Working with the Thais
With friendly permission from Stickman Bangkok.
Everyday scores of guys fall in love with Thailand resulting in many guys making the decision to move to the country. For some it is easy, simply move on over to Thailand and retire, leading a life of luxury - good food, warm weather and let’s not beat about the bush, lots of female company. But not everyone is ready or able to retire so the big move usually means you've got to work!
Much has been written on this site [www.stickmanbangkok.com] about holidaying here, getting involved in relationships with the local ladies and the best way to make your hard-earned go further. But what about working here? That’s one aspect of life that doesn’t get nearly as much coverage.
Like most things in Thailand, the work environment on the surface may seem similar to the West, but look a bit more closely and things are quite different.
Thai staff are, for want of a better word, obedient, and will generally do whatever their boss asks them to do. If they are told to stay late – sometimes many hours and without reward – they will. Staff will almost never disagree with their boss, at least to their face, just as they will almost never offer suggestions about how things could be done differently. To do so would result in the boss losing face – and that absolutely must be avoided. It is assumed that the boss knows best - that is why they are the boss, after all! Thai staff lead a very submissive role, doing as they are told, strictly following instructions. To veer away from what they know makes them awfully uncomfortable. (This is one reason why in Thailand you don't get very far if you ask a service provider for something that is not advertised as being available.)
Despite the fact that the workplace can be quite a strict environment with all sorts of rules and stiff penalties, Thai staff largely come and go as they please, often arriving late to work. This may incur a penalty, sometimes very steep, but that doesn’t always motivate them to arrive on time. I have never quite worked out why this is.
One of my first memories of work in Thailand, back in the ‘90s, was the fact that colleagues always seemed to be ill. I thought the dreadful pollution around the school I used to work at may have been a contributing factor to many of the staff members’ frequent absences. But the reason was quite different. By law, employees are allowed to take up to 30 sick days per year with pay. Yes, 30 sick days! I used to get really annoyed at Mrs. Stick in the past and chastised her on what I considered a dreadful work ethic, with her taking on average one sick day a month, pretty much every month. In all fairness she was sick some of the time, but much of the time she just wanted a break from work. It wasn't until later that I realised this was the norm!
If a Thai doesn’t like a job, they generally won’t complain, at least not directly to their boss. They will just leave. In better jobs notice will be given but in lesser jobs, they will just collect their pay at the end of the month and leave, never to return. Maids and cleaners do this all the time - and bargirls are another bunch who leave without notice.
I have often felt that Thais in the workplace are more concerned with keeping their boss happy, than keeping the customer (when they deal with customers, that is) happy. Their ultimate concern seems to make sure that their boss, who often plays a patriarchal or matriarchal role, is content. If their boss is happy then they will be looked after, or so the thinking seems to go.
But what is it like for us? If you’re a Westerner working in a Thai workplace, just how is it? The biggest factor determining how things are is the nationality of the boss. If you have a foreign boss you’ll probably operate in much the same way as you would in the West, but if you have a Thai boss, as is most likely the case, then things will be very different.
Fortunately, most Thai bosses understand that the average Westerner doesn’t adapt to the Thai way in the workplace, and won't respond well to what may be considered the norm locally. This means that the average Westerner is generally given a fairly loose reign. We are often given a set of objectives and are largely allowed to go about our work, attempting to meet those objectives. So long as the objectives are met and no-one is upset along the way, the Westerner’s employment continues and everyone is happy.
You can see evidence of this in schools where Western teachers are hired. Schools often give the Westerner complete freedom to teach not just how they see fit, but what they consider should be covered. So long as the students’ grades are good and the kids’ parents are happy, the Western teacher’s employment continues. It doesn't matter if the material covered was not in any curriculum anywhere!
Part of the difficulty is that the average Thai doesn’t understand Westerners very well (just as the opposite is true) and largely leaves the Western employees to their own devices. This can work very well because they know we don’t tend to like being micro-managed, but it can just as well backfire, because if you give any member of staff too much freedom and they are not entirely honest, then anything is possible.
One common problem is that this type of approach is often flawed through a lack of any checks and balances. A Westerner who quite likes the school and wishes to stay on in employment, simply makes sure all of the kids get high grades. He fudges the marks. Don't laugh, it happens all the time and it is a disgrace to the profession.
The way that Thai staff are treated and the way that farang staff are treated are two entirely different things. Let’s take a look at my place of work. There are more than 20 farang members of staff, and perhaps 150 Thai staff. The Thai staff are often compelled to work late or at the weekend, where the farang staff often wander in late and sneak off early. Weekend work? Forget it, the average farang simply doesn't go! What is most peculiar is that the Thai management are fully aware but never say or do anything about it - so the farang staff exploit it more and more! It's a crazy situation.
Still at my place of employment, a few years back they implemented a policy to overcome staff arriving late and a finger print system was installed where you had to “thumb in” every morning. The farang members of staff simply stopped using it – and the Thai management didn’t say anything about that either!
I often feel sorry for the Thai staff. They see foreigners working alongside them, working less hours (although probably producing the same output) and getting paid much, much more as well as being treated better. They also see us standing up to the bosses and not afraid to use the word "no"! Working at a quicker pace and in a much more efficient manner, Western teachers can finish their work hours before the Thai teachers and with little else to do, will simply disappear – or do their own thing.
This is not unique to teaching. A long-time reader who works in the oil business in Thailand recently told me “work for an oil company and life's a holiday”. Now I am sure he is very good at his job and does everything that is asked of him to a high standard – but his employer obviously doesn’t realise that he has a lot of free time on his hands – and that he could be doing so much more.
Then you get the Westerners who exploit holes in the system. We had an Aussie working with us a few years ago who used to take off one day a week, and thinking about it, there was a Canadian who did the same. Both had real issues with the bottle. They knew that they could take up to 30 days off a year sick, and given that there are only 36 teaching weeks in a school year – perfect!
For a Thai company to throw a Westerner into the mix is a risk, sometimes it is seen as a necessary evil. Thais are incredibly observant and they notice exactly what each person does, what time they arrive, what time they leave, and so on. A not insignificant amount of resentment can build up when they see Westerners on fat salaries working for a shorter period of time, and earning much more. I would go as far to say that for a Thai company it's a very brave move indeed to hire a Westerner.
There are of course many, many good things about working in Thailand. Things generally happen at a leisurely pace and the idea of deadlines and timeliness and the pressure put on employees is nothing like it is in the West. The flipside of this is that you can become lazy.
What I personally like most of all about working in Thailand is the different nationalities you get to work with. My closest colleague comes from Atlanta, Georgia, and believe me, after 7 years working with him there is not much I don’t know about that city. Working with different nationalities brings different ideas to the table and that can only be a good thing.
Workplace banter can get quite risqué in Thailand and you don't have any of the issues of sexual harassment that seem to be a real concern in the West these days. I never cease to be amazed at some of the stuff that is talked about. A petite, innocent female Thai employee eating a banana for breakfast would think nothing about saying “Oooh, it is big, isn’t it” in English and then giggling to herself. A light atmosphere is never a bad thing.
For Thai members of staff, the decorum of civility and harmony is maintained at all cost, though tempers can become frayed when fingers are pointed. You know you have got offside with a Thai member of staff when they stop talking to you. Thais actually aspire to the idea of working in a workplace where they know everyone already. If they could work with their entire family, they would be in heaven.
There is of course a real danger of working in Thailand for a long period of time and quite literally lowering your standards. I am of the belief that if you work here long enough it would have to be difficult to move back to a position in the West. Expectations in the workplace are just so ridiculously low.
Deep down everyone hopes that the skills developed in Thailand, the familiarity with the country, the industry they work in and the culture and language will bode well if they ever return to their homeland, but unless you work in an industry where Thailand is prominent, that's being awfully optimistic.
There is a real lack of on the job training and what I have personally seen has ranged from a complete and utter embarrassment to useless. You've actually got to make a point of developing yourself, and keeping abreast of changes in the industry. I make a point of working closely with one colleague who I have a great deal of respect for, and by bouncing ideas of each other and running lesson plans past one another, we do our best to develop professionally. But not everyone has that opportunity, and even then, we both acknowledge the need for input from another party.
My experience working in Thailand is that things are generally relaxed and fun. If you're not objective driven and are wiling to overlook some fairly questionable practices, you can enjoy yourself. But if you are the result-driven type then working in Thailand could end up being awfully frustrating. I should imagine that in more professional roles, where tolerances tend to be less and standards higher, it could be even more frustrating.
Thailand, while a fun place to work, is not necessarily where one is going to advance their skills, or their career. It's a great place to spend the final few years of one's work life, a great place to work part-time and surely a fantastic place to be on a big expat package. But working here full-time in the prime of your life, hmmm, you've got to think seriously about it.
(This article was originally published at Stickman Weekly 8/10/2006. Photographs added by StudyInThailand.org.)