A Foreign Job Applicant's Lament - The Recruitment Process in Thailand

by Bruce Bickerstaff

I don't like to say negative things about Thailand. I honestly don't. I like the place. I like the people. But try as I might I can't find much that is positive to say about the recruitment procedures employed by many organisations in this country. In fact the terms 'condescending', 'autocratic' and 'anachronistic' readily spring to mind. In offering the following comments let me clarify that I am writing this account mainly from the perspective of a foreign job seeker, and with particular reference to recruitment for professional or managerial positions.

What then are some of the features of recruitment in Thailand that bother me and, I am quite certain, many others in my position?

1. Job advertisements that fail to indicate whether non-Thais are eligible to apply for the position and/or fail to indicate the minimum level of Thai language (speaking/reading/writing) skills that are required

I wouldn't expect these matters to be addressed in an advertisement placed in a Thai-language publication. It would simply be assumed that the position was for Thais only unless specified otherwise. But when such advertisements are placed in English-language publications, and often specify a requirement for high-level English-language skills, then most people would assume that there is at least a reasonable level of likelihood that applications from non-Thais might be welcomed.

You may say, "well that's easy, applicants can just contact the company and ask them". To which I would query, "and which flight did you arrive on this morning?". The problem is that Thai employers appear reluctant to interact with potential applicants, sometimes overtly so. Emails asking whether foreigners can apply - or in fact anything about an advertised role - are generally ignored. Indeed, amongst my own circle of friends, very few of those who have sent such emails ever received the courtesy of a reply (more about that issue here).

2. Employers that fail to provide a detailed 'position description' for the role being advertised

In many cases the only information made available, about the position, are a some scant details provided in the actual job advertisement - plus whatever can be gleaned from any English-language pages within the company's web site. How can a candidate possibly know if they are potentially well-suited to a role, when all they have is a few dot points on which to base their decision?

Real life example: The applicant (a Thai national) went through three interviews before being offered the job at the end of the third interview. She was then handed an employment contract, detailing for the first time the terms of employment, and told to sign it there and then to secure the position. She declined to do so, naturally wishing to study the contract and at least consider it overnight. As a result, the offer of employment was withdrawn.

What useful purpose is served by seeking to trick or trap new employees? I cannot think of a worse manner in which to induct new employees into a business. Would such an approach instil trust and loyalty? I think not.

3. Employers that insist on very narrow and often arbitrary eligibility criteria that exclude many worthy candidates from even the first round of scrutiny

These criteria include age, gender, marital status, and appearance. Such requirements appear to have little bearing on actual suitability for the job, and exclude candidates who may fall just outside the defined parameters and/or have considerable related work experience & skills. Rejecting job applicants on the basis of such criteria is illegal in many western countries as it is considered unfair and inappropriate. Please don't think for a moment that I am being a slave to political correctness however - anyone who knows me would readily dispel that notion. It's just that some of these requirements are simply ridiculous, for example the many job advertisements that exclude applicants aged over 30 years. Hey, I'm well over 30, but I can still manage to climb the steps to enter an office, and work at a desk without falling asleep.

Don't the companies that impose such criteria realise just how unsophisticated they make themselves look by doing so? ... not to mention the loss of so many experienced workers that might otherwise now be contributing to their success? Discrimination against older job candidates is rife in many other countries, but its perhaps a little surprising here in Thailand where the culture is one of respect towards those who are older.

Then there is the practical reality of the limited number of people available for selection using the 'under 30' criteria, given that in 2011 the median age in Thailand was 34.2 years1. Thus we can automatically exclude more than 50% of the population on that basis, plus a further 20% who are aged under 20 years ... that's more than 70% of the Thai population deemed unemployable already. We can then exclude more than 90% of those remaining due to their lack of university qualifications2, as these are usually required. Finally, those with inappropriate qualifications, lacking English language skills, or happy in their current jobs, are also all ruled out of contention. Hmm, we don't seem to have many people left to choose from. It's no wonder that staff performance is so lacklustre in many Thai organisations.

And what about the very many job advertisements requiring a Masters degree? And I am not talking about roles for research scientists here folks. Is this simply a 'face' thing, or is it because employers are resigned to the fact that graduates emerging with Thai bachelor degrees lack the skills needed to make a meaningful contribution in the workplace? And even if so, why should the same bias be applied to an applicant holding a degree from a western university with many years of relevant work experience?

4. Employers that do not disclose an indicative salary / ask the applicant to specify their own salary requirements

Try as I might, I can't see the logic in this one. Why waste peoples' time, or the employers own time, attracting applications from people whose salary expectation differs markedly from that which is being offered? By the same token why potentially exclude people who might - after they learn more about the company and the position - be willing to vary their salary expectation? Let's not forget that many applicants, especially foreigners, may well be unfamiliar with the company and with comparable local salary levels, and hence they have little or no context for determining what is or might be an appropriate salary. This problem is compounded by the lack of a detailed position specification noted earlier.

Real life example: A job advertisement called for a Thai national with degree, high-level English skills, and the ability to represent the employer on overseas trips. They also required a medical certificate and EL certificate, costing 150 baht and 5,000 baht respectively. No salary was specified. The applicant anticipated salary in the order of only around 25,000 baht per month given that the position was in Chiang Mai. She spent time preparing an application, and then more time preparing for her interview. She was subsequently interviewed by a panel of six people, who expressed interest in her but stated that they only had a maximum budget of 12,000 baht per month for the position. She declined.

With a fixed salary allocation, and obvious time and monetary cost associated with lodging an application, why would an employer not provide this information in the job advertisement? Does anyone else feel, as I do, that this smacks of a total disregard for job applicants.

5. Employers that require applicants to complete lengthy paperwork at the time of interview, rather than providing it beforehand

This seems to come down to a pronounced tendency towards distrust and secrecy amongst Thai employers. Do they expect that applicants will somehow cheat if they are allowed to gather documents and complete forms prior to attending the interview? But really, what sense is there having potential employees sitting down for an hour to re-write their resumes? And what about, as in one situation I found myself in, when it was expected that I would have a passport photograph and personal documents with me in order to complete the application/interview process?

6. Employers that fail to remove job advertisements for positions that have been filled, or for which applications are no longer being accepted

What can I say? To do so is simply common-sense and shows consideration towards job-seekers.

7. Employers that fail to complete the recruitment process within a reasonable time frame - or not at all

Some roles take longer to finalise, particularly when there are two or more rounds of interviews. In such cases 2-3 months might be reasonable, but a nine month process - such as I have experienced - is not. Even so, most applicants for professional positions are patient if they have been informed of the nature and proposed duration of the recruitment process - and if any subsequent deviations from the agreed schedule are promptly communicated to them. In Thailand, however, this rarely occurs. Thai employers seldom acknowledge receipt of job applications, and from that point onwards applicants are often kept completely 'in the dark'. This puts applicants in the uncomfortable position of chasing answers as to whether an application was received, and when the process might be concluded. I have also experienced, and heard others' accounts, of many instances where recruitment processes are simply abandoned, often with no notification or adequate explanation provided to applicants.

8. Employers that fail to provide a detailed employment contract prior to the commencement of duties, or provide one which is inconsistent with Thai labour laws and/or information provided earlier in the 'position description'

It appears to be very common in Thailand for employers to fail to provide details about the proposed terms and conditions of employment until the very last moment (if at all). Is this merely an oversight? Or is it a deliberate strategy to weaken and compromise the position of new employees in the event of any subsequent dispute regarding payment or working conditions? Without a detailed employment contract in place then the scope for misunderstanding - and subsequent conflict - is greatly increased. This is particularly the case given the differing assumptions and expectations between Thai employers and western recruits. A related problem occurs when employers fail to provide timely assistance to the incoming foreign employee to secure a work permit. Pressure may be imposed on the new recruit to commence duties in the interim, placing them in a very vulnerable position until such time as a permit is in place.

The common theme underlying these concerns appears to be a lack of openness, and/or an unwillingness to make the effort required to communicate effectively with job applicants throughout the recruitment process.

Of course there are many Thai employers that don't conduct themselves in the manner detailed above, but I would respectfully suggest that they represent an enlightened minority.

On the one hand, in Thailand Thai people have the right to do things their way. On the other hand, we now exist within a global employment environment. This is one in which there is a concept of 'best practice', which brings with it certain expectations. The simple fact is that the recruitment procedures employed by many Thai companies fall well below this benchmark. If a reader can put forward compelling reason/s why a separate standard should apply here ... well, I'm listening. If not, then the Thai business community should address this challenge and improve their performance.

Note 1. Consider also that Thailand has an ageing population, with the percentage of the population aged under 30 shrinking. It is anticipated that the median age will be almost 37 years by 2025.
Note 2. According to the National Statistical Office of Thailand, of those Thais who are employed, 90.6% lack higher educational qualifications (as of Q3 2011/excluding teaching and vocational qualifications).

(Bruce Bickerstaff is the author of "Your Investment Guide to Thailand", which is available in both hard-copy and e-book formats. Further details are available at www.burning-bison.com or via thaiinvestbook at gmail.com)

Last updated: 21 February 2013