At a time of global economic uncertainty, most companies will likely be more focused on building up a financial cushion than on making the workplace more diverse and inclusive. This reality bothers Ricky Chu, Chairperson of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC). “There’s this misleading perception that in times of recession, companies should find ways of making money instead of spending resources on abstract issues like diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). But this is not a true picture,” he says, referring to policies and programmes that promote the representation and participation of different groups of people.
As well as the topic of why DEI matters, the EOC is vocal about various other issues relating to discrimination. It has been particularly active recently in responding to discrimination issues related to COVID-19, and providing suggestions to tackle them.
Like the Hong Kong Institute of CPAs, the EOC was established as a statutory body. It is responsible for implementing and enforcing the four anti-discrimination ordinances, namely the Sex Discrimination Ordinance (SDO), the Disability Discrimination Ordinance, the Family Status Discrimination Ordinance, and the Race Discrimination Ordinance, and investigates and seeks to resolve disputes in connection with these four ordinances. “Our establishment is based on the passing of the SDO, which was the first anti-discrimination ordinance enacted in Hong Kong in 1995. It governs our approach as to how we tackle anti-discrimination. Our ultimate goal is to help build Hong Kong into an inclusive, diverse and harmonious society,” explains Chu, who was reappointed Chairperson of the EOC in March for a two-year term.
“But alongside the issue of discrimination comes the issue of harassment,” says Chu, adding that the EOC has legal powers to protect people from sexual harassment, harassment on the grounds of breastfeeding, as well as harassment on the grounds of disability and race. The nature of a discrimination claim is a civil dispute between the parties concerned. The threshold for the EOC to take legal proceedings and assist a person to pursue a complaint in court is therefore comparatively low, he explains. “If the EOC is trying to prove a harassment act or discriminatory practice in existence, the level of proof that we need to achieve is a balance of probabilities – is it more likely that the misbehaviour happened than not? Unlike in criminal cases, where the prosecution has to prove to the level of beyond reasonable doubt.”
Resolving disputes between parties through conciliation is a key part of the EOC’s complaint-handling process. “Upon receiving a complaint in writing, the EOC will assess whether the allegation falls within the protected areas of the anti-discrimination ordinances, if so, follow-up actions will be taken by the EOC in accordance with the law. In the course of investigation into a complaint, the EOC will endeavour to help the complainant and the respondent reach a settlement by way of conciliation, which is entirely voluntary. The spirit of all the anti-discrimination ordinances aims to iron out differences, trying to achieve a mutual consensus,” he says. On average, eight out of 10 cases attempted for conciliation are resolved successfully and not taken to court, says Chu. “We also grant legal assistance to about 10 to 20 cases every year, out of more than a 1,000 complaints that we receive annually.”
About 80 percent of the complaints the EOC has received are related to employment. Chu says that many cases that have recently gone to court are also pandemic-related. “We had a case where the employee alleged the employer dismissed him because he had contracted COVID-19. In another case, the employee did not go to work shortly after being recruited because he suddenly contracted COVID-19 and was hospitalized. The employer then no longer wanted to hire that person. This would be unlawful under the Disability Discrimination Ordinance.”
Addressing gender imbalance
Among companies listed in Hong Kong, women hold about 16 percent of board seats in 2022, according to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange (HKEX). To improve gender diversity at board level, starting from July the HKEX requires companies seeking to list in Hong Kong to have at least one director of a different gender. It has set a deadline of 31 December 2024 for every listed company to ensure their boards do not comprise just a single gender.
Chu sees the move as progress particularly as Hong Kong has been lagging behind in a global trend towards more diverse boardrooms. “Our number of female board directors is much lower than the number of female board directors of companies in the United States, Canada, Singapore, and Australia. We urged the HKEX, when it was reviewing its corporate governance code and related listing rules, to firmly advise listed companies to not just have a symbolic figure of one female in the board of directors. We actually encouraged having one-plus.”
Beyond the boardroom, Chu pushes for more gender diversity in leadership roles across the public and business sectors, and notes that companies failing on gender diversity risk missing out on top talent. He highlights a 2020 study the EOC jointly conducted with The Chinese University of Hong Kong titled A Study on Public Attitudes towards Female Political Leadership. “The study found that one of the main hurdles barring women from joining the top echelons of company directors are the traditional social biases against females,” Chu explains. “We think that the ultimate solution is for society to change this kind of double standard. Many don’t believe that men should take care of home affairs but that women should. We urge employers both in the public sector and private sectors in Hong Kong to make reasonable accommodations to develop an environment that allows female employees to move upwards in their careers because they have the potential to really move up.”
“The ticked boxes approach is a good first step, but now that we have it, accountants can help management to substantiate that tick.”
The business case
Chu says accountants can play a key role in creating a more inclusive corporate culture. “Accounting and auditing nowadays are not only about figures but about corporate governance. In preparing annual reports and in analysing the financial data, accountants’ recommendations should also include how the company can utilize available resources, either the surplus or through relocation of available funds, to meet the needs of staff in terms of workplace DEI. They have that insight.”
With decision-making in business mainly driven by facts and figures, Chu believes accountants can also help companies move beyond treating diversity and inclusion as a box-ticking exercise. “I know in reality there are still some companies that just focus on fulfilling the minimum environmental, social and governance requirements. The ticked boxes approach is a good first step, but now that we have it, accountants can help management to substantiate that tick through sharing what areas they think companies should focus on based on their detailed financial analysis,” he says.
While diversity and inclusion may be a good thing for the world, Chu understands that this is not enough for some companies to start making it a priority. This is why the biggest hurdle to successfully implementing DEI initiatives at an organization is a mindset change, Chu notes. “Very often when staff or the management are asked to consider a new DEI-related initiative, there is usually some resistance as a result of traditional mindsets. ‘How will this initiative affect business results or key performance indicators? Will this slow down business growth?’” he says. “So we think the solution is to push this change from the top, the board of directors. The second hurdle would be motivating the frontline staff and getting them to accept this concept so that they can come up with some practical measures that are workable.” In this regard, Chu stresses the importance of a diverse staff profile. “The more diversified the staff profile is, the easier it would be for them to think of practical and successful measures in DEI.”
In 2018, the EOC launched the Racial Diversity and Inclusion Charter for Employers, which gives interested employers a checklist of policies and practices they can implement to further their diversity and inclusion objectives. “We thought that if we could obtain a sufficient number of signatories consisting of companies of various sizes then we could strengthen our communication with these companies, and use the charter as a platform to exchange best practices to achieve a more racially embracing workplace,” says Chu.
Convincing companies to sign up to the scheme was difficult at the start, he adds, with the first batch of signatories being mostly international companies in Hong Kong, including the Big Four firms. “In March 2019 when I first joined, we only had 11 companies signed up. Now we have more than 230. I really commend the accounting profession’s efforts as it was one of the prime supporters of the charter from the early stage.”
With Chu’s reappointment as EOC Chairperson, he hopes to complete, if not make good progress, on certain projects. He is now focusing on exploring legislative amendment to advance equality for people in Hong Kong identified by their sexual orientation, gender identity or other sexual characteristics .
Indeed, the issue of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) rights in Hong Kong, particularly in relation to getting same-sex marriage legally recognized, is a huge and complex topic involving many layers, notes Chu. “To be honest, if you focus on achieving this goal of legalizing same-sex marriage, then the matter will drag on for many years without success. The way I would tackle the issue is to separate the problem into three levels,” says Chu. The first level, he explains, is personal benefits (The rights of LGBTI individuals in the areas of education, employment, provision of goods and services, etc.). The second level is rights relating to relationships (taxation rights, inheritance and property rights, parental and other family rights etc.). The third level is same-sex marriage. “I think it has to be considered in isolation as it is the most complicated factor and affects the whole society,” Chu explains. “I intend to implement this approach by first studying how we can actually amend our sex discrimination law to achieve the first level of rights.”
Another priority for Chu is to continue tackling specific areas of discrimination through creating specialized units. “We already have an ethnic minorities unit to deal with all racial matters, and an anti-sexual harassment unit to deal with issues involving sexual harassment, which is a very important concern. I have in mind that we should now look at disability issues because people with disabilities in Hong Kong make up almost 8 percent of the entire population, which is more than 600,000 people. There are different categories of people with disabilities, making this a very complex issue to tackle because their needs are different,” he says.
Chu adds that the EOC calls for employers to adopt universal design in the workplace so that all products and the work environment are fully usable by everyone, including those who are differently abled. “By making suitable adjustments to the workplace environment, for example by ensuring computers are equipped with applications that allow people with visual impairment to work, companies will be able to recruit more staff with different abilities, which will allow them to have a better life. We will need a specialized unit to raise awareness on this.”
“I could see that anti-discrimination work is so meaningful in Hong Kong because the scope is so wide.”
Anti-corruption to anti-discrimination
Chu’s first job after graduating from The Chinese University of Hong Kong was as a secondary school geography teacher. A colleague who suddenly left the school led to the start of his lengthy career in law enforcement. “I found out that he had left to become an Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) investigator. That inspired me to also apply for a job at ICAC,” he says. “My childhood dream was to become a law enforcement officer because I thought it was an effective way to help society, especially the poor. I must have watched too many police movies,” he laughs.
His strong background in investigation, operations, management and public administration can be attributed to the many years he worked at ICAC. He joined in 1978 as an investigator and rose through the ranks to become assistant director in 2010, responsible for investigations into private sector corruption.
Then, following a headhunter call, he became secretary-general of the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) in 2011. As part of his role, he led and oversaw the restructuring of the council. “IPCC was established according to the enactment of the IPCC Ordinance in 2009 but before that it was a small administrative unit looking over the shoulder of the Complaints Against Police Office. With the enactment of the law, the IPCC needed to be an independent organization. So my job then was to set up a brand new operating system to enable the independent handling of complaints against the police, and recruit staff outside the government, which was both challenging and satisfying,” he says. Chu stayed there for over five years before rejoining the ICAC in 2016 as the director of investigation.
The same headhunter who called Chu about the IPCC job, called him again four months before he was scheduled to retire, this time about the Chairperson role at the EOC. “After getting the call, and in preparing for the interview, I read about the EOC and its anti-discrimination work and it immediately aroused my interest,” he says. “I could see that anti-discrimination work is so meaningful in Hong Kong because the scope is so wide. Much wider and deeper when compared with corruption issues.”
Chu also realized that outside the four statutory areas of discrimination, there were many other areas of discrimination and inequality where a lot of work needed to be done. He also faced the issue of Chinese values and traditions being incompatible with some of the issues the EOC advocated on. “While Hong Kong is a modern, developed economy, there are still a lot of deep-seated, traditional values that we need to reshape,” says Chu. These challenges, however, were not enough to deter him from taking up the post in April 2019. “I imagined how satisfying it would be to put my hands on these issues and help resolve them.”
Logical yet caring
Chu is a marathon runner. While supporting his son, who was participating in a 10-kilometre race in Tseung Kwan O, Chu spotted an elderly man, known as “Uncle Yip,” running at an impressive speed. “I later found out that he started running at age of 50 and he instantly became my idol,” he recalls.
Chu then took up running – he was 49 – and three years later in 2006 he completed his first marathon. Thanks to Uncle Yip, he is now a strong runner who, before COVID-19 restrictions, took part in marathons at least once a year, runs half-marathons once a month and does 10-km runs on a weekly basis.
He also loves playing bridge, and credits the trick-taking card game for developing his ability to take a logical and balanced approach to decision-making in his previous and current roles. “I think a person in these kinds of positions must possess two contrary characteristics. One is a logical and calm mind, but on the other side, you need to be compassionate. I need to be empathetic without losing my reasoning power. It’s a tricky balance. Without this, you won’t achieve the results you want,” he says, adding that this way of thinking helped him formulate his three-level strategy for tackling the issue of LGBTI rights.
Chu believes both his hobbies integrate to some extent into his professional life. Running marathons built up his resilience both on the track and in the endless pursuit of understanding and acceptance of diversity and equal opportunities. “To do the job well at the EOC, you have to be committed. You have to believe in the cause,” he says. “Of course, there is no way that I can complete all these tasks and resolve all those longstanding problems relating to discrimination. But if I can achieve something in my tenure as the Chairperson, then I can make my contribution to Hong Kong.”
To further promote awareness among businesses on the benefits of implementing inclusive policies and practices, the EOC introduced its Equal Opportunity Employer Recognition Scheme in 2020. The scheme recognizes the achievements of employers that demonstrate a commitment to equal opportunities, diversity and inclusion in corporate strategies.