Five tips to write an effective job advertisement in Vietnam

In the previous post, job advertisement on such recruitment websites as Vietnamworks can be considered as the most popular and effective recruitment channel in Vietnam. As a result, it is very important to have an effective job advertisement since it usually lead to effective recruitment. By “effective”, I mean the job advertisement is able to attract the “right” candidates, the ones that are desired by the company in terms of their professional skills, mindset and culture fit, to read and apply. In this post, I will share some tips from my own experience that can help to write an effective job advertisement. Even though most of the examples given in post focus on the IT industry, I’m pretty sure that the tips can also be applied in other industries as well.

Tip 1: Appealing title – To click or not to click…

When being posted on a job website, our job advertisement is actually competing with hundreds or thousands of others out there. As a result, it is very critical to be able to have an appealing title (the title of the job advertisement, not the title of the role we are hiring) that can help to differentiate our job advertisement from the rest in the list, catch the attention of the candidates and encourage them to click on it. This is essential due to the simple fact that if candidates do not click on your job advertisement, they will definitely not gonna apply to it. There are several ways to make a title more appealing but the principal rule is to make it longer with more attractive information. For example:
  • Instead of just a plain title “.NET Software Engineer”, use something that is more interesting and creative such as “Rockstar .NET Software Engineer Wanted!” or “Talented .NET Software Engineer In Need!”.
  • If the fact that our company is a Silicon Valley based company can be considered as an advantage then we can also put that into the title.
  • If we have no problem revealing the salary range and we think that it is attractive then it can also be included in the tile.

So, if you are a candidate, which of the following job advertisement’s title is more appealing to you:
“.NET Software Engineer”
“Talented .NET Software Engineer Wanted! (Silicon Valley based company, net salary up to 2000 USD/month)”.
Which one will catch your eyes and encourage you to click on?

Again, the rule here is very simple: if the candidates don’t click on our job advertisement, they will definitely not gonna apply to it. So clicking on the job advertisement is the first essential step to get the candidates and this depends mainly on the title of our job advertisement.

Tip 2: Creative introduction – Do you see yourself here?


Having the candidates to click on and open the job advertisement is just the first step to effective recruitment. It is also very important to create a good impression in the introduction of the job advertisement to encourage the candidates to scroll down and read the whole ads. In our case, in order to find employee who are creative and can think out of the box, we need to show that we are also creative and think out of the box too. So instead of a normal introduction starting with some description about the company, we can ask our candidates a series of questions:

“- Do you want to work in an amazing office with professional working environment?
– Do you speak English very well?
– Do you like to gain more experience in cutting-edge .NET technologies?
– Do you like to work with co-workers who can be more talented than you?
– Do you want to see kangaroo and koala bear in real life?
If you answer Yes to those questions then <our company> may be the right place for you.”

This will be more likely to catch the interest of the candidates and if they can see themselves in those questions, it is also very likely that they will read the rest of the job advertisement and apply.

Tip 3: Informative job description – Let us tell you a story about a typical working day here.


In terms of a boring list of bullet points, it is more interesting and also more creative for job description to be in a form of a story describing a typical working day of an employee in the hiring role. For example:

“Long Nguyen, a .NET Software Engineer, starts his working day at 8:00 AM by checking his emails. It is now noon in New Zealand so the Product Owner and the Application Architect, who are located in the Wellington office, have had enough time to send to the team several emails regarding to the new requirements and the solutions that the team just proposed yesterday. After replying to some of the emails, Long uses Lync from his workstation to join the daily Scrum meeting with other Vietnamese and Thai team members. After the 10 minutes daily meeting, Long opens Visual Studio and continues working on his current user story: there are several unit tests that have not been implemented yet. It takes him nearly 2 hours to fully complete the user story with all of the automation tests and does the code review for another team member. Feeling accomplished, Long goes to the pantry room, has a cup of coffee and chit chat with his co-workers in English. At 11:00 AM, Long and his team members go to the video conference room for the Backlog Refinement meeting with others in Wellington and Bangkok offices….”

Tip 4: Highlighted benefits – Why we are better than the others.


This is where we “sell” our company to the candidates by listing out the things that can be considered to be better in our company comparing to others. The longer the list is, the better. The tip here is that there can be a lot of things that can be listed as “benefits” so some brainstorming activities may be required to identify all of them. Here are some examples that can be considered:

  • Flexible working hours
  • “Work from home” policy
  • No working overtime
  • Office is conveniently located in district 1 (Yes, that’s right, office location can also be considered as a “benefit” that we can put into the job advertisement)
  • Entertainment in the office: mini bar, table tennis, pool table, mini golf, table football, games (Play Station, Wii, Xbox, etc…)
  • English speaking environment (From my own experience, it is very interesting that many candidates consider an English only environment as one significant attraction of one company).- Travel opportunity to work onsite overseas
  • Overseas company trip
  • Good working equipments: MacbookPro, Macbook Air, etc…
  • Good vacation policy: 20 days of annual leave and 10 days of sick leave per year
  • Attractive incentive system: year end bonus, project bonus
  • Salary adjustment twice per year
  • Team building activities, sport clubs
  • Training programs

Tip 5: A picture is worth a thousand words. A video is worth a million words.


The best way to show our working environment and organizational culture to the candidates is via photos or videos that capture the teams, the office, working activities and company events. A link to a web page that provides such photos or videos will definitely add significant value into the job advertisement. Such job website as Vietnamworks now also supports embedding photos and videos into the job advertisement. So, we should make use of this feature whenever we can.

Generally speaking, these 5 tips can help our job advertisement to differentiate and stand out from the crowd. However, an effective job advertisement is just the first step to effective recruitment, which includes many other factors. It is also noted that the tips are usually more helpful for company that doesn’t have a strong employer branding. Google, for example, doesn’t need these tips to attract talented candidates to read their job advertisement and apply.

Recruitment channels in Vietnam

As mentioned in the previous post, we are now in the middle of the recruitment season in Vietnam. But how does the recruitment in Vietnam happen? Which channels are available? In this post, an overview of the available recruitment channels in Vietnam will be given, with comments regarding to their popularity, effectiveness, cost and recommended usage scenarios.

Generally speaking, there are six main channels of recruitment in Vietnam:

Recruitment channels in Vietnam

Recruitment channels in Vietnam

Job advertisement: This is the most popular and may also be the most effective recruitment channel in Vietnam. When using this channel, Vietnamworks should be the first one to consider due to its popularity. Other job advertisement websites that can be listed here includes CareerBuilder, CareerLink, Tim Viec Nhanh or Aphabe. In terms of pricing, a job advertisement that stays one month on Vietnamworks costs around 100-150 USD, depending on the options. Generally speaking, this recruitment channel is suitable for most common jobs when the employers have certain knowledge and experience in the labor market as well as know how to do recruitment in Vietnam.

CV search: A more proactive way to approach the candidates is to buy access to candidates database of such job websites as Vietnamworks, CareerBuilder or CareerLink. With approximately 150 USD, employers can search for and have contacts of 60 candidates from Vietnamworks’ database. From my experience, this channel is less effective than job advertisement due to the fact that many CVs are outdated and candidates may no longer look for a new job when being contacted. This should be used as a supporting channel together with the job advertisement or in the case employers know very well about the labor market and want to be more proactive in their recruitment.

Head hunting services: If the employers are quite new to the local labor market, they can also seek help from other firms specialized in HR services. Basically all of the job websites listed above also provide head hunting services, plus many smaller firms such as Tri Tri, Manpower or Anh Duong Talent. Commission fee for these services can vary between different service providers, with an average of 20% of the annual income of the candidate. The effectiveness can also vary depending on the HR partners that are selected. This channel can also be considered for high level positions or for mass recruitment in a short period of time.

Employee referral: Not every company in Vietnam takes advantage of this recruitment channel. Whereas the quality of the candidates are more reliable than from other channels, it may not be suitable for mass recruitment. Referral bonus is usually given to the employee after the nominated candidate passes his or her probation. The amount can vary from company to company, but a few hundreds of dollars is a common number.

Job fairs: This channel is quite low in terms of both popularity and effectiveness. Job fairs can be more helpful for mass recruitment of low-skilled employees or fresh graduates. Besides joining the job fairs that are organized by the government, companies with high reputation can also organize their own job fairs.

Internship program: Among the six channels that are presented here, this is the least popular one that focuses only on fresh graduates. The effectiveness of this channels depends on the affiliation between the employers and universities or training centers that offer internship program. With proper implementation, this can be a very good approach to attract young talents into the organization.

Generally speaking, job advertisement can be considered as the most popular and effective recruitment channels in Vietnam. With the rising demand for high quality employees, the usage of head hunting services is also increasing significantly. However, an effective recruitment strategy may need to combine and utilize all of the six channels that are available in Vietnam.

Are you ready for the recruitment season in Vietnam?

Starting in late February, at peak in March to April and last until May is what so-called the “recruitment season” in Vietnam, applicable in most industries. During this 3-months period, the job market is booming significantly and is extremely dynamic. This can be illustrated by comparing the number of job posted on Vietnamworks, the biggest job website in Vietnam, in February and in April last year:

Number of jobs  in February vs. in April

Number of jobs in February vs. in April

It is clear that there is a significant increase in the number of job opportunities in all categories during this recruitment season, ranging from 30% in Software and Administrative to 50% in Sales or even 63% in Marketing. That is on the labor demand side. On the labor supply side, a similar trend is also observed. From my experience, job application rate is appropriately 50% higher during the recruitment season.


So what are the reasons behind this recruitment season? Here are some in my opinion:
  • In Vietnam, the fiscal year is the same as the calendar year. February is the time when the new fiscal year budgets are finalized and coming open, which may lead to the new demand of recruitment.
  • February and March are also the graduation time of many universities in Vietnam, pushing a whole bunch of fresh graduates into the labor market.
  • February is the time of Tet, the start of the lunar new year when employees re-evaluate their current work and life situation and plan for the future. In Vietnamese culture, the start of the lunar new year is also a good time to start new career plan and objectives.
  • Tet in February is also bonus payout time (the 13th month salary). Once employees receive their year-end bonus, they know that they can’t get another bonus for a full year. This payout reduces their incentive to stay at their current firm.
  • Tet holiday in February also provides employees with a lot of networking opportunities which may lead to new job opportunities.
  • Most companies in Vietnam implement their performance appraisal and salary adjustment in January. Employees who are disappointed with their salary adjustment will start looking for new jobs in February.
  • The last but not least reason is the fact that the increase in job hopping also increase the number of job opportunities since companies need to fill up the empty vacancies, which in turn, may encourage more job hopping.

The person jumps on puzzles

So how companies deal with this recruitment season in Vietnam? Here are some suggestions to considered:
  • Understand the nature of this recruitment season and be prepared for it in terms of budget planning, project planning and resource planning.
  • HR and managers should pay more attention to staff’s motivation and morale during this time.
  • Have some kinds of counter-offer policy to keep key employees in case they receive job offer from other companies.
  • Keep employees busy with their work during this time. Employees who have a lot of free time are more likely to look around for other job opportunities.
  • Schedule the performance appraisal and salary adjustment in June or July, when the recruitment season is over.

Alright, so are you now ready for the upcoming recruitment season in Vietnam?

Cultural Literacy: Things you should know when working with Vietnamese

This blog post is inspired from the book “Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands”, one of the bestselling guides to do business in different countries. It is used as the textbook in the “Negotiation” course of my MBA program. However, I realize that the book has focused mainly on doing business and failed to give enough accurate, useful and updated information for foreigners in order to work effectively with Vietnamese. As a result, the purpose of this post is to help people from other cultures to:

  • Know how Vietnamese employees think, work and behave.
  • Know how to communicate effectively with Vietnamese employees.
  • Know how to establish a good relationship with Vietnamese employees.
  • Avoid potential misunderstandings and inappropriate behaviors.

Originally, this is written to give my co-workers in Australia and Philippine with basic cultural literacy about Vietnam in a working environment. And since we are working in the software industry, the cultural literacy also focuses a little bit on that industry. This will be useful for those who will work as expats in Vietnam or for foreign companies that are going to open their business in Vietnam, especially in the IT industry.

So here are the things you should know when working with Vietnamese:

Confucianism (which is a philosophy more than a religion) has had a great effect on Vietnamese thought and tradition. Buddhism and Christianity are the two most popular religions in Vietnam. However, the majority of the population do not follow any religion, they just worship their ancestors.

Workship ancestors

Worship ancestors

  • Vietnamese employees are quite punctual, especially in business meetings. However, a tolerance of about 5 minutes late is also normally acceptable in Vietnamese working culture.
  • Vietnamese employees usually take meetings at work seriously and look very tense (not relaxed) in the meetings.
  • Gender discrimination is usually not popular in the workplace. However, it is a fact that there are far fewer female workers than male workers in the software industry and this has nothing to do with gender discrimination.
  • Compared to Western culture, Vietnamese have a much higher level of tolerance of sexual harassment. This means a lot of behaviors that are considered as sexual harassment in Western cultures may not be seen as such in Vietnam. Generally speaking, it is quite common for Vietnamese to think that sexual harassment needs to involve physical contact. An induction or orientation may need to be conducted to align the understanding of Vietnamese employees in this topic.
  • Vietnamese employees usually need to build personal trust with others outside of the office in order to increase their teamwork and collaboration. This is the reason why companies in Vietnam usually have a budget for team members having dinner or drinking every few months or sponsor some sport activities for team members to play together. In business, a contract is more likely to be signed by inviting the business partner to dinner, drinking and other entertainment activities.
Drinking after working hours

Drinking after working hours

  • Influenced by the hierarchical structure in Confucianism, it is quite common that most Vietnamese employees think that they have the obligation to respect people who have a higher position or are older than them.
  • Vietnamese people are usually hospitable. It is quite common that as a guest, you will be treated to lunch or dinner by a Vietnamese host. However, Vietnamese people also expect the same in return when they are the guests.
  • Good topics for conversation are sports, travel, food, music, movies and weather. Soccer is the most popular sport in Vietnam and Vietnamese people call it “football”. Avoid political topics, especially Vietnamese politics.
  • A smile does not always mean “happy”. A smile can also mean:
    • “Hi”
    • I’m trying to look friendly
    • I’m feeling embarrassed
    • I’m sorry that I did something wrong
  • Handshake: Not all Vietnamese employees know how to shake hands properly because they may not have been taught that. Therefore, a loose handshake doesn’t mean that the person is  not confident or impolite, it may simply mean that he/she does not know how to shake hands properly. Females (especially foreigners) usually need to initialize a handshake with Vietnamese males. Males usually have a looser and quicker handshake with females than with other males.
  • Vietnamese developers usually don’t have good socializing skills.
  • Vietnamese names are written in this order: surname followed by middle name and then given name. People are called by their given name, even with the prefix Mr. or Ms. Common surnames in Vietnam are:
    • Nguyen: 40% of the Vietnamese population (FYI, Nguyen is also the 13th most popular surname in Australia and growing fast, especially in Sydney and Melbourne)
    • Tran: 10% of the Vietnamese population
    • Le: 10% of the Vietnamese population
  • Sometimes, Vietnamese can start their answer with “Yes” or “OK” but they may not actually mean yes or ok. It just means that they understand what you say or what you ask. The actual answer is after the “Yes” or “OK”. For example: – “What do you think about solution A?” – “Yes. I think that solution A is good but solution B is actually better.”
  • English speakers should avoid tag question because the answer from a Vietnamese can be confusing due to the different language structure. For example: – “Solution A isn’t good enough, is it?” – “Yes”. The answer “Yes” here means “I agree with you that solution A isn’t good enough”.
    We should ask this question instead: “Do you agree that solution A isn’t good enough?”
  • If a group of Vietnamese is silent after being asked for their opinion about something, it can be interpreted in two ways:
    • The group agrees (or at least has no objection) to what is proposed. This is the more likely case.
    • The group is surprised or shocked by what is proposed. This is a less likely case.
The following entertainment activities are quite common in Vietnam and as a guest, you can be invited to them:
  • Eating out and drinking
  • Karaoke
  • Bowling
  • Hanging out at a coffee shop
  • Hanging out at bar and pub
  • Massage (Even though it is illegal in Vietnam, some massage services also include sexual services, so it is better to check with the host when you are invited to a massage).
Karaoke in Vietnam

Karaoke in Vietnam

Generally speaking, Vietnamese people dress more casually than Western people. This may be because of the hot weather in Vietnam, especially in the South.
  • Suit and tie are not very common. People only wear a suit and tie in very important business meetings (such as when signing a contract). The following picture shows what can be considered as “formal dress” for a common Vietnamese employee:
Formal dress at workplace in Vietnam

Formal dress at workplace in Vietnam

  • This is considered formal enough for job interview or wedding party. Usually at a wedding party, only the groom wears a suit and tie.
  • Dressing in the North is usually more formal than in the South, mainly because of the difference in culture and climate. Suit and tie are more popular in the North of Vietnam.
  • Developers usually dress more casually. Most of the developers in Ho Chi Minh City wear jeans and T-shirts in the office. Sandals and flip-flops are also acceptable. Some companies even accept wearing shorts in the office. The following picture shows typical dress in a software company in Ho Chi Minh City:
Dressing in IT company

Dressing in IT company

Annual leave and public holidays
  • According Vietnamese labor laws, employees must have at least 12 days of annual leave. Some companies can have up to 20 days of annual leave per year for the employees.
  • Vietnamese employees usually don’t save all of their annual leave for a long vacation. Instead, they usually take several short vacations during the year.
  • Vietnam has 10 days of public holiday and Tet (or Lunar New Year) is the biggest public holiday (like Christmas in Western culture). Even though the Tet official holiday is only 5 days, people usually take some extra days off using their annual leave during this time.
Tet, the biggest public holiday in Vietnam

Tet, the biggest public holiday in Vietnam

Why should you send your HR staff to a marketing course?

Simply because there are so many things in common between a recruitment strategy and a marketing one:
  • They are both created to promote the organization: the marketing plan promotes products or services whereas the recruitment plan promotes organizational culture and working environment.
  • Both of them have targeted audience: potential customers for the marketing plan and potential employees for the recruitment plan.
  • Both are very critical to the organization: customers are the main source of revenue while employees are the most valuable assets of the organization.
  • And last but not least: Most of the strategies that can be applied in marketing can also be used in recruitment. This will also be the main focus of this post.

So let’s look at how each step in a marketing strategy can be applied in a recruitment strategy:

Market segmentation
In order to reach the potential employees effectively, the labor market should be categorized into different segmentation using different bases:
  • Demographic bases: age, gender, education background, ect…
  • Geographic bases: country, city, etc…
  • Behavioral bases: programming language, mindset, working attitude, interests, etc…

Market targeting
After categorizing the labor market into different segments, the company should identify its targeted segment basing on those demographic, geographic and behavioral bases. By identifying the targeted segment, organization can focus its resources in order to reach out to its potential candidates more effectively.

For example, a software company can identify its potential candidates for the .NET Developer position as the followings:
  • Demographic: 22-30 years old, college or university degree
  • Geographic: Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam
  • Behavioral bases: .NET programming language, open mindset, proactive, critical thinking, interested in high tech

With such targeted segment in mind, we can know exactly which job ads websites or forums should be used to reach the candidates as well as how to communicate with them (such as how to write the job ads that is interesting to candidates who are proactive and have critical thinking)

Market positioning
This is how the organization is perceived (or how it wants to be perceived) by the labor market and potential employees. Determining the market positioning can help organization to decide what and how it should present itself to the potential employees. Market positioning can be identified by selecting important attributes of the organization in terms of culture, environment, benefits, policies, ect… and determine its position basing on those attributes.
For example, here is where a company is positioned basing on two attributes: culture and benefits. Other attributes can also be used and additional attributes can also be added to form n-dimensional map.


It will be much more helpful if organization can have preference map of the labor market associated with the selected attributes. This can help organization to predict the ease of recruitment: the bigger the overlap between its market position and the preference map of the labor market, the easier then recruitment will be. Organization may also adjust its market position to make recruitment easier. Here is an example:


Promotion mix
Basing on the previous steps (market segmentation, market targeting and market positioning), it is now the time to decide the channels that can be used to promote the organization to the labor market. Interestingly, all of the channels in marketing can also be used in recruitment:


  • Advertising: Job ads on job search website such as jobstreet (international) or Vietnamworks (Vietnam)
  • Public relations: Sponsor community events (such as Barcamp Saigon, Agile Vietnam, Agile Tour, Mobile Camp, etc…) or organize our own events (hackathon and other programming contests)
  • Personal selling: CV search and head hunting performed by internal HR
  • Sales promotion: referral bonus program or using external head hunting agencies
  • Direct marketing: blog, website, social networking pages (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn), forums, etc…

Branding is also very important in recruitment. By promoting the company’s brand name, organization can attract new talents easily whenever it has a hiring demand. For recruitment purpose, company’s branding should be supported by public relation and other CSR programs. In the software industry where I am currently working in, organization’s brand can be built by sponsoring such community events as Barcamp Saigon, Mobile Camp, Agile Tour or organizing our own events such as hackathon and other programming contest.

So now we can see how marketing strategy can be applied to recruitment. Should we send our HR staff to a marketing course?

How “inappropriate” organizational culture may contribute to the failure of a startup

After nearly 3 years of operating , the startup software company that I had been working for was shut down in January 2013. The main reasons were that our product failed to get users and we couldn’t make any money while millions of dollars had been spent on the company of which size might be too large for a startup. In my opinion, the root causes of our company’s failure were not that straight forward, instead they were the combination of many factors: the people, the business model, the management, the absent of lean startup approach and also the organizational culture. In this post, the impact of organizational culture to the failure of a startup may be revealed via the analysis that I sent to the founder of the company and my boss, the VP just a few days before it was shut down. For the reason of anonymity, real names will not be used in this post (they are in the original version of my analysis). The company will be mentioned here as SK and people name will be changed to something like A, J or K.

So here it is:

An organizational culture analysis for SK

1. Purpose and Scope
Starting from May 2011, I have been working for SK for nearly two years. Being a project manager also gives me an advantage: having opportunity to work directly with all delivery teams as well as with all levels of staff, ranging from Executive to middle managers and down to team members. With those experiences and the knowledge in organizational behavior, I have realized that SK currently have some issues with its organizational culture. Trying to be responsible, I feel an obligation to reflect those issues via this analysis. It is very important to understand that this analysis is not meant to be offensive to SK as well as to any of its employees. Names are mentioned just because they can provide detailed and specific examples. This analysis is presented purely for contributing and constructive purpose: to help SK to identify and analyze its problems in order to become a better, healthier and more effective organization.

In terms of scope, since I work mostly within the tech teams, this analysis will focus mainly on the tech teams. However, this is still valuable due to the fact that tech teams represent a significant majority of SK. In addition, the solutions suggested in this analysis may not cover all of the issues.

2. SK: Still a startup
First of all, it is very important to confirm whether SK is still a startup or not because appropriate strategic plan, organizational culture and structure of a startup are significantly different from a big cooperate. With more than 3 years old and over 100 employees, SK, in my opinion, is still a startup for the following reasons:
  • Its products and services have not been officially released yet.
  • It does not have a large number of users or customers.
  • And most importantly, it is still searching for a repeatable and scalable business model. As long as the organization is still figuring out how to make money, it is a startup by the most common definition of startup.
3. A first glance at SK’s seven key dimension of organizational culture
Organizational culture is something people talk about all the time and so do us at SK. Unfortunately, not everyone can understand clearly what exactly organizational culture is and especially how to identify, measure or characterize it. By definition, organizational culture is a set of basic beliefs and assumptions that are shared by members of an organization, showing them what are appropriate and inappropriate behaviors. In other words, organizational culture is basically “how we do things around here”. There are several approach to identify and “measure” organizational culture and the one that is used here is called the “seven key dimensions of organizational culture”, which are:
  • Individual autonomy: the level of responsibility, independence and empowerment that an individual has in the organization.
  • Structure: the number of rules and regulations, the number of hierarchical levels in the organizational structure.
  • Support: the degree of assistance provided by managers to their subordinates.
  • Identification: the level of pride that members have to be part of the organization.
  • Performance reward: the degree to which reward allocations (promotions, salary increases, bonus…) are based on performance criteria.
  • Conflict tolerance: the level of conflict exists in the relationships between members of the organization.
  • Risk tolerance: the degree to which employees are encouraged to be aggressive, innovative, and risk seeking.

So now we agree that SK is still a startup despite of its age and size, let’s have a quick look at the high level of its organizational culture to see if the culture is appropriate for a software startup company or not:

Individual Autonomy
  • Expected: High
  • Actual: Low to Medium
  • Details: Low level of individual autonomy is demonstrated by the presence of micromanagement, centralized decision making and lack of empowerment. One possible reason for this is the lack of trust between managers and staff, which will be discussed in details later.
  • Expected: Low
  • Actual: Medium and increasing
  • Details: The company does not have a lot of rules and policies comparing to big cooperate and this is good for a startup. However, the organizational structure may not be flat any more due to the fact that we have 5 levels of hierarchy from the CEO to a developer and very narrow span of control (a lot of managers/leaders manage just a few subordinates). In addition, decision-making is usually centralized and the number of rules and policies are increasing. Generally speaking, the Structure dimension is now medium but it now has the tendency to increase to High, which make us become more and more bureaucratic and that is definitely not healthy for a startup.
  • Expected: High
  • Actual: Low to Medium, varied from managers to managers
  • Details: Staffs rarely seek help from managers and hence, managers also rarely help staffs. One possible reason for this is the lack of trust between managers and staff, which will be discussed in details later.
  • Expected: High
  • Actual: Low
  • Details: This used to be high in the past but it has dropped significantly. Nowadays, fewer and fewer employees are proud of being part of SK. This can be explained by two reasons:
    • We haven’t had successful products for a very long time
    • Our environments (including organizational culture) become less and less healthy and attractive.
Performance Reward
  • Expected: High
  • Actual: High
  • Details: We are definitely performance oriented. A lot to extrinsic motivations are offered such as salary raise, month bonus and stock options. However, we should also consider offering more intrinsic motivations to the staff. In addition, we should also review our performance appraisal system to make sure that it is accurate, fair and actually motivate the employees in the way that we want them to.
Conflict Tolerance
  • Expected: Moderately High
  • Actual: Uncontrollably High
  • Details: Conflicts are healthy when they are related to work, encourage creativity and are not personal conflicts. However, I would say that we are failing to control and moderate this dimension of the organizational culture. Conflicts at SK become more and more personal and they start to have negative impacts to the company. More details about this will be discussed later.
Risk Tolerance
  • Expected: High
  • Actual: Medium and decreasing
  • Details: As a startup software company, we should have a high level of risk tolerance to and try and find our repeatable and scalable business model. However, it seems to me that we are becoming more and more risk-averse. We start to think more like a big cooperate that is reluctant to changes and looks for stability. In my opinions, having too many development environments, too many deployment policies and not trying feature-teams as well as not trying Kanban for DFS team are some examples of risk-averse.

4. A closer look at organizational culture issues at SK: The top three critical ones
So those are the seven key dimensions of SK’s organizational culture at the high level. In this section, I would like to look at specific issues that we have at SK in more details. Here are the top three that are the most critical ones in my opinion:

Lack of trust:
In my opinion, this is the most critical issue that we have at the moment and it is the root cause of many other issues. At SK, we can these signs of the absence of trust:
  • People usually try to show that they are better than the others. They rarely, or never, share about their weaknesses.
  • People avoid admitting the mistakes that they make.
  • People hesitate to offer help outside their own areas of responsibility or provide constructive feedback to others.
  • People doubt other’s skills and commitment.
  • People avoid meetings or spending to work on an issue together, thinking that is a waste of time.
  • People jump to conclusions about the intentions and aptitudes of others without attempting to clarify them.
  • People are reluctant, or refuse, to share performance goals with others.
  • Micromanagement is popular.
As we can see, lack of trust occurs in every interaction between and within teams. Examples can be found everywhere:
  • S. doesn’t trust the developers in terms of their skills, productivity and commitment.
  • Server team doubts Q.’s skills and understandings about the product.
  • A. doesn’t think that K.’s design is good.
  • A is concerned about J.’s skills and working attitude.
  • Server team doesn’t want to have meetings or work together, thinking that is a waste of time.
  • J. and Server team refuse to share team goals together.
  • …. and many more

No one should be blamed in these cases. It’s not S.’s fault to not to trust the Server developers and vice versa. But why does this happen? What are the root causes of the lack of trust at SK?

There is actually a model for trust, which says that trust between two parties is influenced by ten factors. Using this model for trust, here are some of the reasons that can explain the lack of trust at SK, listed from the most to the less important ones:
  • Lack of capability: People only trust those who are capable to fulfill the expectation of the trust. You cannot trust a person if he does not have the capability, no matter how many similarities, aligned interests and benevolent concern that he has. At SK, lack of capability is the explanation for most of the absence of trust. In most case, one party doesn’t *think* that the other have enough skills and commitment to fulfill the expectation of the trust. Please note that the lack of capability of the “trustee” is just the *assumption* of the “truster”. Whether the “trustee” is lack of capability or not is another issue. This is related to the second reason, which is:
  • Lack of communication: This can also lead to the absence of trust in many cases, especially between different teams or between people that have different native languages.    Lack of communication also leads to wrong assumption about other’s capability and attitude. Lack of communication also prevents the truster and trustee from acknowledging the similarities between them.
  • Lack of similarities: Lack of similarities in terms of working style, working attitude, norms and expectations can also sometimes explain the absence of trust, especially between employees of different ethnic groups.
  • Lack of benevolent concern: Our recruitment criteria is to hire only the “A players”. Whether all of our employees are the “A players” or not is another issue but there is a fact that most of them have quite big ego. As long as people are not willing to sacrifice their benefits or put themselves at risk for the others, it is very less likely for them to be able to gain trust from the others.
Lack of trust can have more critical impacts than we think. Lack of trust can be the root cause of other issues:
  • More micromanagement and lack of empowerment, which in turn leads to the failure of creating self-managed and self-organized teams. This is caused by the lack of trust that managers have to their subordinates.
  • Bureaucratic structure and decision-making.
  • Low level of support. This is caused by the lack of trust that subordinates have to their managers.
  • Unhealthy conflicts and personal conflicts
  • Stressful working environment
  • Demotivation
  • People become more risk-averse
Conflicts are not controlled and moderated:
Conflict itself is not a bad thing. Conflict is healthy for an organization when it is work-related conflict that can lead to new ideas, stimulate creativity and motivate changes. However, conflicts need to be moderated and controlled so that they do not become personal and cause negative consequences:
  • Increase stress and anxiety among individuals, which decreases productivity and satisfaction
  • Lack of trust between team members
  • Increase hostility and aggressive behaviors
  • Increase turnover
Unfortunately, conflicts at SK are not controlled and moderated properly. Some of them became personal and had some of the negative consequences as listed above. Here are some examples of conflicts at SK:
  • The conflict between N. and T., which led to the fight that made both of them fired.
  • The conflict between A. and J.
  • The conflict between J. and Server team
  • The conflict between A. and Server team. This was resolved when A. left the Server team
  • The conflict between me and J. regarding to API deployment
  • The conflict between M. and T., which led to T. leaving SK
  • The conflict between M. and new iOS developers in HCMC office, which led to M. resigning
  • The developing conflict between A. and K.
  • … and there can be more
So what are the root causes of those conflicts? There can be many but here are the top three in my opinion:
  • Lack of trust: Again, there is a correlation between conflicts and the absence of trust.
  • Unresolved conflicts in the past: This reason can be seen in all cases when the consequence of the conflicts is extreme (people get fired, people resign). N. and T. wouldn’t fought each other if their existing conflicts had been resolved earlier. Same thing could happen to M. and T.
  • Differences in personalities, culture, working style, working attitude and expectations.

What I am more concerned about is the fact that we do not pay enough attention to moderating and controlling conflicts, giving them the freedom to become personal conflicts that lead to negative consequences for the organization.

Organizational culture is not officially defined and shared:
At SK, we usually talk about organizational culture but the fact is that it is not officially defined by the company and shared transparently to all employees. The company is lack of rules, policies or guidelines to enforce organizational culture. As a result, different employees and different teams have different understanding and beliefs in terms of which behaviors are appropriate and which are not. Here are some examples:
  • D. and A. think that going to the office at noon is totally fine while some of the others (including me) don’t think so.
  • H. thinks that having a 1.5 hours lunch, playing foosball and enjoying massage at this time (preparing for SXSW) is inappropriate whereas many others think it is totally fine.
  • For A., being aggressive and interrupting people in meeting is normal but this can be offensive to some people.
Not having an officially defined and united organizational culture also lead to the following issues:
  • Our culture is weak due to the fact that different parts of the company have different beliefs and shared values.
  • New recruited employees are fit into only part of the culture and they may amplify culture fragmentation.
  • The company is reluctant to removing people who are not culture fit due to the fact that no official and united culture is defined.
5. Other less significant issues
So those are the top three critical ones. There are also other issues that are less significant but they may be worthy to be mentioned briefly here:
  • One of our top recruitment criteria is to hire only the “A players” but we may not be sure about:
    • Are they actually the A players?
    • Can they work together?
  • Most of our employees are smart. Unfortunately, smartness usually comes with arrogance and big ego. From what I observe, our culture is lack of “learning from others” attitude, which is quite important for a startup that want to grow.
  • Since I started at SK, there have been consistent joke (within the Vietnamese staff) saying that it is very normal in our culture to bragging but not actually doing and those who can talk big (about solutions, planning, achievements, etc…) are usually highly evaluated. It is just a joke but it is worthy to consider.
  • It seems to me that we don’t have a culture that encourages taking responsibility or accountability when things go wrong, partially because some roles may have unclear or overlapped responsibilities. A culture that avoids blaming can be good in some cases but I think it is more professional to encourage taking responsibility or accountability when things go wrong, especially when it is well defined.

6. Some suggestions to make things better
Basically, in most cases, the solutions are kinds of embedded inside the issues themselves: Do what we should do, stop doing what we shouldn’t and fulfill what we are lack of. Here are some suggested solutions for the issues that we have at SK, focusing on the top three critical ones:

To build trust among team members:
  • Encourage team lunch or one-on-one lunch for team members to communicate and know more about the others. Such events will help team members to share about themselves and learn from the others in many topics: background, family, education, hobbies, strengths and weaknesses. From there they can realize their similarities and the capabilities of the others, which can increase the likeliness of trust, as discussed in Hurley’s model for trust. From my experience, one-on-one lunch is more effective than team lunch for this purpose. People tend to share more about themselves when they are one on one with another, but not in a big group.
  • Setup funny quizzes that reveal team members’ individual information (such as hobbies, skills, education, past experience, strengths and weaknesses…) and have rewards for the winner. This encourages team members to know more about each other and people tend to trust others who they know more about.
  • Organize team building activities that encourage trust and collaboration between team members such as:
    • Paintball: Make sure that the trusters and trustees are in the same team
    • Rock climbing: One team member relay for another and vice versa. Make sure that team members know how to relay and follow all safety instructions.
  • Schedule days when team members work together in pair to know more about others’ strengths and weaknesses. Moreover, working in pair also helps team members to experience the feeling of “achieving something together”, which make it easier to build trust between them.
  • Consider the last option: If there is no way that we can trust the existing people then replace them with those who we can trust.
To solve the issues of unhealthy conflicts:
  • Build up trust within the company
  • Make it clear to all employees that personal conflicts are not normal within the organization and it is unacceptable to keep those conflicts unresolved.
  • Managers should identify personal and unhealthy conflicts as soon as they arise and try to address them immediately.
  • Encourage using communication to solve conflicts.
  • Relocate people is also a possible solution.
  • Removing people from the team/company can also be considered as one of the last options. The key here is to come to this decision actively and early, before the conflicts cause more damages to the organization.
To have a strong organizational culture:
  • Define an organizational culture that is aligned with our strategic plan and make it transparent to all employees.
  • Build up policies, rules or guidelines that enforce organizational culture.
  • Train the employees about our expected organizational culture and make it transparent in terms of which behaviors are appropriate and which are not by using examples.
  • Have a consistent process and criteria for evaluating culture fit of our job candidates.
  • Willing to get rid of people who do not fit into the expected culture. The longer we keep them, the more damage they cause to our culture.
Some others:
Build an organizational culture that encourages:
  • Empowerment
  • Risk tolerance to experience new solutions and processes
  • Learn from others
  • Walk the talk
  • Take responsibility and accountability when things go wrong
7. Conclusion
In conclusion, this analysis shows that some parts of the existing organizational culture at SK are not appropriate for a startup software company, which is the current state of SK. The analysis also suggests three issues that need to be addressed immediately in order to create a healthy culture:
  • Lack of trust
  • Conflicts are not controlled and moderated
  • Organizational culture is not officially defined and shared
It should also be noted that the analysis itself also has some limitations:
  • It may be subjective due to the fact that it is reflected from my point of view only.
  • It focuses mainly on the issues rather than the solutions.
  • It does not address the other good parts of SK’s organizational culture.

Despite those limitations, this analysis can also be served as a good starting point to systematically identify the organizational culture issues that SK currently has, which is the first and important step to find the appropriate solutions. While a healthy culture may not be vital for some companies to be functional, it is, however, quite essential for SK, a startup that wants to be a big success. Sometimes, great product can only be built by a great organization.

Building trust between team members

Building trust between team members is very essential for the development of a high performance team. I myself saw a lot of cases where teams performed poorly or even became dysfunctional due to the absence of trust between team members, despite the high capability of each individual in the team. The purpose of this post is to suggest several techniques that team members or managers can use to build up trust within the team.

In order to build trust, it is also helpful to be able to recognize the behaviors that may show an absence of trust between team members:
  • Team members usually try to show that they are better than the others. They rarely, or never, share about their weaknesses.
  • Team members avoid to admit the mistakes that they make.
  • Team members hesitate to offer help outside their own areas of responsibility or provide constructive feedback to the others.
  • Team members doubt other’s skills and commitment.
  • Team members avoid meetings or spending time to work on an issue together, thinking that is a waste of time.
  • Team members jump to conclusions about the intentions and aptitudes of others without attempting to clarify them.
  • Team members are reluctant, or refuse, to share performance goals with others.

No trust

There are many articles writing about how to build trust within the team but in my opinion, the tips suggested in those articles are too general to be easily applied. Therefore, using my own experience, I suggest several detailed ways that can be used to build trust between team members:
  • Encourage team lunch or one-on-one lunch for team members to communicate and know more about the others. Such events will help team members to share about themselves and learn from the others in many topics: background, family, education, hobbies, strengths and weaknesses. From there they can realize their similarities and the capabilities of the others, which can increase the likeliness of trust, as discussed in Hurley’s model for trust. From my experience, one-on-one lunch is more effective than team lunch for this purpose. People tend to share more about themselves when they are one on one with another, but not in a big group.
  • Setup funny quizzes that reveal team members’ individual information (such as hobbies, skills, education, past experience, strengths and weaknesses…) and have rewards for the winner. This encourages team members to know more about each other and people tend to trust others who they know more about.
  • Organize team building activities that encourage trust and collaboration between team members such as:
    • Paintball: Make sure that the trusters and trustees are in the same team
    • Rock climbing: One team member relay for another and vice versa. Make sure that team members know how to relay and follow all safety instructions.
  • Schedule days when team members work together in pair to know more about others’ strengths and weaknesses. Moreover, working in pair also help team members to experience the feeling of “achieving something together”, which make it easier to build trust between them.

Rock climbing

So those are very detailed suggestions that team members and managers can practically apply to build trust within the team. However, those suggestions alone may not be very helpful if the organization culture does not value trust. Therefore, it is also very essential to create an organizational culture where everyone “walks the talk” and has high commitment to their promises. Where trust is achieved and valued, high performance teams are born.

Characteristics of an employee that a startup should hire

“Employees are the most valuable assets of a company”. This statement is correct for most organizations and it is extremely correct for startups, in which no other assets such as branding and products exist yet. As a result, hiring the “right” people is very essential for the success of a startup, especially where one employee can represent 20% or even 50% of the company’s workforce.

startup hiring

After working for two startup companies and reading articles about startups’ recruitment, I come up with a list of characteristics of an employee that a startup should hire:
  • Top talented: Startup is all about innovation, creativity and differentiation and you really need the top talented team members to achieve those. You will need what is so-called the “A players” because “A players” will attract other “A players” whereas “B players” only hire “C players” due to the fact that “B players” are less confident in their talent and they prefer working with people who are not better than them.
  • Flexible and agile: Startup is all about trial and error to figure out the business model that works. As a result, your team members need to be flexible and agile enough to make the changes or at least to adapt to changes. In a startup company, people should be willing to pivot, even when that means they need to throw away all the existing progress.
  • “Can do” attitude: Startup is usually about new products, new technologies, new solutions; something that have never been done before. As a result, it is very important that the team members must have a “can do” attitude, the willingness to try new thing and do not afraid of failure. In my opinion, young employees are usually better than senior employees in terms of this “can do” attitude. From my experience, senior employees, who have more knowledge and experience, usually use their knowledge and experience to prove the impossibles the ideas, not the other way around.
  • “Get shit done” attitude: For a startup, it is more important to get the task done than to follow certain process to achieve it. As a result, team members should be willing to do whatever it is necessary to achieve the result. It is quite normal in a startup that: I don’t care how you gonna do it, I just need to get it done.
  • Risk-taker: Startup is all about opportunities, and of course, about risks. Working in a startup company is a risk itself. Team members should be willing to take risks to seize the opportunities.
  • Self-motivated: It is very important for a team member to be self-motivated in a startup company due to the fact that others (including the founder) will not have enough time, and also responsibility, to motivate him. Self-motivation can be achieved if team members have strong belief in the vision of the company. From my experience, employees without self-motivation can not wait until the startup succeeds.
  • Multi-roles player: Members of a startup should be able to play multiple roles at the same time due to the fact that startup usually has just a few people in the early date. In the first startup company that I worked for, I played the roles of a Developer, a Project Manager and a HR Manager, all at the same time.

Some of the characteristics in this list are good for every type of organization, not just the startup ones, such as top talented and self-motivated. Others may only be appropriate for startups such as risk-taker and multi-roles player. One more important thing is that it is essential for the employees to fit into the startup culture, which is driven by the strategic plan.

What define a startup?

1. Introduction
The term “startup” is becoming more and more popular, mostly in the IT industry. Most of the IT news are now writing about startups: people found it, analyze it, work for it and invest into it. You can find IT companies that call themselves “startup” everywhere, from such developed countries as the US to developing ones such as Vietnam. I myself have worked for two companies that call themselves startups, however, I still don’t have a clear definition of a startup. So what criteria define a startup? Is it the age of the company? Or the size? Or something else? I saw companies that have more than 100 employees and still call themselves startup. I saw companies that are more than 3 years old and still call themselves startup. So it seems to me that there is no “unified” definition for a startup.


The purpose of this post is to present a list of all possible criteria that may define a startup. My personal opinions will also be give in the conclusion.

2. Criteria that define a startup
A quick literature review shows that different people have different criteria for startup.    This list suggests all possible criteria that people may use to define a startup:
  • Age: Is less than 1 year old
  • Size:  Have less than 100 employees
  • Revenue: Generate a revenue less than X amount of money
  • Office: Do not have actual satellite office (office that have more than just a representative)
  • Focus: Focus on learning, discovery and crazy growth instead of profit
  • Growth: Is designed to grow fast
  • Output: Expected output is a new product, a new technology or a solution for existing challenges in the market
  • Members: Majority of the members (more than 50%) are entrepreneurs
  • Culture: Have a “startup culture”
  • Business model: Is designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model

3. Conclusion
According to my literature review, the criteria about “business model” is the most widely accepted one, followed by the “growth” criteria. I myself totally agree to this definition: A startup is an organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model. So as long as you are still figuring out how to make money, you are still a startup, despite of the age and size of your company. I also strongly disagree to the “culture” criteria: A company is a startup because it has “startup culture”. In my opinion, it should be the other way around: Because you are a startup company, you must have a startup organizational culture so that your culture is aligned with your strategic plan.

Effective meetings

Similar to communication, meetings can be considered as a primary process for organizational life. As a result, it is essential to keep meetings effective because they can have significant contribution to the productivity and the success of an organization. In general, meetings can be categorized into 5 types:
  • Informational: The main purpose of the meeting is to provide the information to the attendants.
  • Problem solving: The attendants work together to find solution for a specific problem.
  • Decision making: The attendants discuss together to make a decision on a specific issue.
  • Planning: The attendants work together to provide planning for an objective or a project.
  • Feedback: The main purpose of the meeting is to react or evaluate an issue or a situation.

Effective meetings

From my experience, most of the meetings are not very effective. Here are several popular complains that I usually heard about meetings:
  • People come to the meeting without knowing about the purpose of it.
  • Irrelevant people are invited to the meeting.
  • People do not know what are the expected outputs of the meeting.
  • Attendants are not prepared for the meeting.
  • Sometimes the meeting ends with no outcome.
  • Meeting takes longer than expected.
  • There are no follow-up actions after the meeting.
Effective meetings
In general, meetings are effective when they:
  • Are held only when needed
  • Have a specific purpose and expected results
  • Are held at an appropriate location and time
  • Have the right participants
  • Have a clear agenda
  • Start on time and end on time
  • Stick to the agenda
  • Encourage everyone’s participation
  • Have balanced and productive discussions
  • Have minutes and distribute them
  • Have follow-up plan if it is required

Effective meetings
In my company, we have adapted some of those ideas to create some kinds of “templates” for effective meetings. There are two templates: one for meeting invitation and one for the structure of the meeting.

The template for meeting invitation suggest that the invitation should have the following information:
  • Purpose: Why do we have this meeting?
  • Background: Some background information about the topic of the meeting. This can be optional.
  • Agenda: Agenda with time frame is strongly encouraged.
  • Expected outcomes: Whether it is a document, a plan, a solution or a decision.
  • Homework: What attendees should do to prepare for the meeting.
Here is the template for the structure of an effective meeting:
  • Purpose, expected outcomes and agenda: Even though these information are available in the meeting invitation, they should be confirmed again by the facilitator at the start of the meeting.
  • Follow-up from last time: If this is a follow-up meeting, the facilitator should update the attendants with the progress of follow-up actions since the last meeting before going to the main agenda.
  • The main agenda: Now it is time to follow the items in the agenda.
  • Conclusion: Sum up and compare the actual outcomes with the expected outcomes.
  • Follow-up plan: Decide on what the next actions are or when the next meeting will happen. This can be optional.
  • Taking notes: This step happen from the beginning to the end of the meeting. Each meeting must have a note-taker role appointed. Note-taker will send meeting minutes to all stakeholders right after the meeting.