This month's topic will likely press some buttons - ethical behavior in seeking and maintaining employment in the education sector in Thailand. After having interviewed another batch of prospective employees recently, and after year in and year out of other employers' horror stories and personal experiences with employees that already accepted and started a job, I can conclude that a good grasp of ethics is pretty rare around here.
Before going directly into the issue, I will again reiterate that it is not my goal to blacklist all teacher "wanna-bes" in this country who either mistakenly or knowingly make a sad joke of the employment process at schools in this country. In fact, I am not even that concerned about those who knowingly do so, often repeatedly. My comments in this column are directed at those who care about ethics and honesty, not those who don't.
Some of my previous employees still seem to believe that the comments herein are directed at them, and that I may even seek some retributive action against such individuals. Please be assured -- I do not spend my time in the past. I have far too much experience here to ever spend my time worrying about whether some schmuck that I already wasted time on months or years ago is out scamming some other school. Rather, my thoughts are here for those who are forward looking, and who seek to help improve the educational system in Thailand. If my words give one person some insight into why or how things could be done in a fairer, more honest, and more efficient way that truly enhances the ability of schools to educate their students, then I have accomplished what I set out to.
That said, let's look directly at a couple examples of ethical and unethical behavior I have encountered in my time as an employer here:
CASE 1: A middle-aged American male interviews for a position at a school, and by the close of the interview indicates that he would be more than willing to sign a contract with the school if a position is offered. A day or so later, the offer is made and the employee accepts, agree to come back to school in two days time to sign a contract. The employee also notifies the employer that he will need documentation to get a 90-day non-B visa as he will almost immediately upon signing the contract be leaving Thailand on a "consulting" job for a couple weeks.
The employer (yes, silly me) prepares stacks of materials from books the teacher will be expected to use, the paperwork for a visa, the contract itself, and a variety of other materials and waits patiently for the 10 AM appointment at the school. 10:30 rolls around and giving the prospective employee the benefit of the doubt for having been presentable and appearing professional at the interview, the employer (me again) calls the employee. The phone rings and rings, but there is no answer.
30 minutes later, after a couple of SMS messages to the now less attractive employee, the employer begins to feel a bit discouraged. After having turned down 3 or 4 other decent candidates for the job, and now having done lots of prep work to help this individual hit the ground running, the employer begins to wonder if he has just wasted his time again. Again, as it is Thailand and we can all get away with far too much, the employer grasps at the possibility that perhaps the phone was lost, the taxi took the wrong way, the employee forgot to bring the school number to call from a pay phone if late, and that he in fact will be at school sometime that day. Trying to convince himself this could be the case, the employer says nothing to anyone and leaves the materials ready for the employee to pick up at a moment's notice.
Of course, hours pass and the employee never shows up. The employer goes home dejected again, only to receive an SMS about 10 PM that night from the once respected prospective teacher that says, simply, "Sorry things did not work out." Hmm...mind boggling professionalism.
CASE 2: A prospective employee interviews at the school, and after the employer has interviewed a few other viable candidates, he calls this twenty-something year old woman to offer her a job. She accepts wholeheartedly, and as the employer asks, sends a formal agreement letter by e-mail back to him a day or so after that. She then trades various e-mails with the employer over the course of two or three weeks leading up to the start date, all still evincing a strong desire to be employed by the school and be a stellar employee.
About a week before the start date, the employer takes the employee out to lunch with a few of her future colleagues. An innocuous enough occasion, one would think. There is again nothing but positive discussion about the terms and conditions of employment and the young woman leaves promising to see the employer "bright and early" on the appointed start date.
The date approaches and unwittingly, the employer checks his school e-mail. A bad decision. The first e-mail he reads is from this seemingly talented and professional young woman, and again the employer is to realize the error of his ways in actually believing people to be honest and sincere. The e-mail explains that due to family circumstances -- blah blah blah -- the employee will not be able to start on the agreed to date. Fair enough, but reading on, the employee then expresses doubt about her suitability for the position - weeks after interviewing, sending an acceptance letter, joining her new colleagues for lunch, and leaving 3 or 4 other qualified candidates to search for other jobs after having been rejected by this school, while this young woman clearly made up and changed her mind over and over again.
I could, unfortunately, tell 100 more stories like these of my own. I could call any employer and get thousands more. What is it that gives people the idea that lying, equivocating without sincerity or openness, and downright wasting people's time is ok? Are these the same people that take money others' dropped, take towels from the hotel, or keep undue extra change when a sales clerk makes a mistake and just rationalizes it by saying "It's part of the game." I am afraid that is probably the case.
Now, I am of course making judgments without a lot of real information from those whose acts of underwhelming professionalism I refer to above. Perhaps there were some serious and legitimate reasons for the actions they took. More than likely, however, they were simply cowards who took the easy and convenient way out, just like so many other job seekers in the educational field here in Thailand. In all likelihood, they got a better offer, woke up drunk that morning, got a Western Union from mom to keep them afloat for a few more weeks, decided the commute was too much, stayed up too late the night before watching their favorite go-go dancers, or whatever else.
The unethical behavior, unfortunately, doesn't end at the pre-contract signing stage. Some folks who seem to be able to pull things together for an interview and even get to the point of signing a contract and getting to work can't keep up the ruse very long after that. Sooner or later, everyone's true colors are revealed. Ethics, inherently, are about self-respect. Those who respect themselves want to keep it that way. Those who falsely convince themselves that their unethical behavior is just the "way things are," have already accepted their own perceived lack of value worth and are out to play the game fast and loose. Whatever they can get away with, they will.
The effect of all this? Tremendously damage to us all. Millions of hours wasted in this process/game, costing employees and employers, and ultimately our students, the efficiency and integrity they could all benefit greatly from. Responsible peoples' lives are affected as they have to scramble to cover for those who could not carry their side of the deal. Children are short-changed, other qualified candidates are rejected for jobs they would have done better at than the bloke who outwitted the employer, and most importantly, the whole interviewing process shifts to one of distrust and uncertainty. As such, prospective employees who are ethical are left to prove themselves because of the selfish and immoral acts of others.
In fact, though it may not sound like it, there are a whole lot of good, honest and sincere people in this country. I have a staff of 24 teachers now who I have grown to trust and respect. But, as with most circumstances, the few bad seeds all too often win out over the vast majority of respectable folks out there and poison the system for all of us. This means, sadly, that I now have to grow to trust and respect people I hire, rather than affording them respect until someone proves unworthy. That is the wrong way to work things, but it is unavoidable as long as people continue to rationalize completely unethical and unprofessional behavior in our field.
Again, I will close by saying that these words are meant to give people something to think about as they look forward, not to cast stones about past conduct. We all have a new opportunity every day to do what is right. I hope that those who read this entirely too long column this month will pause and think about how they want to move forward in this process of job hunting. And I hope the will remember that the job they are hunting for is as teacher, mentor, and role-model - which I argue makes unethical conduct here a bit more destructive from taking that towel at the hotel you stayed at the night before.