HNB’s competing priorities

Chiranthi Cooray - Chief Human Resources Officer, HNB

By Shamindra Kulamannage.

Published on April 24, 2015 with No Comments


Local network bank HNB has a large female workforce and a remit to nurture a family culture

Large Sri Lankan banks can be intimidating for a number of reasons. Their cultures have often evolved unscripted and are unconventional, large networks and disparate teams are tough to align, and they often have multi-generational leadership teams.

Sri Lanka’s second-largest private sector bank HNB was challenged at each of these levels; Chiranthi Cooray, its incoming human resources head, understood this when she took the role in 2010. But the one thing about the mega bank that surprised her was its acrimonious trade union relationships. Eighty four percent of the workforce, from junior executive grade and below, are unionized. In practice, it meant that pay and other benefits were governed by collective agreements.

HNB’s over 4,500 workforce operates a 250-branch network. Its branches not only generate low-cost deposits, but most high-margin loans are also granted through the network. HNB has been aggressively growing its small and medium lending book, and pawning over the past few years. Building retail loan books require a branch network that understands and is able to source the best lending opportunities in a town or province.

Chiranthi Cooray, who is now HNB’s Chief Human Resources Officer, says her first challenge five years ago – besides the unexpected discovery of an acrimonious relationship with some of the unionized workforce – was to transform the image of the human resources unit. “I was told to ‘give a human face to HR’,” she recalls. She interpreted this as bringing empathy and nurturing qualities to the rigid administrative image that was associated with the unit.

Cooray, who had over one and a half decades of experience at the multinational insurance firm CTC Eagle and the family-controlled McLarens group, applied her tested philosophy to the job; equity, fairness and transparency. “That’s the only thing that guides me and I tell this to everyone.”

A woman had never led HNB’s human resources unit. Thirty seven percent of HNB’s workforce are women, but the representation narrows to 30% at senior manager level and to 25% at corporate management, the elite 16-member team that weighs in on strategic decisions. Chiranthi Cooray is one of the four women in corporate management.

Dispersed islandwide networks make it particularly tough for women who – like the men – are required to work in areas far from their homes. HNB has traditionally been dominant in retail banking, and lending to small and medium sized businesses, and has split its operations in to regions that each manage their own balance sheet. “Our hub cities have mainly female staff; officers and other grades,” explains Cooray. This is the strategy that allows the bank to maintain gender diversity in the regions, while deploying its female team members to positions that make the best of their skillsets.A family-friendly culture and also requiring staff to sometimes take up positions far from their homes are competing priorities. Cooray is sensitizing not just the HR division to this challenge, but also bank-wide managers. Her team has been visiting regions as part of an ‘HR roadshow’, discussing this and other challenges.

A mother of two, Chiranthi Cooray empathizes with young women at the bank who are forced to choose between work and family, especially when responsibilities move them to a town far from home. However, she feels too many qualified young women are opting to take career breaks. “I would like to see a bit more resilience,” she contends.


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