Managing in Thailand
Traditional Customs in a Modern Economy
There are many reasons why people flock to Thailand. The country is known as the "Land of a Thousand Smiles," and it bursts with culture and natural beauty. It boasts world-famous food, is relatively cheap, and has some of the friendliest and most polite people in the world.
Thailand is an economic success story, and the World Bank considers it to be an upper-middle income economy. Its capital and largest city, Bangkok, has around nine million inhabitants, and it looks and feels like a modern Asian metropolis. Thailand is the second-richest country in Southeast Asia, and the World Bank ranks it 26th in the world in its latest GDP league table, between Iran and Nigeria.
However, Thailand's recent political history is also marked by instability and violence. In recent years, democratically elected governments have been forced out by the military after huge street protests, and terrorist actions have dominated the headlines.
In this article, we'll explore how to live and work successfully in Thailand, whether you're managing a remote team or working with Thai team members.
This article is intended as a general guide only. So, consider each person's unique needs and use your own best judgment, when managing a team in Thailand.
Thai Life and Culture
Thailand is situated in Southeast Asia, and is bordered by Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia, Laos, and Malaysia. It also has coasts on the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea. It sits in the northern hemisphere tropics, so the weather is largely warm and dry from November to April, and hot and wet from May to October.
Thailand is situated in Southeast Asia, and is bordered by Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia, Laos, and Malaysia. It also has coasts on the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea.
Around 95 per cent of Thailand's population is Buddhist, and this has a huge impact on its culture. People follow "Theravada" Buddhism, which has been moulded by their widespread beliefs in spirits and ghosts, as well as residual Hindu influences. Thais believe that respect for other people is important, and that open displays of conflict or negative emotions have undesirable consequences. Bear in mind that people are hugely respectful of the king, the royal family, and Buddha, so be careful not to criticize them.
Thais are strong believers in hierarchy, in the workplace and in society, and families are usually very close-knit. Your age, social position and wealth can affect your place in the hierarchy, so expect personal questions from your team members, as they try to determine where you fit. It's essential to appreciate rank and age, which means that you should treat the eldest person in any group with respect.
People in Thailand also believe that life should be fun. This concept, called "sanuk," means that people will likely be playful at work and in their personal lives.
Safety and Security
It's important to recognize that serious safety concerns exist in Thailand. The country is currently governed by the military, which seized power in May 2014 after months of anti-government protests. Security measures have been put in place to guard against any perceived threats to the country's stability, so political gatherings are banned and your movements may be restricted.
Thailand has also been the scene of a number of high-profile terrorist incidents, and the U.S. State Department warns of a continued risk of terrorism in the country and in wider Southeast Asia.
Check with your country's government website for specific travel advice, and, when you're in Thailand, avoid crowds and demonstrations, exercise caution, check the local and national media, follow any instructions issued by local authorities, and be vigilant in areas with large numbers of foreigners and expatriates. Bear in mind that it's also illegal to criticize the recent military coup.
Crime rates are lower in Thailand than in most U.S. cities. Violent crimes are rare, but incidences of pick-pocketing are not unusual. Scams are the most common crime, including unofficial gem tours, overcharging taxis, con-men dressed as police officers demanding bribes, and vehicle rental companies that charge huge fees for perceived "damages." Thailand has a designated Tourist Police, and you can contact them at any time with a problem.
Some areas of Thailand are at risk from malaria, and other diseases such as Japanese encephalitis and dengue fever are endemic. Visit your healthcare provider for advice on travel vaccines before you visit the country.
Thai, also known as "Siamese" and "Central Thai," is Thailand's official language. Many business people and Bangkok inhabitants speak English, but communicating elsewhere isn't easy, so learning some basic phrases is useful. Bear in mind that many statements differ slightly, depending on whether you're male or female.
|English||Thai (Masculine/Feminine)||Phonetic (Masculine/Feminine)|
|Hello||Sa-wùt dee krúp/ka||Sa-waat DEE crup/kaah|
|How are you?||Sa bai dee reuu?||Sa-buy DEE rrerr?|
|I'm fine||Sa-bai dee kòrp-kOOn||Sa-buy DEE corp-KOON|
|My name is...||Pǒm chêu…/di-chún chêu…||Pom chew.../dee-choo|
|I'm sorry||Kǒr-toht krúp/ka||Corr-taught crup/kaah|
|You're welcome/it doesn't matter||Mâi bpen rai||My-ben-RYE|
|Thank you||Kòrp-koon krúp/ka||Corp-KOON crup/kaah|
|I don't understand||Pǒm mâi kâo jai/di-chún mâi kâo jai||Pomm my cow jy/die-CHUN my cow jy|
|Goodbye||Sa-wùt dee krúp/ka||Sa-waat DEE crup/kaah|
Over the last 30 years, attitudes towards women in the workplace have improved dramatically, and, in 2011, Thai people elected their first female prime minister, businesswoman Yingluck Shinawatra.
A 2016 UN report found that Thailand ranked 87th out of 188 countries in the Gender Inequality Index. Thai law states that men and women should be treated equally in the workplace, but there are still fewer women than men. The gender pay gap decreased during the 1990s, but women are still unlikely to earn more than 90 percent of a man's wages in the same position.
Thai people are not permitted to work for more than 48 hours per week, or eight hours per day. However, the limit is 42 hours per week, or seven hours per day, if the job is considered physically exhausting.
Employees in Thailand are entitled to a maximum of 30 days' paid sick days per year, and pregnant women are entitled to 90 days' maternity leave (45 of these are paid).
In Thailand, all employees are entitled to 13 public holidays, and six days' paid leave once they have worked for an organization for 12 months. Many Thai public holidays are based around the Buddhist faith or the royal family. When a public holiday falls on a weekend, employees can take the following Monday off work.
- New Year's Day – January 1.
- Wan Makha Bucha, Buddhist holy day – Date changes each year (March 1 in 2018.)
- Chakri Day – April 6.
- Songkran Festival, traditional Thai New Year and water festival – April 13-15.
- Labor Day – May 1.
- Coronation Day – May 5.
- Wan Wisakha Bucha, Buddhist holy day – Date changes each year (May 29 in 2018.)
- Asalha Bucha, Buddhist holy day – Date changes every year (July 27 in 2018.)
- Queen's Birthday – August 12.
- Chulalongkorn Day – October 23.
- King's Birthday – December 5.
- Constitution Day – December 10.
See timeanddate.com for a complete list of Thailand's public holidays.
Most Buddhist holidays occur in April and May, so avoid scheduling important meetings and deadlines during this time.
Getting the Best From Your Team
Some Thai customs may seem puzzling, but you'll likely find others refreshing. Many involve basic courtesy and common sense, and Thai people are usually accepting and understanding if you make a mistake. Often, Thais are keen to minimize conflict, and will deal with minor mistakes by using the phrase "mai bpen rai" (pronounced "my ben rye") which means, "It doesn't matter."
Show your Thai team members respect by arriving at meetings and events on time. However, be aware that they might have a more relaxed view of time management than you're used to.
Business dress in Thailand is conservative and understated. Suits should be dark or muted colors, skirts should be knee-length or longer, and you must always cover your shoulders. Ensure that your socks are presentable and don't have holes, as you will have to take your shoes off when you enter some buildings.
In Thailand, the traditional greeting is called a "wai." Here, you put your hands together at the palm, in a prayer-like pose, with your thumbs up tight against the chest. Wais are considered a sign of respect, so it's always polite to return the gesture.
Give plenty of notice when you schedule meetings in Thailand. Ensure that you plan them well in advance – one month is considered the norm. When you enter the room, the person you're meeting will invite you to sit down and will show you where, but you should stand until this happens.
Respectful behavior, politeness and self-control are expected in Thailand. You should avoid expressing aggression or anger, or responding negatively, particularly towards one team member in front of others, as this can cause him or her to lose face. It doesn't matter who is "right" or "wrong," the person who has caused another to lose face is considered to be at fault. You should give negative feedback in private, always look for a compromise in difficult situations, and do your best to avoid conflict.
Thai culture places importance on certain parts of the body. People consider feet to be the least important, so avoid pointing your feet at people, touching people with them, putting them on seats or tables, or stepping over people on the ground. Conversely, Thais consider the head to be sacred, so be careful not to touch people's heads. And, don't pass anything with your left hand or point with one finger.
Some Thai people are conservative with members of the opposite sex. So, avoid physical contact, including shaking hands, with people of the opposite sex until you've formed a close relationship with them, to avoid embarrassment.
Finally, Thai people often find saying "no" difficult. Saying "no" directly is considered impolite, so your Thai team members will avoid doing so. Learn to be receptive to subtle body language and indirect replies, so that you can avoid misunderstandings and confusion.
Like in other Southeast Asian countries, alcohol is a big part of social life in Thailand. However, this is only the case after work. Thai people will often drink to celebrate special occasions, or enjoy a glass of beer or wine at dinner. However, drinking alcohol at lunch may be considered unprofessional or bad mannered.
Gift giving is not considered a part of Thai culture. However, if you do give a gift, you should wrap it neatly in gold and yellow, and don't be offended if the recipient doesn't open it in front of you.
Thailand is a modern Asian country, with a developed economy and a relatively high GDP. It has suffered from political upheaval in the last decade, including military coups and terrorist attacks.
Thais maintain traditional values based largely on their Buddhist beliefs, which makes them exceptionally welcoming, friendly and courteous. They appreciate compromise and conflict avoidance, and value people who are willing to build strong relationships.
Manage your Thai team by respecting individuals' values and beliefs, and appreciating rank and age in the workplace. Make an effort to minimize conflict, and treat everyone with respect.