An American Expat Practicing HR in Thailand

By Susie Couture, SHRM-CP Jan 6, 2016
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I always wanted to work abroad while making a difference for employees and contributing to an organization’s bottom line. Suddenly, I had an opportunity to go to Thailand when my husband’s company offered him a promotion and an opportunity to work there. But it wasn’t going to be easy. I would find that respecting the culture and using everything I knew about networking would be the key to success.

The decision to move to Thailand, the Land of Smiles, meant I had to resign from my HR director position with a global wind power company in Carpinteria, Calif. Leaving this company and what I had created there was a difficult decision to make.

There were many challenges working abroad: Time zone differences, making new friends, language difficulties including pronouncing Thai names, and navigating through unfamiliar territory required patience and positive energy. As a trailing spouse, I found myself in a situation similar to what my former company’s expatriate employees had talked about when they relocated their families, which included the challenge of finding work for their partner. With this in mind, I decided to implement my own human resources best practice by immersing myself into the Thai culture immediately.

An Opportunity to Serve

Through networking and attending cultural events, I met a recruiter who informed me of a Thai wind power company without any designated human resources department. The company was experiencing recruitment challenges filling a head of HR role. It appeared that the local HR professionals preferred to join a company with an already-established HR department. I was offered and accepted the wind power job as the chief people officer, vice president.

I had industry experience and I love starting HR departments from scratch. This job offer was a testament to the power of networking and patience. It was an extraordinary opportunity.

My HR style is not about just focusing on compliance but about cultivating effective employee relations practices by developing and maintaining proper cultural respect. Thai first and last names were challenging to pronounce, but candidates typically would quickly offer up a nickname which made referencing them easier. Being from California with its 16 different protected classes made reading resumes in Thailand difficult. Candidates and recruitment firms provided more personal information on a resume than I cared to see, such as religion, age, health status, marital status and a photo. I did make a point to tell recruiters that I didn’t care about these personal attributes, but rather only the candidate’s qualifications to do the job.

I quickly learned that my western HR practices were not always appropriate to a Thai workplace, for example, regarding a dress code. Fashion is important, but some of the employees wore shorter skirts than I was used to. This was difficult for me to overlook at first. In addition, I am used to rolling up my sleeves to get the job done. However, a simple housekeeping task like tidying up the dishes at work was not appropriate for me to do in the position that I held and made the staff uncomfortable. I learned to pick my battles wisely.

Coming into a Thai company, I didn’t want to fall into the trap of operating in a me-versus-them environment—or to “lose face.” To build trust and rapport, I met individually with each employee whether he or she spoke English or not, shook his or her hand, gave the proper Thai “wai” greeting (a way of showing respect by bowing with hands pressed like a prayer), and explained “Phoot pasat Thai nit noy,” which meant that I spoke a little bit of Thai—and which led to an immediate employee smile.

I asked every employee that I met with, “If you could have a magic wand and make a wish for something new at the company, what would that wish be?” I had an administrative assistant help me navigate the language barrier. With these meetings, I was able to design my HR strategic initiatives, beginning with employee benefits. The company had no health insurance benefits. After four months with the company, health insurance benefits were implemented, which solidified my credibility with the staff.

The Thai people love to celebrate and have fun. Team-building activities were very well-received, especially a trip to the resort town at Krabi. During the trip, we were able to take our company’s core business competencies and tie them to a game challenge. While planning this event, I wanted to make sure our firm’s value chain and competency model were incorporated. The overall goal was to bring awareness of the importance of cross-functional support within the company, breaking down silos and promoting teamwork while ensuring that the knowledge learned transferred back to the workplace. However, when the staff reviewed the itinerary, they were upset that there wasn’t enough fun incorporated into the weekend. This required some quick adjustments to tailor to the cultural difference by including more fun activities.

In addition to the health benefits which included annual health exams, I added 50 percent more staff to the workforce, drafted an employee handbook and arranged for employees to have gym memberships. The focus on wellness led to an internal “The Biggest Loser” weight-loss challenge in the accounting department. An additional employee wish we were able to grant was providing English classes, called Stepping Ahead, which provided three different levels of language learning for the Thai staff. Turnover at the company was reduced from 20 percent to 6 percent.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) was something new for me to manage, and it allowed me to see how I personally could make a difference to the Thai community in which I worked. The CSR team facilitated the building of a reservoir and irrigation system to benefit the local farmers within the vicinity of the wind farm. Additionally, we spent a lot of time educating Thai youth on the importance of producing clean energy powered by wind. One of my main CSR projects was the introduction of the “Green Energy Classroom,” which was a sustainable program recognized by the Thai Ministry of Industry. Other endeavors included establishing scholarships and internships for Thai students, emphasizing a technical focus.

Operating an HR department in a different country requires a human resource professional to partner with local subject matter experts, such as a local law firm or payroll provider. Regulations and best practices can vary from those of your home country, and when making decisions it is imperative to really understand local laws and practices and not just to go with your HR gut or to make assumptions.

Also important to remember when working abroad: Adapt your way of thinking to a different culture. Find innovative ways to win buy- in and trust. Respect different styles but appreciate the value of change.

Working in Thailand was an incredible, rewarding cultural experience. The country’s people, history and food are amazing. The personal connections and professional contributions I made while living in Thailand made the adventure worthwhile. It is such a thrill being able to love what you do and to make a difference at the same time.

Susie Couture and her husband relocated back to their hometown of Santa Barbara, Calif., in July 2014. She currently works as the HR director at Neovia Integrated Insurance Services.

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