may well be that the company can offer you a job somewhere else in Asia, but not in Singapore. But once you have Asian experience you may be able to move there later,” Brewer says.

14) Be open to project roles

A fixed-term role on a new project may not be the secure route into Asia that you’re after. But with permanent openings generally scarce, it may be your only option, according to Hega Schultz, director of HS Coaching and Consulting in Singapore. Being based in Asia makes it easier to get other jobs there once the project ends.

15) Don’t be lazy

If interviewers in Asia get a whiff that you’re a core-hours-only candidate, you can forget about a transfer. “It’s important to demonstrate a strong work ethic, because Asian workers tend to work longer hours than their counterparts in the West,” Wolfe from Ernst & Young points out.

16) Do be patient

The lure of working in Asia means some internal candidates rush their applications and get rejected because they lack sought-after skills. Avoid this fate by researching which skills are needed in your field in Asia – for example, the Dodd-Frank Act if you work in compliance – and focus your career on those. Joining Asian social media groups for your job function will help your research, Schultz says. “It means that your move to Singapore may be put back a year or two, but this is better than not moving at all,” Brewer from Hudson adds.