Working in Thailand

If you're looking for a job in Thailand, freelance consultancy or an internal transfer could be your best options Liz Fisher

It's easy to fall in love with a country when you're on holiday there. A surprising number of people spend blissful weeks in a foreign country and decide that their life would improve immeasurably if they lived there. Spending a cosseted, stress-free week or two in paradise, however, is a very different experience from living and working there full-time.

Thailand is one of the most popular long-haul holiday destinations for young Britons. It has an appealing tropical climate, spectacular scenery and a gentle and polite population. Under the rule of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thailand is one of the most peaceful and stable countries in South-East Asia. It has a fast-growing economy and a need for well-qualified professionals.

Surprisingly, then, there is not a massive market for western accountants in Thailand. 'We don't have an office out there and neither do many other western recruitment agencies,' says Katrina Spence of Michael Page. 'Thailand isn't a big market for us, mainly because Thai companies and firms tend either to recruit locals or transfer westerners from their international offices.'

The best bet for anyone who is keen to work in Thailand is to look for a transfer with a western employer. That said, opportunities are few and far between. Not all of the large accountancy firms, for instance, have an office in Thailand. PricewaterhouseCoopers has one in Bangkok, plus an excellent support system for staff who make the move, including advice on local customs, language, visas and tax.

Going it alone

If you are not able to transfer with your current employer, going it alone is the only (and relatively risky) option. Working as an accountant in Thailand will probably be out of the question unless you are transferred by a well-known company or firm.

There is, as yet, no reciprocal agreement on qualifications between the UK and Thai institutes, and western visitors who work in the country are strictly controlled through the visa system. Nevertheless, setting up on your own is possible (see case study) with a little imagination and perseverance.

If you are lucky enough to have an opportunity to move to Thailand, living and working there can be an extremely rewarding experience. Thais have a strong work ethic and tend to work long hours, but westerners can bring a fresh, creative view to the workplace that mixes well with hard-working Thai colleagues.

Culture shock

For a westerner, though, working in Thailand can be a culture shock. The Thais have a well-defined way of doing business that bears more relation to Japanese culture than to the UK's. While western-style handshakes are not unknown, for instance, Thais tend to greet each other in a more formal way with their hands pressed together as if in prayer. There are also strict (and for westerners, very confusing) rules about who should and should not be touched, and where.

Business and pleasure are closely related, with as many deals fixed on a golf course, at a family wedding or in a restaurant as in an office. 'If your Thai boss or colleagues invite you out you should always accept; declining could cause offence,' says Richard Colburn, who has worked in Thailand for the past three years (see Panel 2). 'Business may well be discussed at a social event, but always towards the end. It's prudent to wait for your hosts to initiate the discussion, especially if your boss is present.'

The best advice for anyone who is planning to work in Thailand is to read up on local customs and traditions with great care. A little preparation beforehand can save you a lot of embarrassment later.

1: Visas

All foreigners working in Thailand need a work permit and a visa (usually a 'type B' or business visa), which your employer will usually arrange if you are being transferred. If the visas are not ready in time, you will have to enter the country on a multiple-entry, non-immigrant visa, which can be amended once you arrive.

The visa will carry limitations on the duration of your stay and the type of work you will be doing. If you stay in the country beyond the limit of the visa or do work that is not specified by your permit, you will face a fine and may even be imprisoned. The business visa is also invalidated if you leave the country without a re-entry permit. Work permits and visas usually have to be renewed annually, but a foreigner who has worked in Thailand for three consecutive years on one-year type B visas can apply for permanent residency.

Tourist visas cannot be altered or amended and are not valid if you intend to work in Thailand.

Anyone found working on a tourist visa may be fined or imprisoned.

2: Plying portable skills

Richard Colburn is a freelance consultant and lives in Bangkok. He works in Thailand as a company consultant, but is also employed by a variety of clients in Asia and in Europe as a training consultant.

Richard trained as an accountant in the UK with a number of smaller and medium-sized accountancy firms, finishing his training in industry. He realised early on that he 'didn't want to spend my days sitting at a desk', so moved into accountancy training soon after qualification, joining the Emile Woolf College of Accounting. The college sent him to Malaysia on a short assignment when it opened its first office in Kuala Lumpur. Two years later, Richard moved to ATC International, training students in Poland and the former Soviet Union as well as the UK. 'After one year with ATC I went freelance, which would allow me more personal freedom and more flexibility.'

The move to Thailand had more to do with personal circumstances than with a particular career choice, he says, but it is not a decision he regrets for a moment. 'I'd got married while I was studying for my accountancy exams and by 1998 we had children of school age. We were living in London and had a comfortable life, but we were aware that we were in the middle of a rat race that we didn't particularly enjoy,' he says. 'My wife is Thai and, having spent numerous holidays in Thailand, we knew that our life would be better there. I was lucky that my skills and work were portable, so we sold up and moved to Thailand.'

Consultants in demand

Initially, Richard continued to work for European clients, travelling frequently. Since then he has also built up a strong network of Thai clients. 'There is a shortage of western, professionally qualified, freelance consultants in Thailand, and it suits companies to hire someone for a specific assignment rather than employ them,' he says.

He relishes the life in Thailand, but warns anyone thinking of working there not to make a rash decision based on memories of a holiday. 'Working in Thailand is quite different from being on holiday here,' he says. Many Thai senior managers will have been educated in the US or UK, but that doesn't mean that the working culture in Thailand is similar to home. 'The day-to-day working environment can be quite formal, and you'll notice this particularly when Thai employees interact with each other. There's a real emphasis on academic qualifications - which is true of a lot of the Far East, in fact. And this feeds into the management focus, which is judged on results rather than on processes. Don't expect anyone to be impressed with your good idea until you deliver the result it was designed for.'

The cultural differences do not end there. 'Your boss will probably communicate with you less directly than you would be used to in the UK,' adds Richard, 'but it isn't personal - it's just how things are done here. For instance, it's considered inappropriate to ask someone's name directly, even if you are already on good speaking terms - you should ask a third party for it. That's true for personal relationships as well as office relationships.'

It's also advisable to keep a lid on your temper. 'Thais are uncomfortable with confrontation and it's an absolute taboo to lose your temper in public. And you also need to bear in mind that being rude is viewed in the same way as losing your temper. In a business environment, getting angry should be avoided at all costs. Thais will often smile when they're angry with someone, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they have forgiven them. They also smile when they feel shy or threatened.'

Dealing with the boss

Dealing with a Thai boss will require an entirely different approach for many British workers. It would be a serious mistake ever to challenge your boss directly or to do anything that might cause him to 'lose face', especially in public. Any sort of criticism needs to be handled subtly. 'If you find something that you feel needs improving, don't just lead in with your criticisms of how bad things are,' says Richard. 'Try to lead in gently and indirectly. There is an old Chinese proverb that says "Whenever you criticise, come in with three solutions". Don't personalise anything and try to acknowledge positive elements before the negative.'

The best baggage anyone working in Thailand can bring, says Richard, 'is a respect and sensitivity to the rich local culture and an open mind'. He also recommends that anyone working in Thailand take Thai lessons, even though English is widely spoken and understood. 'You will have a much deeper cultural experience if you can speak even limited Thai,' he says, 'and you will also gain the respect of Thais.' Researching local customs and culture is also a must. 'You will gain a lot of respect if you read up on Thai customs before you arrive. People are more accommodating with slips of language than with slips of cultural taboos.'

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