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Expats doing business in Thailand will note that the state is eager to engage with foreign investors. While the Kingdom has never felt the influence of imperial power, it's no stranger to external interaction. Aside from the government’s willingness to do business with outsiders, the friendly and welcoming attitude of Thai people makes for an inviting working environment for expats.
Despite its relative instability, the World Bank ranks Thailand at 21st out of 190 countries in its Ease of Doing Business Survey for 2020. The country scored highly in the categories of protecting minority investors (3rd), getting electricity (6th), and resolving insolvency (24th).
A variety of multinational and other major companies in Thailand continue to use Bangkok as a base for their regional operations. While the business culture at some of these companies will be familiar, the general work environment in Thailand is very different to what most Western expats are used to.
The expats who do make a success of their investments in the country often have a good understanding of the business culture in Thailand, in an environment that values seniority, relationships and local customs.
The official language of business in the country is Thai. English is widely understood and is used by many in more corporate environments as the language of business in Bangkok. Interpreters may, however, be needed in certain circumstances.
Hours of business
Monday to Friday, 8am to 5pm or 9am to 6pm with an hour for lunch.
Conservative and formal. Dark suits are standard in professional environments; men wear a white shirt and a tie. Women can wear suits, dresses or blouses and skirts provided they are modest. Skirts and dresses should be knee-length and shoulders should be covered.
While suits aren't as much of an issue, expats should avoid wearing black as it's associated with funerals. Many workplaces won't require full suits, in which case a shirt, trousers and a tie is often standard.
Westerners may be greeted by a handshake, but the traditional form of greeting in Thailand is the wai. In this greeting, the palms are pressed together at chest height, with the fingers extended upwards and accompanied with a slight bow.
It is usually initiated by a person of lower status to a person of higher status as a form of respect. The wai shouldn't, however, be returned to people such as hotel and service staff – a simple nod will suffice.
Not expected, but appropriate and well received. Small tokens for colleagues go a long way to building good relationships. Don't open gifts in front of the giver unless invited to do so.
Women are equal but under-represented in the business world.
Business culture in Thailand
Thai business culture tends to be more relaxed than other Asian economic powerhouses, such as China and Japan. The value system around doing business in Thailand however, remains similar to these countries. Hierarchy, relationships and collective identity are integral to the Thai workplace.
There are many strict, unwritten rules which define the way that Thai businesses are organised. Senior managers play an almost paternal role – issuing orders, demanding consultation on all decisions and expecting obedience.
Expats from Western backgrounds often struggle to adapt to this management style and can be frustrated at the lack of initiative taken and expected of them.
Age and appearance are especially important, and usually directly indicate social status and a person's position in the business world.
Older individuals, in particular, are given great respect and usually hold top-level jobs. Senior foreign businessmen, especially the well-dressed, are afforded a good deal of respect based on this belief alone, regardless of merit.
In line with this, promotions in Thailand are often based on a candidate’s length of service more than productivity and excellence.
Relationships are another important part of working in Thailand. Connections are highly valued, and the early stages of most business dealings are centred on building a relationship. It is considered impolite to start negotiating before being formally acquainted.
Preserving and sustaining relationships greatly affect communication in the Thai working world. Locals will be subtle and indirect to help another person 'save face' and keep their reputation intact, going as far as withholding information or failing to point out a mistake.
Despite the social codes that define business practice in Thailand, Thai people often have a zest for life and a good sense of fun. They are also likely to place family ahead of their business priorities.
Dos and don'ts of business in Thailand
• Don't show any form of disrespect to Thai royalty, including jokes.
• Do say yes to invitations to social engagements. Building a relationship is important in Thai business culture.
• Do have high-quality business cards printed for exchange. Always offer a card to the most senior member of a party first, and always give and accept cards with the right hand. Keep in mind that exchanges are initiated by the host.
• Don't take advantage of local colleagues' understanding of people being late because of Bangkok’s extreme traffic – let associates know in advance when running late for a meeting.
• Do return a wai. While foreigners aren't expected to initiate, it is rude not to return the gesture.