Conversations with Dorcas Chng

By Cheng Min Jing and Lu RouJia

Dorcas Chng is the Director for Human Capital Management for PARKROYAL on Kitchener Road. She oversees PARKROYAL’s Human Resource functions, focusing on talent management as well as the resourcing and hiring processes. In this interview, she shares her diverse career experiences, from her background in hospitals to her current role in the hospitality and tourism industry. Dorcas also shares insightful and tangible advice and anecdotes for youths trying to find their paths amidst the many choices in today’s world. 

In hospitality, the workload is rather heavy because we manage several functions. Mainly, we assist our business partners with hotel activities, recruitment, as well as Human Resource (HR) functions — including industrial relations, performance management, compensation and benefits, staff welfare, as well as trading. My current role has evolved from the hotel to the corporate office level, and this shift also came with several changes. For one, my role is more focused now, and I mainly do resourcing, talent management, and oversee the hiring process for our local and international hotels.

I feel that the hospitality sector has encountered many challenges compared to other industries, particularly because of Covid-19. The pandemic helped us to understand our reliance on tourism — if borders do not reopen, our business revenue will be affected, and this in turn affects our manpower and Profit and Loss (P&L) statements. In times like these, HR plays a very crucial role in ensuring that the manpower meets our business demand. For instance, we have to ensure that our cost of labour should not increase to a certain level such that we are unable to recover despite earning sufficient revenue.

Yes. This is because the hospitality industry allowed me to gain a different perspective on how the HR function may work. In other industries, their HR departments will usually not be involved in other business activities. However, in the hospitality sector and particularly in hotels, the HR team is very involved in terms of strategy planning with various stakeholders and owners. The reason I continued to stay in the hospitality sector is because of the service levels we provide, and of course, passion. We interact with different people from non-executive to executive roles, and there is a greater element of ‘human touch’ in the industry. 

I started out with a background in hospitals, not hospitality. I worked in HR in the National University Hospital, which merged with the National University Health System of NUS. At that time, I handled the Allied Health department. There are medical and non-medical people in Allied Health. The non-medical people are not your usual doctors, but they consist of research doctors, pathologists, psychologists — we handle this group of people. My next job was in the government sector. My eventual return to hospitality entailed faster career growth and the opportunity to learn a wide variety of things. I felt that the hospitality industry was the more appropriate learning ground for a young adult like myself at the time, compared to working at hospitals or in the government sector. It allowed me to be more strategic in my focus, and pick up a host of skills beyond processing compensation and benefits, which was the bulk of my work during my experience working in hospitals.

Yes, definitely. I had to handle a large number of people, and deal with job sopes and portfolios that I initially thought I would be able to manage, only to realise that I was not ready to handle them. The learning curve was steep. Ultimately, these changes and decisions would not have happened if not for the opportunities given to me. When I was transferred from the hotel level to the corporate level, it was actually an opportunity given to me by my boss. He laid out the expectations clearly to me to ascertain if I could accept the job. I think that before making any career transitions, it is important to consider the expectations of the job and talk to your reporting officer about them before you accept an offer. Otherwise, if you accept a job without knowing what is expected of you, you might not be able to deliver what is required of you.

When I first graduated with a diploma, I did not expect to be working in HR. Since I was not married at the time, I just wanted to find a job to make sure I had enough for my parents’ medical needs. When I started the HR job in the hospital, it was a temporary one where I had to file various staff details and records for over 6000 staff members. That was how I started having an impression of what HR really was about -— from different filing methods, to recording, auditing, and understanding the company’s structure. Later on, by God’s grace, I was converted into a full-time HR staff where I did recruitment for corporate positions in the hospital itself. I was transferred to Allied Health and began to learn about how interesting HR was.

I realised that as long as you have the basic technical skills, you will be able to succeed even if you make a switch to another industry. This is why, when I started developing a passion for HR, I began with learning about the different types of jobs and roles across various industries. To me, basic skills are very important, because those are the skills that you can bring along with you across industries. For example, finance and HR roles operate on the same basic skills that are transferable. This is different from the medical field, where the jobs within it are highly skill-based and specific.

Throughout my entire career journey, I also had experience in the government and education sector. If I were to compare the work culture in the government sector to that of hospitality, I get a strong sense that the hospitality sector has more familial bonds, a more people-oriented culture, and a stronger focus on service excellence. Now, hospitals are beginning to realise when sourcing for staff that customer service, the way one handles people, and having the ‘human touch’ in one’s service is important. The current trend is that hospitals are starting to entice those with hospitality backgrounds to join them, because they are trained to provide high service standards and have positive attitudes. In the past, this was not the case. Skills were valued above all — if you have the required skills, you would be hired; if you don’t, they wouldn’t want to hire you. 

There are pros and cons of the work culture in a hotel, as well as in a hotel. For example, if you work in a hotel, everyone will probably know each other. There is a sense of belonging comparable to that of a family. However, because a hospital is too huge, everybody only gets to know the people in their own department, as the different departments do not usually interact. As for the government sector, they tend to be quite stringent with their PDPA (Data Protection) processes. As such, to ensure that certain confidential information—HR issues for instance—do not get released, it may be difficult for departments to mingle with each other.

With this Covid-19 situation, the media tends to emphasise the importance of healthcare heroes, forgetting about those in the hospitality sector. Healthcare workers are very crucial because they have the necessary skill sets that can assure patients that they are in safe hands. Passengers who have just alighted the plane and are already seriously ill will go directly to hospitals and be under the care of healthcare personnel. However, those who might have contracted Covid-19 but have not developed symptoms yet stay in hotels first. As such, in many cases, hoteliers actually come into contact and receive these patients before the healthcare workers do. In this sense, hospitality people can be said to double up as healthcare heroes as well. 

If I could make a change, I would like to spread awareness on how great hoteliers have been with their service standards in these times. For one, cleaning and sanitising the room after each guest has left is not an easy and simple process. Every small detail is taken into consideration to ensure each guest has a safe environment free from Covid-19 to stay in. Another challenge hotels face, apart from serving the Stay-Home Notice (SHN) guests, is struggling to maintain payroll costs during this time. The hotel has to be saved. This is why I mentioned that the working culture in a hotel is much like a family — everyone is thinking of one another, and everyone has agreed to serve with passion in this difficult time. My wish is for hoteliers to receive greater appreciation and recognition for their hard work during this time.

I find motivation to go to work because people are my assets. I get a sense of achievement from seeing my staff grow in their career. Everyday, I hear a lot about my staff and their stories, and I enjoy being able to help them. I also derive a sense of happiness when I can help the hotel owners build the business, and when I observe the passion of those around me. It gets me thinking about how I can help them maintain their love for their jobs. 

I always share with my team members that HR today is not just about doing administrative work. One needs to know that the people you meet in this line of work are not always agreeable or likeable, so it is important to get to know them first and learn about them. I believe that once you are able to do that, then you will definitely like them. It all boils down to building a culture where people are able to learn to know others, love them, and then serve them well. Without the right mentality,  you will definitely not be a good HR staff. I find that in my HR role, I become a very different person. I really believe that people come first.

My colleagues always tease me by asking if I am a “super mom”. There was a time where I had a very important work meeting over Zoom. However, my study happened to be under renovation, so I attended the meeting with my five children constantly jumping everywhere behind me. I was unfamiliar with Zoom at the time, so I did not have a background image on. I think the board members were laughing all the way as I was giving my presentation. I told them “that’s my life”.

A really good day at work would be one where things run smoothly and I can get all my approvals. Of course, not every day is a good day. I believe that a good day depends on how we handle it and make it to be. Everyday is a learning journey. There are different paths with different turns we need to go through. The journey is not a smooth one, but it will definitely enrich people in different ways. This is something that I always tell my staff, as well as my daughter. There will always be ups and downs, but no matter how difficult the situation is, as long as you have the passion to learn and listen, it will be for the best. Ultimately, in HR, you need to have a great passion for service, because you will be serving people everyday; it’s not a one-day thing.

Right now, due to Covid-19, business owners seem to be more concerned about cost, instead of helping their employees. It is not an easy situation to be caught in, and owners tend to look at figures. On the HR side, we do look at figures, but we also consider our people. A big challenge businesses face during Covid-19 is that if a company isn’t earning money, they will start to downsize and restructure. This involves combining positions and getting people to take up 2-3 year job scopes here and there. It was especially difficult when the borders closed last year and travel was halted. Since then, we have realised that we could think of the situation in a different way. This is where I think the government should be praised – they were very quick to react and gave us enough support to let us hold onto our payroll. I was very thankful that the government was really supportive of local businesses when the pandemic struck — instead of advising businesses to retrench people, they encouraged us to push further and think about how technology can enrich our lives. It is also in this regard where I tend to disagree with business owners. Instead of insisting that companies be downsized, we should encourage our staff to go for further training and develop their skill sets. 

In 2019, before the pandemic, I introduced a system where my staff could do one main module and two elective modules, and told them that it was very easy to graduate from the modules with a certificate. Those in HR who chose a third elective module in housekeeping or managing call centres would also receive extra credit. We wanted everyone to be multi-skilled, but we did not want to have to force them. Ideally, it should be a mindset change. Instead of expecting our staff—and our older staff in particular—to immediately be prepared for a redesigned role that involves a combination of job scopes, we should ensure that they themselves are ready for their jobs to be redesigned. When they asked why they should participate in it, I encouraged them to simply take the opportunity to learn and to keep an open mind. To my surprise, many of them changed their mind about upskilling, and found that they could perform tasks that were not within their original jobscopes. For instance, our job description for our doormen used to be merely opening doors, while the bellmen would talk to guests. We have since combined both roles. This programme came at a great time because it happened before the height of the pandemic. Many were grateful for the training they received because they were able to perform different tasks during Covid-19, apart from their usual ones. In fact, when DPM Heng visited Parkroyal on Kitchener Road, he praised us for our job redesign and restructuring efforts, and our emphasis on training our staff during the height of the pandemic. Minister Josephine Teo also made a visit earlier this year. 

In my current role at our corporate office, I am managing an upcoming project which is also regarding job redesign. This has been rather challenging for me, because our timeline for this round of job redesigning happens to be rather tight, compared to the 1.5 to 2 year time period that Parkroyal on Kitchener Road had to complete the entire process. It would be poorly received if we were to inform our staff of the redesign on such short notice.

Due to an increase in the population of Singaporeans who are educated, it is difficult to hire locals for mundane tasks like housekeeping and F&B. It is important to think about how we can transform the job and entice people to be willing to take them up in five years. In thinking about such progress, the use of technology has been in the pipeline, particularly in teaching workers how to handle technology in order to collect payments, as well as for other tasks. One issue is that there currently does not exist a technology that is able to clean up a room – an essential task in the hospitality sector. Robots as we know them now have merely been used in businesses to entertain guests, but are unable to lift beds or make up a bed. These tasks still have to be done manually. 

With that said, for my next project, I would like to emphasise recruitment. I want to find out how I can brand Pan Pacific Hotels Group as an employer of choice for everyone, not just in terms of executive positions or cleaning jobs, but considering other roles within the rank infrastructure as well. This is not something that can be achieved easily, and I will need a lot of feedback in the process. It seems that the roles in hospitality have not been sufficiently recognised to a degree where there is a consensus that everyone’s pay should be equally raised by a certain amount. However, if this were to happen, it will also have a major impact on us in terms of our payroll costs, which may increase retrenchment — it will be difficult to maintain payroll costs if our revenue per room remains stagnant at around $100 per night. These are the pros and cons that will have to be taken into consideration.

We are looking for people who can provide good customer service. This is very important because our jobs revolve around people, and people are the ones who build businesses. On top of that, we also value good interpersonal skills, as well as those from a communications background. It also helps to be someone who is very positive and smiley, particularly in the hospitality industry. This is less so for those who take up kitchen roles, but even kitchens have live chefs who have to interact with customers nowadays. For an outstation or counter chef, one will have to be pleasant-looking and able to talk and interact with people.

When we hire people, it is not necessary for them to have a degree or diploma. For skill-based jobs in the F&B sector, we are even able to take in people who have just obtained their O Levels certificate. However, when we hire such people, we would encourage them to take up a work-and-study programme either in Republic Polytechnic, Temasek Polytechnic, or ITE. This means that they will study and work concurrently, while being paid by us. Hiring degree-holders is not necessary because these jobs require more experience after all. A fresh graduate, for instance, is unable to start work as a supervisor without having had prior experience in the sector. This is another challenge that I am in the midst of working out. What are the career pathways available to this group of people? What are the different pathways that the company can offer to different groups of people, while still maintaining a sense of internal equity?

Not particularly during my schooling days. However, I used to lead the youth fellowship in my Church, particularly for the Chinese and Hokkien services. This experience actually led me towards HR because I had to utilise my creativity and talents in order to recruit young people, who were not as interested in joining the Chinese and Hokkien fellowship groups, as compared to the English groups. During the process, my passion for building people was nurtured. I started to feel a sense of achievement seeing people being uplifted, and having faith and passion. I have always believed that everything we do has a purpose, and that we have to have a place for people in our hearts. For things that do not have a place in our hearts, such as jobs that we are not passionate about, we will not succeed in them.