ONE does not normally associate family support groups with a bank but at OCBC Bank, single parents have been getting together to talk about issues troubling them.
"These are heavy lifting sessions - people cry sometimes," said Cynthia Tan, OCBC Bank head of group human resources.
Introduced last year, the rather formal- sounding employee resource groups or ERGs, have formed support groups for staff with similar backgrounds or experiences. There are three so far: for parents with teens, single parents, and caregivers. Sessions are held bi-monthly during lunch time.
In a BT interview, Ms Tan said mothers and some fathers feel guilty when their children have disciplinary issues, "and if we don't support them . . . they're going to sit at home - which is a waste".
The bank has invited a divorce lawyer for one session, while on another occasion a successful employee was invited to talk about what it was like growing up with her single mother, said Ms Tan.
OCBC's pro-family initiatives go beyond the statutory child leave, paternity leave, PSLE leave and flexible work options.
"Work-life balance is a nice phrase - but you've got to walk the talk," said Ms Tan, a veteran in the field with some 30 years' experience. She retires this month after running OCBC's human resources department for the past 15 years.
Under Ms Tan, OCBC - the second largest bank in Southeast Asia, with over 29,000 staff - has invested some S$700 million in the past 10 years on more than 75 HR initiatives and programmes.
Investment in employee development and talent management came to S$450 million, and S$220 million was invested in other HR initiatives such as staff benefits, staff online portals and systems, and quality and process improvements. Work-life balance programmes took up another S$30 million.
In 2007, it was the first bank in Singapore to provide in-house childcare facilities for employees by partnering NTUC. Called the Little Skool-House@OCBC Centre, it occupies more than 6,000 square feet on the second floor of OCBC Centre.
"We are the only bank that has an on-site childcare centre which operates from 7am to 7pm," said Ms Tan.
The centre takes in children ranging in age from months-old infants up to those in K2. Currently, 112 children are enrolled in Little Skool-House, and there is a waiting list. In 2010, after feedback from staff, the bank opened a second Little Skool-House@Tam- pines Junction to meet the needs of parents in its Tampines office.
Besides looking after parents and their children, the bank has launched several programmes to develop its staff cutting across age groups and seniority - to ensure succession and a pipeline of leaders.
"We have to grow our own timber," said Ms Tan. These initiatives include a structured internship programme for undergraduates and an 18-month post-graduate management associate programme which takes in mid-career people from non-banking backgrounds wanting to switch to the banking industry.
The internship programme, launched in 2007, is a 10-week course for undergraduates from the three local universities - National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University and Singapore Management University - to let them gain first-hand experience in the banking industry.
In April 2013, OCBC became the first local bank to set up a S$60 million city campus in the central business district to provide in-house training programmes.
Last year, OCBC launched a young bankers programme: a 12-month course where fresh graduates can choose to focus on key areas of the bank such as consumer banking, corporate banking and Treasury.
Those who have been identified for leadership roles can look forward to a stint at INSEAD Business School.
The OCBC-INSEAD Executive Development Programme was started in 2008 in collaboration with INSEAD Business School. It's meant for those in their mid-30s and about 30-35 employees each year attend the two-week course, which costs the bank S$500,000.
To date, about 240 vice-presidents have attended the programme, and more than 90 per cent of them are still with the bank.
The financial industry talent crunch is acute, and even more so among the younger set, Ms Tan said.
About 60 per cent of OCBC staff are Gen Y - those in their 20s and early 30s.
"They get bored, they want to move every two years, some are bored after two months," Ms Tan said. ""In this day and age, it's wishful thinking that any programme you develop is going to help in retention - the effect wears off."
But that doesn't stop the bank from trying. One initiative which has helped is the internal job posting (IJP) programme started in 2003.
After two years with the bank, employees can apply for a job switch, to join a different department without telling the current supervisor.
"It's only after the applicant is successful that we inform the manager," said Ms Tan. "That's because the IJP is owned by HR," she added.
Another initiative to engage Gen Y staff is talkfest, one of which was on whether managers are needed in the first place. One takeaway from that session which got pretty frank feedback was that staff "don't want the manager breathing down their neck".
On the low numbers of women in senior management and boardrooms, Ms Tan is against setting quotas to help raise their profile.
Women hold 9 per cent of board seats and lead 7 per cent of boards in first-world Singapore, a recent Deloitte report said. European nations do much better, with Norway leading at 37 per cent.
OCBC's 11 board directors are all men. Its most senior managers - represented by the 24 strategy and capital committee member group - has only six women or 25 per cent, and will soon be depleted by Ms Tan's retirement to only five.
Despite this, Ms Tan is unmoved. She said the bank believes in hiring the best person for the job, and in not having a quota for women.
"A quota would be false . . . to give form but no substance," she said.
Instead, the bank believes in giving full support to its female staff, to help them stay on or even leave the job if they need a break but holding the door open for when they are ready to return, she said.
She cited the case of a female investment banker who wanted to quit because of family issues. "I told her to take six months' no-pay leave instead," said Ms Tan. "A lot changes when women have kids."