Most people are passive by nature.

Assertiveness has to be learned.

When a person is passive, opportunities can be lost and unpleasant or unbearable situations are tolerated. In time, bad feelings can build to a point where one event can trigger negative, or even explosive, behavior towards the other person involved.  Many people want to break out of their passive roles, but often they are afraid or they make the mistake of believing that the only alternative is to be aggressive, and they see aggressive behavior as unacceptable.  Assertiveness is the third option.  Assertiveness is not aggressiveness.

Assertive behavior is based on the belief that your rights, wants, and needs are important—just as important as the wants and needs of others.  It is an alternative to aggressive behavior.  Aggressive behavior stems from the belief that your wants and needs override those of others.  Submission, or passive, behavior arises from the belief that your rights, wants, and needs are less important than those of other people.

It is important to understand the difference between assertive behavior, aggressive behavior, and submissive/passive behavior.

Beliefs You believe that your rights, wants, and needs are just as important as the wants and needs of others. You believe that your wants and needs override those of others. You believe that your rights, wants, and needs are less important than those of other people.
Behaviour You have a relaxed stance, steady eye contact, calm voice, appropriate use of I-statements and suggestions and questions rather opinions and threats. You shout, point, make threats, swear and insult other people. Aggressive language includes over-use of I-statements, put-downs, stating opinions as facts. You have fidgety movements, fear of eye contact, use a whining tone of voice, apologize, and avoid the subject at hand.

Sometimes a work situation or a situation involving money makes a person act in a passive way, even if that person is assertive or confident at home.  New or risky situations, such as migrating to a new country with debt, may make passive behavior more common.  However, there are ways to be assertive, to speak up and speak out, without jeopardizing your job or your benefits.

To be assertive you need to be able to:

  • Know what you want
  • Be sure what you want is fair and reasonable
  • Ask for what you want clearly
  • Stay calm
  • Try to address only one issue at a time
  • Accept both praise and criticism with composure, calmness, and an even-temper
  • Allow yourself to express negative feelings in the appropriate way and place
  • Refuse inappropriate requests
  • Show anger when appropriate
  • Give a personal opinion when appropriate
  • Complain when appropriate
  • Ask for help when appropriate

It may be difficult to be assertive.  In order to be assertive, you need to have a positive outlook on life and a sense of your own self worth.  You need to know and be clear about your rights and responsibilities.  Some people come from countries or families where they were criticized or their value as a human being was demeaned.  Women in particular are vulnerable to a negative self-image.  Assertiveness is not to be blind to your shortcomings and problems, but to help you have a more balanced view of yourself.

To be assertive you also need to identify your rights as a foreign domestic worker and as a human being.  You have the right to:

  • Have the terms of your contract adhered to
  • Expect that your employer follow the Hong Kong labour laws
  • Be treated with respect and dignity
  • Work in a safe environment
  • Privacy
  • Make reasonable mistakes

Coping with Hostility and Criticism

Assertive behavior is not always met with a reasonable, respectful response.  People may respond to you with hostility in the form of insults or blame.  Perhaps the person knows that what you have said is true and right, but they don’t want to change anything or they don’t like being spoken to in this way by an employee.  They may try and find fault with you to escape dealing with the issue.  You need to be aware of these possible reactions and remember not to respond in that same way.

Insults or verbal abuse are unfair.  If someone offers genuine criticism, then it should be specific and designed to help, not to undermine you.  If you are lacking in self-confidence, then you may find any kind of criticism difficult to accept.  If you have a true awareness of your own strengths and weaknesses, then you should be able to:

  • recognize unfair criticism and reject it
  • accept fair criticism and use it to your advantage to do better

In handling criticism like this, you force your critic to see the seriousness of what they are doing to you.  If you criticize someone else, you should do it openly, honestly, and with specific information.

Clarifying Job Responsibilities and Entitlements

For your sake and for your employer’s sake, it will be useful if you talk about your work roles and responsibilities the first time you meet.  Your employer may initiate this meeting, but if he/she does not, ask your employer to sit down for a little while so that you can clarify what is expected of you and how your entitlements will be handled.  It is always good practice to write down your employer’s requirements and instructions for future reference.

If you have been working for your employer for a while, but you have never had this kind of meeting, ask for one now.

Here are some things you should ask about and find out:

  • Who are the members of the household?
  • What will my duties be?
  • What will my daily schedule be?
  • Will I need training for any of my job responsibilities?
  • How will my food be managed?
  • What are my living accommodations?
  • When is my pay day?
  • How will I receive my wages?  (cash with receipt, check, or autopayment into bank account)
  • What day is my rest day?

You should know the terms of your contract so that you can talk about them confidently with your employer. If your employer tells you that you are expected to perform tasks that are outside the terms of your contract, you will need to speak up about this. You and your employer have an obligation to follow the contract.  It is possible that your employer has requested you to do work outside the terms of your contract only because he/she has not studied the contract and the law in detail.  If you are bold enough to speak up, your employer may discover that he/she should not have instructed you to do certain things and this will certainly be helpful in terms of avoiding similar problems in future.  Also, if any of the information that you hear during this meeting puts you in an unsafe situation, you should talk about it at this time.

Addressing Problems

Problems and issues will sometimes arise that you will need to talk about with your employer.  It may make you afraid to have to talk about problems with your employer, but these conversations are necessary.  Some employers will listen and be reasonable, some will not.  Either way, your first step is to talk to them. You must bring the problem to their attention.  If your employer does respond favourably to your concerns, you have other options for your next steps to address employment problems.

As a worker from outside of Hong Kong, it is important for you to know the values and attitudes of the people of Hong Kong, both Chinese and Westerners, so that you will be able to be more effective in your communication with your employer.

Values and Attitudes of Employers from Hong Kong

Behaviour towards bosses in Hong Kong is different from that of many other cultures.  Knowing these things about cultural beliefs and attitudes in Hong Kong can help you to talk to your employer more effectively and help you get a better result.

Hong Kong Chinese strongly value social order, authority, and obedience. To many Chinese, children are to defer to parents, employees are to defer to their employers— the person “below” to the person “above” in all things.  Employees, according to many Hong Kongers, are meant to have quiet acceptance of employment circumstances, and keep a social harmony.

Even though Hong Kong Chinese may hold these cultural notions, foreign domestic workers should not be denied their rights or fair employment because of these notions.  When employment problems arise, a foreign worker will need to resolve—not accept—the issue by talking to her employer.

Values and Attitudes of Western Employers

Many domestic workers believe that Western employers are less strict and more relaxed than employers from Asia. In the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, it is not as common for individuals to employ live-in workers. As a result, some Western employers may choose to treat their workers more like a member of their family rather than an employee. While this makes for a more pleasant working environment, a worker should not see this as an opportunity to be relaxed with their duties. Western employers may be more lenient, but they have high expectations for hired help. Many Western employers want their workers to cook food from their region, speak clear English, and be assertive when dealing with their children. Most Western employers appreciate a worker who discusses problems openly, honestly, and confidently.

Values and Attitudes of Migrant Workers

Many foreign domestic workers’ home cultures may have taught them to be submissive and subservient to employers.  Domestic worker training may have reinforced these attitudes, instructing workers to get along with employers’ desires and demands, no matter what.  Workers may worry that, if they voice even a valid complaint, they may lose their job.  Although it is important to have a positive relationship with your employer, some issues cannot and must not be ignored.  They need to be addressed openly in order to be resolved and corrected.

How to communicate with your employer

 Here are some tips to help you to talk to your employer about issues that need to be addressed:

  • Remind yourself that you have certain rights under your employment contract, such as your full amount of pay, a regular rest day, and job safety. You need to know all of your rights and entitlements.  Knowing these things will increase your confidence when you speak with your employer.
  • You also have certain obligations under your contract.  You have signed a legal agreement.  For example, your contract states that you will only work at the address of your employer as stated on the contract (unless the employer moved to a new address, in which case the employer has to notify the Immigration Department).  To work in any other location, even if your employer tells you to, is violating the contract and breaking the law.  If the Immigration Department hears of it, you could suffer severe penalties.  You need to know the law and follow the law, even if an employer tries to press you to do otherwise.
  • Your employer has obligations to you according to the contract.  You need to know these also, so that you can bring them up in a confident, but non-threatening manner.
  • Don’t think that the problem will go away by itself.  No matter how afraid you may feel, plan to talk to your employer.  If you need to, be persistent.  Ask your employer for a chance to talk about the issue.  If he or she puts you off with an excuse, simply ask to schedule an appointment to talk as soon as possible.
  • Prepare yourself to talk to your employer so that you can clearly and concisely state your issue or what you would like. Try to only address one issue at a time.  Organize your thoughts before you talk. Be sure of your facts.  Gather all the relevant information that supports your stance, such as any contractual obligations on the part of your employer. Be simple, straightforward, and honest.
  • Be polite and respectful.
  • Do not lose your temper or show strong emotion, especially in front of other people.  Watch your body language:  don’t cross your arms or point your finger. Remain calm, rational, and in control.  It is the best way to act if you want your employer to take you seriously.
  • If your employer is expecting you to do something that is against your contract, say so.  Remind your employer that you, as well as your employer, could suffer legal penalties.  You can even face deportation, if the Immigration Department finds out that you broke the terms of your contract.
  • Make a positive suggestion to solve the problem, if you can.
  • Try to avoid confrontational words and behavior.  Try saying “I” instead of “you”.  For example, say “I need my full pay on my pay day” rather than “You haven’t given me my full pay.”  Yelling or accusing will not help you.
  • Try to end on a positive note.  Let your employer know that you want to do the best job you can, but the issue needs to be resolved. Try to end with a definite conclusion.  Before ending your chat, restate what both of you will do going forward.  Remember that, by law, you have the right to refuse work you think is unsafe.
  • Get directions, receipt of payment, and any other important information in writing whenever possible.  Keep copies of anything you sign.

Additional Resources for Domestic Workers

Understanding Your Contract