How to Hire and Manage a Team of Rock Star Thai Employees

Tony Jaa
Successfully recruited for Fast & Furious 7: Thailand’s Tony Jaa.

In the close to 10 years I’ve been running companies in Thailand I’ve probably done more than 200 job interviews. I still remember the very first one. Especially my surprise when I heard the candidate wasn’t too keen working on Saturdays. It seems the management books I read before coming here were a bit out of date when they talked about how common 6-day work weeks were.

Over the years I caught up with current times and tested a lot of new recruitment options myself. From job ads in the restrooms of an IT conference (funny, but not successful) to enlisting university professors in my headhunting efforts (not funny, but tremendously successful). In the end I came up with some solid recruitment insights that resulted in a great team and significantly reduced turn-over and Tylenol consumption. Here are the lessons I learned as a German entrepreneur while building a Thai team.

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Posting Job Ads

There’s only one job website that I found to deliver quality English-speaking candidates: There’s significant discounts if you post 2 or 3 positions at a time – at which point you can expect to pay a good THB 3000++ per ad. is suitable for recruiting non-English speaking staff (e.g. assistants and juniors for existing employees and teams), but it has seen a bit of a decline over the years. Price point is around THB 2000++ per ad.

Recruitment Companies

I haven’t used any recruitment service so I can’t really comment on their effectiveness. If you’re very pressed for time, they can offer a shortcut – at a price. For small companies and unfunded startups that’s probably beyond what you want to spend. I remember talking to one of them – on top of 3 months of salary as acquisition fee, they wanted me to shelf out THB 120,000 for job ads in the Bangkok Post. It turns out I didn’t need an office manager that urgently.

Main criticism I heard from corporate clients who actually used recruitment firms was their limited domain know-how: Technical staff was referred based on keywords in their resume without verification of skill level. Fluctuation from referred staff also was cited as an issue. However, my last update in that field was a few years ago, so things might have changed since then.

And there are recruitment companies that screen candidates with industry experts. One of them is ATa Services. I’ve never used their service before. If I need to recruit new employees for my company, I will try them for sure.

Receiving Referrals

I have a THB 5,000 standing referral bonus for staff members if someone they refer joins and passes probation. I actually got quite a few decent team members this way who used to be former colleagues or class mates of existing staff. The bonus is significant enough to justify a bit of outreach, but also not so high as to incentivize unsuitable candidate recommendations.

I also ask friends for referrals – especially English professors at local universities. There’s so many English university lecturers in Bangkok that it’s quite common to have several among your circle of friends. Asking them who their top students are (or to do outreach on your behalf) is a gold mine. With applicants and company both having trust in the ‘middle man’, this allows for good matching and finding great candidates.

Screening Resumes

Most resumes you’ll receive when advertising on, are the result of people mass-submitting them (it’s not much better on other sites). This means there’s easily 200 applications when advertising a common position like ‘secretary’. As such, I need a few quick sorting options that I can delegate to cut that down to a manageable number:

  • Anyone who doesn’t include a personalized application letter gets ignored.
  • GPAs in Thailand are surprisingly accurate in terms of what I unscientifically would refer to as ‘analytical intelligence’ – the ability to comprehend newly presented concepts. I tend to use a hard cut-off of about 2.5 (no one below that gets an interview) and a soft cut-off of 3.0 (meaning that they have to stand out to have a chance of an interview).
  • Fluctuation is an issue. People change jobs a lot. Especially recent graduates. If someone has changed jobs more often than once a year, they get ignored.

If you only ever hired abroad, those criteria might not strike you as too limiting. In Germany for example candidates get routinely rejected for spelling mistakes in application documents and changing jobs once every 3 years would already look excessive. Here, the bar is a bit lower and it will still cut the candidate pool by 70-80%.

Conducting Interviews and Tests

The most reliable way to test hard skills is to use tests. This says more than past experience, grades in a specific subject or personal impression.

  • English: My favorite test for English-language skills I usually refer to as ‘Elvis’ test. Candidates are asked to summarize a bizarre short story (involving Elvis). This rather unusual test makes it easy to tell how well people comprehend the overall story, recognize the main points and can articulate themselves.
  • Tech: I let people design a database and write pseudo code for a project with pen&paper.
  • Admin: I give people a list of ‘to dos’ and let them organize it by perceived importance. They have the chance to ask questions as well as provide reasons for their choices after the task was completed.

A good general guideline for all interviews is to conduct interviews together with an existing employee. Ideally it’s a future supervisor, but a future colleague works as well. There’s several advantages for this:

  • A candidate appearing ‘Westernized’ (e.g. frank, outspoken), might be of a sign of lack of tact rather than adaptation to foreign cultural concepts. It’s hard to tell the difference if you haven’t developed a feeling for the cultural environment yet. A local at your side, can give you an additional point of view on this.
  • People tend to behave differently when interviewed in a foreign language. They are more likely to use cookie cutter phrases in their mother tongue and tend to be more direct in a foreign language. But they’re also more insecure, afraid and cautious when talking in a language they’re not so familiar with. Dual language interviews show you the difference.
  • You might suffer from anything ranging from a halo effect to a bad mood day. Having a second pair of eyes and ears helps you compensate for potential errors in your own judgement.

My main objective in an interview is to find out if they’re a cultural fit. Necessary hard skills get evaluated through tests that are relevant to the work a person will be doing.

Facilitating Immersion

After an interview, if the candidate is promising, I’ll ask them if they want to sit with their potential future team to see who they’d be working with and what they would be doing.

  • It’s a great chance for them to get a feel for company culture and the actual work they’d be doing. This is important because even suitable candidates are often too shy to ask questions in English. I don’t mind that shyness. I have plenty of great, shy, employees.
  • It’s a more relaxed environment and candidate and company get to know each other better, allowing for a more informed decision and thus less quitting during probation on both sides.
  • I can get pretty good input from my own staff on their impression of new candidates as candidates tend to be less reserved, more open and more direct if the ‘boss’ isn’t around.

Choosing a Candidate

The main lesson I learned in hiring people is to value soft skills like ability to communicate, a positive attitude, and open-mindedness more than actual hard skills like English skills or past experience in a position. You can’t teach attitude or cultural fit. Here’s some additional factors you might want to take into consideration:

  • Decide how much consistency matters for the position. Some people will be more productive, others more loyal. Hire people accordingly.
  • Don’t just hire the smartest person you can get, but instead hire someone who will feel challenged by the job. Otherwise you’ll be seeking a replacement every 9-12 months.
  • Hire humble people. You’ll probably be teaching them a lot of stuff or have a lot of cultural differences. Humble people make sure ego doesn’t get in the way of knowledge transfer or communication.

My team tends to be involved in two ways when new people are hired. One is in a direct role – by having the ‘head’ of the team (or lacking that, any other team member) sit in on the interview itself and ask any questions they’d like to ask. The second is that I place promising candidates with the team to ‘have their questions answered and see what the job is like’ (basically, right at the end of the job interview for 30 minutes or so). The team basically pitches the company and the job simply by showing what they’re doing and what the working culture is like. In return they also get a very hands-on, authentic picture of a candidate and can give additional feedback on the hiring decision.

Handling Probation

It’s really rare that I don’t keep someone on after probation. At this point I’m usually convinced that the candidate has potential – even if the full extend of it doesn’t become apparent during the rather short 4 months of probation that Thai labor law permits.

At this point it’s worth pointing out that you should have proper labor contracts drafted by a law firm. It’ll usually cost you less than THB 10,000. Having your paperwork done properly by a lawyer who specializes in labor law not only protects you in case there are problems further down the line, it also gives your employees confidence and shows that you handle things by the book.

If it doesn’t work out, I tend to give them the rest of the month paid days off or 1 month of salary as compensation. I don’t have to, but it keeps you in everyone’s good graces, let’s people maintain face, is fair to someone who took a risk leaving a potentially secure job and shows your remaining staff that you give a shit.

Retaining Talent

So you found a good candidate and they passed probation. How do you make sure they stay with you and don’t leave before the year is out? I’ve put together a guide to cross-cultural management in Thailand that addresses a lot of potential pitfalls and shows you how to keep your staff happy, yourself sane and your fluctuation low.

I hope the above provides you with a good idea on some recruitment practices. If you have any questions or suggestions of your own, please feel free to post them in the comments below. Keep in mind though that hiring is only the first step. In following blog posts I’ll expand on organizing your team, developing your management style and fostering a positive company culture. If you need my help on this, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

  1. Excellent points. Thank you for taking the time to write it. I found it very helpful.

  2. You’re right to find ways of cutting down on the number of applications for a given job opening but I disagree with your GPA cut-off route. In many countries like Australia, employers are more likely to seek a reliable person who has a can do attitude and is a fast learner who has a lower GPA (keep in mind though that the GPA system is not universal) than someone who has a perfect 4.0 GPA but happens to have 0 personality and people skills. In Thailand it’s easier for candidates to have achieved a higher GPA because the educational system virtually guarantees they’ll pass, but even so, I wouldn’t recommend using this technique as an absolute failsafe. You also have to recognize the difference between academic performance and workplace performance – GPA alone is not necessarily a good indicator of the latter. Personally I would use a little more discretion – for example, I would rather hire someone who has worked while they were a student but has a 2.2 GPA with no failures, than someone with a 3.3 GPA but 2 failures (the higher GPA is accounted for by taking additional electives and/or performing well the second time a subject was taken).

    1. I agree with you that GPAs can be misleading. Ideally I would need to interview every person to find out who the best applicant is. Realistically speaking though, I only can actually talk to maybe 10% out of all applicants.

      I have no illusions about any standardized process that removes 90% of applicants from a pool being anywhere near 100% accurate (actually a 50% accuracy would be pretty awesome already). In other words – some qualified candidates won’t even get a chance to interview.

      It’s not too different from people buying mobile phones based on 5-star Amazon ratings or what their friends own: Neither process is 100% accurate and you’ll miss out on underdogs. But the alternative – reading up on reviews of every available model – just is way too time intensive.

      In situations where there is way fewer applicants, I’ll definitely lower the barrier to make sure I get enough people into the interview room.

  3. We run a Linux shop here in Thailand (outsource devops stuff, etc). My favorite method when interviewing candidates is to chmod -x /usr/bin/chmod and tell them to solve the problem 🙂

    Other than that, nice article!

  4. Well-written post Karsten, would love to know how you motivate the team and also on how to keep the team with you on the long run

  5. Everyone i’ve talked to remembers the ‘elvis’ test like it was yesterday.

    1. Heh, kinda cool. I didn’t really give it much thought when I first came across it – it might have been literally the first short story that I found. Next thing I knew, it was a fixture in the hiring process. I actually edited it myself at some point to cut it down in length.

  6. Good read. From a business owner perspective, how big a team did you build over how many years (when your team size pretty much stabilized) and at what weighted cost (inclusive of infrastructure / equipment /rent /etc…) for that period of time. Effectively, if someone were to come to Thailand and be able to reproduce your exact results, how long would it take, how much would it cost, and what would be the team size as a result?

    1. Team peaked at 20 (after 4 years) and stabilised at 10 (after 7 years). A (very rough!) ballpark figure per employee, including hiring, training salary, benefits, rent, equipment, infrastructure, overhead, etc. I’d put at ~500,000 THB / year.

      We’re a very young team Focus is on salary+benefits with the office itself being rather barebones (no free laundry / massage / beanie bags / pool table / etc.).

      In general I’d describe the organisation as very lean. Speaking Thai, not requiring customer-facing office facilities, hiring fresh graduates (and training them), providing lots of cash-flow-friendly benefits (e.g lots of vacation days), as well as keeping overhead at a minimum (no tracking of work hours, etc.) all contributed to that.

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