Thursday, October 05, 2006

A Cautionary Tale

DUHOne of the readers of this BLOG is a cultural advisor for large US companies. This reader has expressed an interest in our Bangkok comings and goings, in part to help her glean experience to assist her in her advisory sessions. I say that to set up the fact that this post is not going to be very similar to others lately. This one has to do with culture differences, and how those differences can sometimes lead one or the other parties to do things that they would not normally do. Are you warmed up and ready to read the dirt now? I hope so. Let’s get to it.

Most Ex-pats in Bangkok have Thai drivers that they pay to shuttle them hither and thither, to and fro, back and forth. Some companies even forbid their ex-patriot employees to drive in Bangkok. Our company is such a company. So we have a driver. He works for us full time, 24/7 for which we pay him monthly. Our Driver, whom we shall call "Fred" (not his real name) showed up for his first day of work Monday this week. He shuttled Brenda to work and came back to the hotel to help me run errands for about half a day. Prior to arriving in Bangkok (BKK) Brenda and I, both being somewhat managerial in background had discussed the appropriate levels of controls that we should install to help Fred do his job to our satisfaction and avoid the unpleasantness of unfulfilled expectations and potential firings.

ODOSo on the first day, I handed Fred a mileage book (Kilomerterage?) and explained how I wanted him to fill out the start and finish Odometer readings each day and deliver the book and our car keys to me at the end of the day. He is also to administer a small petty cash fund and provide receipts and details for any gas, tolls or parking that he pays for. Here is a description of how that went.

Monday - Drove the normal commute (36 KM round trip) plus ran errands with me (unknown mileage) No keys, no book delivered to us at the end of the day as requested. Keep in mind that Fred has to drop us off, then park the car and then get the keys to us in our room, past hotel security. No easy task, but we checked at the front desk and there were no keys, no book, no nothing for us that first night. Hmmmm wonder where the car is.

Tuesday - Drove the normal commute. No errands. At the end of the day, we said "Fred, give me the book." This comment was met with the most convincing "Me speaky no enrish" look you have ever seen in your life. That sort of ticked me off because I spoke with Fred for two weeks when we were here last month. He speaks pretty good Engrish.

But we persevered and got our book after watching Fred fill out two days worth of mileage, pretty much from memory, or worse. So with book in hand, I head to my computer to transcribe the data into the spreadsheet that I have prepared for that purpose. Results - Monday - drove 75 KM (remember - commute and errands)
Tuesday - Drove 85 KM Hmmmmmm. 85 KM on a 36 KM round trip. Something is fishy.

Wednesday, we filled out the mileage ourselves and had Fred sign the log. He also holds the book during the day so both Brenda and I have access to it anytime we need it. Fred spent a considerable time studying the book and considering why we were so focused on it, and why we started filling it out ourselves after only two days. What Fred may or may not have figured out was that he was one day from being fired after only two days on the job if he didn't straighten up. Well, he did straighten up. Thursday the book showed 35 KM for the normal commute so we think the problem is solved.

Gas GuageTo confirm our suspicions and actions, we asked around about Fred and found a few who knew him. Fred's previous employer had left the country for a month on vacation. While the employer was gone, Fred took the vehicle on a 4000KM personal trip at the owner’s expense. We have no idea why Fred's previous employer left out this bit of info when he recommended Fred to us, but he did. But know we now, and so do you.

Lesson: Trust but verify. (and when verification fails, step up the controls)

Here is another short story. I regularly ride a motorcycle taxi from the top of Soi 2 to the bottom where our church is. The first time I did it, I asked a taxi at the head of the street "How much?" and pointed to the other end of the 1 KM dead end street. He said "20" meaning 20 Baht, about 50 cents. I said "No, too much" and turned to walk the 1/2 mile myself. The driver stopped me and said "How much you pay?" I said "10" and he said "OK."

Now I know that the difference between 25 cents and 50 cents isn't going to break me, and it may make his day better. But here is the deal. Some people say that Thai's consider Farang "rich and naive." I take that to mean that they consider that they can take advantage of us with impunity. And while 25 - 50 cents is no big deal, it is a big deal if I find I pay double the value of something (anything) and it is a very big deal if I feel I am being taken advantage of, or worse, laughed at for being too stupid to know better.

Lesson: Ask for a price and walk away. Try again in 4 seconds when the next taxi (or driver, or maid, or ...etc) shows up. Do this over and over until you get a feel for what is negotiable and what is not. (Most things seem to be negotiable)

Final lesson: Don't let these unpleasant parts of being in BKK mess you up. Just call it an adventure and have fun with it. You won't win them all, but if you learn from the ones you win, you'll win more and more each day.


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