Culture Clash Image

We had been working with a particular hotel client for several months now as they eagerly planned the opening of a new section of the hotel that would be a game changer for the city – that city being Bangkok, Thailand. No matter how much time and money you invest in preparing the concept, design, menu, uniforms and service guide of a new F&B outlet, not to mention actually constructing it, it is very difficult to prepare in advance for the labour market that will be available around the actual opening date. The owner of the soon to open establishment called and in an exasperated voice described how almost the entire team that had been hired and we had been planning for had all resigned within the same week.

Everyone Who Wants a Job Has a Job

For a long time now, the unemployment rate in Thailand is virtually 0%. As financial analyst and Andrew Stotz says, “Anybody in Thailand who wants a job, can have a job”.

While that might be great for the Thai population, it does pose an issue for employers in Thailand. It means that the market tends to get flooded with labour that lacks motivation to exceed expectations at their job or invest time in learning new skills. That means that the employer has to up the ante to get ‘better than average’ staff offering better pay, working conditions and more days off.

There are plenty of people outside of Thailand who would love an opportunity to work in Thailand and take these positions. With the opening up of the ASEAN Economic Community now in 2015, countries in the region will be expected to reduce the limitations on hiring labour for such jobs from ASEAN countries. This might seem like a wonderful opportunity. The English level of many Burmese and Filipinos tends to be a great deal higher than the average Thai level of English. As employers in ASEAN countries are contemplating hiring non-locals to be part of their teams, there are issues outside of pay and ‘days off’ that need to be taken into consideration. Just because you can hire them doesn’t mean that they can work together in the way that you would envision. So how do you prevent a mass exodus of staff like our client experienced?

Culture is Key

The concept of political correctness in the west is a lot different to what you find across Asia and especially in Southeast Asia. The reality is that there are many deep preconceptions and prejudices engrained into the psyche of the different ethnic groups living in countries across ASEAN. In some countries, the law even reinforces the prejudice, ensuring that the social hierarchies stay in place and that the people in power aren’t threatened. Many of these prejudices are less obvious on the surface however and just asking a local how they feel about people from ‘x’ country or ‘x’ ethnic group will never elicit a truthful answer, opting to promote a more peaceful and accepting image on the surface rather than risk conflict should the reality be exposed.

In Thailand for example, there is a phrase that to a westerner would be extremely politically incorrect, but for Thais, most will recite it by rote without a second thought. Ask a Thai (in Thai) “If you have a snake and an Indian…”, the Thai person will more than likely finish the sentence for you “… hit the Indian first!”. The term I translated as ‘Indian’ is from the word ‘Khaek’ in Thai which actually refers to anyone from the sub-continent, Middle East, Mediterranean and may even expand out to any darker skinned Muslim or Hindu. Thais will generally try to avoid conflict and letting people down or upsetting them to their face. They see Indians or ‘Khaek’ as the opposite. They may be loud, express their opinions and come across selfish and not trustworthy. Doing business with them could almost certainly leave one being burnt, hence the saying.

While this may be an extremely offensive and blanketing statement for a people as a whole, it doesn’t change the fact that many locals believe this possibly due to having these negative stereotypes programmed into them since childhood – or possibly through negative experiences with ‘Khaek’.

This means that if a Thai company was to hire Indian or ‘Khaek’ staff to come and work side by side with Thais, they are starting behind the eight ball. That is to say, that Thais will be just waiting for the first opportunity to prove their preconception correct.

There are different positive and negative preconceptions about other different ethnic groups too – Burmese, Caucasian westerners, Filipinos etc. As the ethnic pool grows in your work team, so too does the potential for conflict.

It’s not all Doom

It doesn’t have to be a bad experience. I have worked out on on-shore and off-shore oil projects with very large groups of workers from all parts of the ASEAN region working together. In one case in particular on a pipe-laying barge, there were Thais, Indonesians, Ethnic Malays, Chinese Malaysians, Filipinos and Iban workers. Each morning, they would have a learning session where one person would teach the rest in their groups some language and something about their culture and have discussions about the things that are not only different but also the same between their cultures. Doing this over many months created a very tight knit and efficient work force on the barge.

As the ASEAN Economic Community starts to really roll out across organisations in this region, in order to avoid the mass exoduses that I mentioned at the start of this article, employers should start looking at understanding the cultures that they intend to be bringing into their teams and find ways of honestly understanding how these groups perceive each other, addressing any issues before they even happen – usually in a non threatening atmosphere, best done through training workshops, discussions and social events.

That particular client has realised this and they are now looking at implementing a training plan for both the locals and an orientation programme for any new non-Thai staff coming into the organisation.

For expat hoteliers coming to work in a new culture, I highly recommend building up a strong relationship of trust with one or two locals who won’t be afraid to explain things ‘as they are’ rather than giving the ‘screensaver’ version of the culture. Facing reality and addressing it early can truly mitigate future pains and losses.