Meng Hieng started his first business in book distribution in 1993, aged just 23. He employed one staff member – his best friend. Now, with his Monuments Books stores spanning Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, and his Kids City amusement centre on Sihanouk Boulevard in Phnom Penh, the businessman is responsible for more than 300 employees. As Meng’s businesses have grown, so too have the expectations and benefits for Cambodian workers. Meng spoke with Management Insider about how his understanding of employer-employee relations has evolved in his 20 years of business.
Tell us about your journey with Monument Books?
I first learned what it was to be a good manager with just one employee. Now that we have many people in our team, across both the book business and Kids City, it is really a task to have good employee relations.
A few key things I learned was that you need to give your people training; you need to be patient and absolutely must have open communication lines. Sure, you can probably be a hard and tough boss, but you can be certain that you will never get that partnership between employer and employee.
Tell us how you structure your employees currently?
We have about 200 staff at our Monument Books business and about 150 at Kids City. We work in a vertical delegation structure, so each person is given a percentage of the decision-making load, which reduces the time I spend on small tasks. In Cambodia, employers have learned to dedicate a lot of time to training staff, and subsequently improving their trust in new employees.
What have you learned?
There is a huge difference in the way I hire and manage now, compared to 20 years ago. Back then people were not qualified, lacked basic skills and did not understand how to work within a larger business environment.
However, education levels and development has greatly evolved. An increase in international schools and the influence of the private sector mean that we rarely have problems finding staff with English-language skills.
In Cambodia, how have employee benefits changed?
Employers are increasingly regarding the workforce as educated and as such, opportunities are much more available than ever. People have a choice – they are skilled and they understand what it is to be treated well in a business environment.
If you are an employer in Cambodia and you do not think this is true, you need to wake up, because staff will know when they are not being treated right and they will leave.
Treating staff right is making sure they have basic employee benefits, giving them a clear objective in their role and responsibilities, having clear systems of communication, and fostering healthy workplace cultures.
All in all, I think employees understand more and more what it is to work in a fun and exciting workplace. And as an employer, your responsibility is to help your team interact and work together. Hopefully then you will keep them, even if they are faced with a $50 raise elsewhere.
What benefits are Cambodian employees most concerned with?
Salary is always number one, which will not change. But also what they need is time. If they are married and have children, they will need time – time to be with their family, time to relax, go back to the province, and enjoy their holidays. If staff are given time to manage their lives outside of work, then when they are at work they are more likely to be efficient.
Next is health insurance – you must have insurance for your employees. Also, employees regard autonomy and the freedom to make decisions in their roles very highly. This does two things; it builds confidence in your workforce, and also makes your team more efficient.
What do you do if a staff member says they are not happy in their job?
I ask them what it is that they want to do, what do they want to be, where would they be happy? Do you want to sell books, work at the rock climbing gym, work in marketing or administration, or even be an ice skating trainer?
If you can respond constructively and provide them with a new challenge instead of reacting negatively, you might keep that employee. And then you have loyalty, and loyalty is so important for an employer.
(This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length)
Text & Photograph by Eddie Morton