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An expert's guide to working in Vietnam: Keeping turnover rates low during Tet

An expert's guide to working in Vietnam: Keeping turnover rates low during Tet

Saturday, February 03, 2024, 15:41 GMT+7
An expert's guide to working in Vietnam: Keeping turnover rates low during Tet
Two foreigners take a walk in an alley donning Tet-themed decorations in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Be Hieu / Tuoi Tre

Editor’s note: English/Japanese Liam Langan, 25, has lived in Ho Chi Minh City for a little over a year. In this piece, he talked to Thijs van Loon of Betterworks Asia to get an idea of the work culture in Vietnam and to offer some tips for foreign managers who want to lower their employee turnover rates.

Known as “The Golden Period of Recruitment," the period between Tet (Lunar New Year holiday) in January/February to April is considered the best time for companies to increase recruitment. For managers, this clouds an otherwise celebratory occasion and leaves them worried about their company’s future.

Irrespective of Tet, in 2019, employee turnover rates in Vietnam reached a worrying 24 percent, according to a Vietnam News Agency report from the human resource consultancy Anphabe. 

Issues like this are ones Thijs van Loon, founder and director of Betterworks Asia, deals with at his job.

With close to two decades of experience as a consultant, trainer, and coach, his work at Betterworks Asia provides professional skills improvement and coaching for companies in Vietnam and Southeast Asia.

As a firm believer in the value of a good manager, particularly after research by American analytics and advisory company Gallup found 70 percent of the variance in team engagement is determined by the manager alone, he is passionate about teaching others how to become effective leaders themselves. Since moving to Vietnam in 2018, he already counts Pizza 4P’s, RMIT University, and MegaMarket among his list of clients.

Thijs van Loon’s journey as a trainer began in 2004, back when he was working for the Google headquarters in Ireland.

After honing his skills there, he was recruited by Apple to be the Head of Training for the Netherlands.

For three years, Thijs van Loon ran all of the workshops while also working with various external parties in B2B, B2C, and B2E training.

When the head oftTraining for EMIA (Europe, the Middle East, India, Africa) left, Thijs van Loon filled the role.

These experiences were pivotal for Thijs van Loon’s development as a trainer and coach. 

Thijs van Loon, founder and director of Betterworks Asia, is seen in this supplied photo.
Thijs van Loon, founder and director of Betterworks Asia, is seen in this supplied photo.

Since arriving in Vietnam, he has identified a few problems managers face here and how best to overcome them. While these are geared towards foreign managers in Vietnam, the principles can be applied to locals too. 

Problem #1: Understanding cultural differences in Vietnam

Whenever you go to someplace new, there’s a likelihood you will experience some form of culture shock. In a business setting, it is vital to understand cultural differences to ensure a smooth transition from one place to the next. A question that Thijs van Loon believes is pivotal to ask is, “What’s normal?”. 

Taking into account what a culture deems as normal, and thus, important, is one of the most revealing clues into the psyche of a society. In Vietnam, he has come to understand how nothing, not even work, takes precedence over family. Understanding how to work around this can ensure a successful working culture in the country. 

Problem #2: Understanding expectations and building trust

In terms of understanding expectations, Thijs van Loon sees a difference in the perceived role of the manager and employee in Vietnam when compared to other countries.

In Vietnam, there is an expectation amongst employees that managers should know everything, from the minute details of an operation to the bigger picture of the future. Considering the fact that managers have more to deal with, knowing everything is difficult. This is why a good manager is, among other things, a good delegator. However, what Thijs van Loon has seen happen is employees lose trust in managers when they do not meet this expectation.

While we spoke of how trust is lost, van Loon believes there are two ways in which trust is built in a professional setting. The first has to do with trust in a person’s professional ability. Essentially, how well you do your job. However, that is not enough for a successful working relationship. Trust must also be built in a personal sense and for many, this can be more important.

One way Thijs van Loon suggests building this type of trust in Vietnam is through drinking—Yes, you read that correctly. Out-of-office social gatherings allow employees and managers to really get to know each other, making them perfect for developing better bonds. 

Drinkers clink their glasses of beer at a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Quang Dinh / Tuoi Tre
Drinkers clink their glasses of beer at a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Quang Dinh / Tuoi Tre

Problem #3: Understanding communication styles

The fact that people have varying communication styles is a no-brainer, but we tend to forget this in working environments. This is especially true when dealing with different nationalities. Thijs van Loon’s time at Google and Apple, where he was constantly working with people from all sorts of backgrounds, forced him to accept the reality that most people at work tend to communicate in a one-dimensional manner. For example, people in Europe tend to have a low context style of communication, which is more direct and specific. In contrast, people in Vietnam tend to prefer a high context style of communication. Here, things must be implicitly understood, and factors like status, relationship, and environment play a role in shaping conversation. In a nutshell, you must read between the lines. 

Next, I will introduce a few steps van Loon believes both foreign and Vietnamese managers can use to improve relationships with employees.

Step 1: Be patient

The first step is to be patient. While quick results are tempting, trust grows over time, which is why Thijs van Loon advises anyone looking to elicit change in a business to spend the first two to three months only observing. During this period, it is okay to be clear and open about your vision but that should be all. This allows you the time to better understand the in’s and out’s of a specific team, while making it possible to develop bonds with the rest of the team.

Step 2: Start communicating 

Once the period of observation is over, start communicating with the individuals in your team. This is where it is important to be specific about your goals for each team member, while outlining their skills and capabilities. However, don’t forget that Vietnamese people tend to prefer high context communication, so if you’re a foreigner, it’s vital you understand how to balance the two. 

Step 3: Build connections

To really take a business relationship to the next level, you have to understand how to build connections with members of your team. While some might try to fake a personality, Thijs believes nothing beats being genuine. This comes from all of his years of experience as a trainer and the fact that throughout it, he never came across a single personality type that could be considered the ‘perfect manager’. Instead, the best managers were those who understood their individual limitations and rather than faking it, called upon people in their team to fill those gaps. “In a way, it’s all about flexibility,” he says.

Step 4: Read about culture!

One of the most effective and yet underutilized ways to continue bettering yourself in any field is to read. There’s so many books and articles with valuable information on any given subject that really, choosing not to read is akin to turning your back on a treasure chest. Thijs highlights books like Erin Myer’s “The Culture Map” and studies by Geert Hofstede as having contributed to his understanding of culture and enriched both his way of interaction and delivering workshops in Vietnam and abroad. 

So, what is it about Tet in Vietnam?

As mentioned, there’s a prevailing worry amongst managers that come Tet, many of their employees will look for new jobs. While the Lunar New Year is only celebrated in some countries, research has shown how there tends to be a jump in employee turnover rates during similar celebratory occasions. This includes work anniversaries (6-9 percent), birthdays (12 percent), and large social gatherings like high school reunions or New Year celebrations (16 percent), a 2016 research from CEB, a Washington-based company providing best-practice insight, showed. 

To prevent employees from leaving, Thijs van Loon advises managers to do three things on top of the aforementioned steps. 

First is to set clear goals for after Tet. This gives employees something to look forward to upon returning from their celebrations.

Second is to get intrinsic motivation going for employees. Thijs believes managers should ask for people to stick to their goals, all the while offering a helping hand.

Third is to set a clear pathway for promotion or other incentives (extra vacation day, salary increase, bonus increase) for those that achieve their goals.

By doing these three things before Tet, it’s possible to make employees feel valued and like their work has a purpose. 

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