By: Rafil Mohamed
It is no secret that the traditional Maldivian lifestyle, both workwise and leisure-wise valued a degree of freedom, improvisation and easygoingness which the corporate landscape of today might frown upon. Don’t get me wrong, the nature of the work our ancestors did was not laid-back at all. Traditional Fishing and Agriculture was back-breaking and highly skilled work that required extreme patience, resolve and high levels of energy.
So why may the conventional corporate culture of today deem their work ethos unacceptable? Because, our ancestors worked at their own pace and applying on-the-spot but creative solutions to problems as and when they arose, with a general disregard for standardised operating procedures, punctuality and rules and regulations. Furthermore, for hundreds of years, fishing and agriculture were geared mainly towards self-sustenance and not towards international trade..
Maybe, the beautiful tropical landscapes and the heat that accompanied their work instilled this laid-back lifestyle. Nevertheless, there is a reason for me to briefly reflect on our historical work attitudes. This is because on some level, the old easy-going lifestyle might have passed down throughout the generations and influenced our attitude towards work. Of course, this is just an assumption and not a fact backed by empirical research.
One of the reasons for this assumption is due to some of the prevailing perceptions, beliefs and stereotypes associated towards Maldivian workers of today, within the Tourism industry as well as all other industries.
Many of the employers I’ve spoken to, both foreign and local state that many of their senior level as well as non-senior level Maldivian employees lack in adhering to punctuality and workplace discipline. They also note that Maldivians might not follow the standard operating procedures (SOPs) when completing an important task and this makes them hesitant to offer jobs of the highest tier, generally speaking. However, they do note that Maldivians will generally get the job done and that the quality of work is remarkable.
So if they get the job done, why would punctuality, workplace discipline and not adhering to the status quo be an issue? Obviously, this amounts to a general violation of standard employment terms. They state that the employment terms are made not just to ensure the respective employee stay productive, but as importantly to ensure cohesion and productivity for the entire team. They say that, when the status quo is not followed, friction and problems are created within the entire team. For example, when another employee has to take-over an important task in progress, it becomes more challenging for him/her to complete it when the SOPs are not followed.
Many employers also state that emotional intelligence and soft skills are an area lacking in Maldivians, when they first start their jobs. This issue is surprisingly prevalent in recent University Graduates that do not have years of working experience under their belts.
There are many reasons for this, which I will not delve into in this article due to its extensiveness. However, I will touch upon one significant problem within the Maldivian education system, which I believe creates this problem.
Yes, the syllabus and teachers might be of high quality. However, unlike many developed nations, Maldivian students are not required or even encouraged to work part-time throughout the completion of their studies. Some schools do require “O” level and “A” level students to complete a very finite number of part-time working hours. However, I believe that it should be made mandatory or even highly encouraged for students to be engaged in a part-time job or even completing odd-jobs throughout their education. At least, from secondary school onwards.
Exposure to the work environment from a very young age, be that serving coffee, assisting a shopkeeper or even manual intensive work requires students to learn how to deal with people. It also teaches them discipline and important life-skills that would not be obtained from simply sitting in a classroom.
So apart from making students be engaged in the working environment from a very young age, how do we go about creating a world-class Maldivian workforce?
I recently sat down with a leading Human Resource professional in the Maldives by the name of Mr. Hussain Afeef, to help answer this question as well as to obtain some insights and a different perspective regarding the current state of our human resource sector, existing challenges and other concerns. Mr. Afeef is the Regional Director of Training, Development and Quality Assurance at LUX* Resorts & Hotels as well as the president of the recently formed Maldives Association of Human Resource Professionals (MAHRP).
Below listed are some excerpts from the chat I had with him.
- In your opinion, what is the current state of Maldivian human capital?
The Maldives Human Capital has an extensive scale of potential. By nature Maldivians are humble, carries an attitude of “can do attitude”. However what lacks is the skills and knowledge that will be able to assemble a series of “HOW”, and this is something we can teach, train and coach our workforce. Our nation is heading towards a service economy, and as we speed up the infrastructure development in key economic areas, we must develop the human capital and find a way to sustain it. Key to any service economy is “the strength of its human capital and having a culture of continuous human capital development programs or initiatives”.
- What can employers do to create a working environment that can motivate, foster and assist in reaping high productivity out of Maldivian employees?
- What are some of the prevailing stereotypes affiliated with Maldivian employees?
I believe to a certain degree there is a lack of awareness among the Maldivian Employees as what are their rights as employees and rights towards employers. Employee and Employer relationship is critical for a successful working environment and ultimately to the nation at large. Rather than sharing any specific point here; my main point would be as employees we all need to infest positive thoughts towards our employers and find ways to work together mutually; and as an employee of the organization development opportunities and career growth are not just “given”; we have to work to achieve and show our dedication to the organization. Work hard and stay committed to your goals.
- What are some of the weaknesses attributed to Maldivian employees?
I wouldn’t use the word “weakness”. I would say we have a series of challenges across the board. Most important thing is the willingness and continuous commitment to always do and be better is lacking in almost all sectors. Maldivian Employees are hard working, no doubt about it, but we could question the productivity. Productivity comes from a set of mindsets that you bring to work place, and this requires constant coaching, development and willingness for continuous improvement. The other challenges we find in all sectors is that the current educational curriculum does not match with the skills sets that are required from the employees by the employer. When one completes the secondary education, there is no specific subject around “customer service” and then he/she gets a job; we expect them to smile and serve the way we like to be served. However, this was not taught to them during the entire secondary education process; hence the challenges. Eventually, employers face this and will have to train/teach them accordingly. We must focus on the strengths of our employees, and as a result, the areas of development will become the ultimate potential possibilities, which we can then work with the employees to bring it alive.
- What are some of the differentiating strengths of a Maldivian employee?
Many, and my key three areas are the nature of the humble and friendliness approach to serve each other, can do attitude and the curiosity to try new things and new ways of working. Our general workforce always appreciates innovation, which is a competitive advantage to the Maldives. They get adjusted to the new ways of doing things in a very short span of time. Employers must understand that if they focus on so-called by them as “weaknesses”, they will never be able to make their people productive. Employee’s strengths are areas in which they are passionate, and that’s what employers should focus.
- What are the underlying reasons for a lack of female employees working in resorts? How can we address this issue?
I believe there is a lot we can do to bring more female employees to resort sector. We need to actively promote this through various NGOs, Institutions, and independent bodies and encourage female employees. We lack in this area simply because we advertise the jobs, but it is unclear which jobs in resorts can apply to Female workers unless specified. So there requires the awareness of both the potential employees and employers. There are equal opportunities, but it needs to be educated to all and positive reinforcements, appreciations and the need for female employees should be voiced out clearly. Right now employers do not promote this much; If a female employee applies they would review and consider, but there is no active and intentional mandate for such. Resorts are the safest place for female and male workers. It is peaceful, rights are protected, and in fact, male workers respect female workers a lot. There are a lot of misconceptions we need to clear and address to our community.
- What are some of the reasons for a disproportionate representation of Maldivians in top-tier posts (such as GM level) in the Tourism Industry?
I see this is changing now. There are several local General Managers & Resorts Managers in both domestic and international resort chains. Many resort operators are now focused on developing locally. What we need to do is to show our commitment, dedication and the desire to lead and take charge. This is still lacking in some areas. To become a GM or RM or a senior level manager in the resort industry takes time, energy, effort and personal investment to develop and better. This is also lacking in some areas. I am optimistic this will change over the next few years and we anticipate to see more and more locals taking over higher roles including GM’s and RM’s role.
Learn the strengths of employees, find ways to bring those strengths alive and understand the areas of development and intentionally help them to improve. Appreciate the individual talents by the local workforce and role model and promote employees as a means of employer branding. There is nothing better than having your employees as brand ambassadors.
- What do you feel is required to develop a local workforce that can attain top-tier positions in the tourism industry?
Employers need to work on a series of professional development programs for their high potential local workforce members. This should be done intentionally. There needs to be a plan on who needs to be developed and what would they get or the position they can be placed once the development program is completed. Locals must take these opportunities seriously and put 120% effort into their personal and professional developments. We must also find ways to coach and mentor locals to bring them to senior level roles. Personal and Professional Development, coaching and mentoring is key to achieve this. In our industry coaching and mentoring is lacking which is the most significant barrier at the moment. Platforms and systems need to be created and developed to bring this culture.