K-Culture Special: Is The Korean Workplace Truly A Nightmare To Navigate?

 K-Culture Special: Is The Korean Workplace Truly A Nightmare To Navigate?

Korea has a lot of important traditions which influence their every day lives. From their drinking culture to the different ways they address others by age, from their personal lives to their work situations, South Korea has a lot of unique ways that make their culture stand out from others around the world.

We’ve seen many Korean dramas that give a little insight into the work life in Korea, but how accurate are these dramas? How does Korea’s workplace differ from American work culture? Americans and other foreigners that work in Korea have to quickly adapt to the change in culture. However, due to more students studying abroad, the country is undergoing a shift in the Korean work culture. Therefore, I asked a few people to speak about their experience in the Korean workplace and tell us what it is really like.

Frank Ahrens, a director of Global Public Relations for Hyundai, worked in Seoul for three years. In his memoir “Seoul Man,” he spoke of his experiences and challenges in the Korean workplace and how it is vastly different from that of America. Because job recruiters ask for pictures with resumes (which is illegal in America), there is a high number of plastic surgery among the youth.

“Job applicants know that in Korea, as everywhere in the world, the better-looking of two equally qualified job seekers will likely get the position.”

Physical image isn’t the only important thing in Korea— how people view you is important as well. In fact, everyone’s image and reputation is so important in that a bride and groom will sometimes rent strangers to pose as wedding guests. The practice seems bizarre to most foreigners, but it’s a common practice so that the “real” wedding guests will be impressed by the size of the wedding.

In the Korean workplace, corporate employees address their boss by their title and last name, while often, the boss refers to the employee by first name. Ahrens said he caused problems when trying to “establish a Western workplace in an Eastern culture.” While introducing himself to his team, he said “call me Frank,” which in turn made the team uncomfortable and stripped him of his status.

“They didn’t want to call me Frank . . . it made them feel like they were working for someone of lesser status than all the other directors.”

Another mistake Ahrens made in Korean workplace was trying to recognize an individual’s hard work, where the individual would feel humiliated and respond by assuring him it was a team effort.

“Boldly expressing individuality for the sake of it was not a sign of independence and accomplishment, as it was in the U.S. It was rude and inconsiderate to all those around you.”

Ahrens invited his team members and others to a party at his residence. However, the employees, who knew only their own co-workers, saw it as requirement to work at the party and wasted the whole night distributing drinks to their bosses.

He then questioned his team leader about the occurrence and was told, “Sir, we don’t go to parties where we don’t know everyone.”

Parties in America meant you were going to meet new people, but he was told that Koreans “make their friends for life in school.” When he asked how they made friends as adults, they simply responded, “We don’t.”

Frank Ahrens’ memoir

According to Larry Getlen, a writer for The New York Post, the Korean workplace follows Confucianism’s philosophy of showing the importance of family. Bosses are like father figures and co-workers are siblings, and they attend each other’s family celebrations. As a result, workers must work hard and long hours. Leaving work before the boss is considered disloyal and post-work drinking parties are required. However, younger Korean workers who have attended college in other countries are little inclined to replace their home life with their corporate family. As a result, it is compelling businesses to reevaluate their practices. Some recent changes in Korean companies include meetings not continuing for more that 30 minutes and junior workers being permitted to communicate openly with their superiors. Korea Electric Power Corporation, otherwise known as KEPCO, announced in 2013 that they were getting rid of 14 authoritarian work traditions, including mandatory late-night drinking with superiors, “managers only” elevators, and getting coffee for senior workers.

LG Electronics was the most daring. In 2007, Yong Nam was selected as chief executive. He employed non-Koreans for senior offices and made English the business’ working language. Eric Surdej, the first non-Korean worker to be employed in a senior position at LG, said he felt Nam’s biggest difficulty was gaining the aid of other LG executives. The other LG executives were apprehensive of Nam’s westernized company and dismissed him when they were trailing behind in smartphones in 2010. The founder’s son took over and discharged 25 of the 27 non-Korean superiors in just a few hours. Surdej’s book “Ils sont fous ces Coréens,” which translate to “These Koreans Are Crazy,” describes his experiences in the Korean workplace.

It’s interesting to point out that even after returning back to its traditional ways, LG still did not regain their losses and continued to fall behind Samsung.

“These Koreans Are Crazy” by Eric Surdej

In June 2015, 1,000 workers participated in a survey operated by Job Korea, Korea’s largest online job portal. The survey concluded that about half of the workers believed that their company was becoming more strict, even requiring workers to show up to work an hour earlier. Yongsun Paik, a specialist on Korean management culture, says reverting back to traditional ways will most likely fail as younger workers will not accept the typical Korean workplace traditions. Their views are dissimilar to their parents’ and they are more likely to switch jobs to break away from a harsh company.

I went on HiNative to ask individuals about their workplace experiences in Korea as both natives and foreigners.


A response from a Korean native:

“It is soooooooo depending on the company. As industry, size, locations, etc [differ.] Every company [has a] different culture in Korea…..

“I [have] worked in Korea for 2 years, I finished and went home on time. I [didn’t] eat dinner with co-workers. But if you want to know about it [generally], I would say we have different levels of position in the office…it’s like vertical (hierarchy). Not all. We ‘usually’ follow their opinions, but we can say ‘No’ if you don’t agree or if you don’t want [to do something.]”

A response from a foreigner:

“I’ve had several people tell me that they envy me for being a foreigner and somehow because of that, [I] am able to talk back, share my opinion openly, and care less about hierarchy. I’m not certain about this dynamic, but it seems that I feel less restricted because of my background and [I] am not judged as harshly for not behaving a certain way.

“One co-worker shared with me that the reason why so many people in the office ‘like’ tennis is because the boss plays it. That’s insane to me. They literally adopt his interest to suck up to him. And this is [in] their spare time, mind you…..”

A response from another Korean who answered each question:

“I’m native.

“Are your really required to go to company/team dinners? [It] depends, but mostly, yes I have to go. Cause we have social pressure. And also your boss give[s] your performance review. So….No choice, if you wanna survive.

“Are they always during the week? Depend[s] on your boss. But if he like[s] to drink, then you [would] go quite a lot.

“Do you seem to do work that is outside of your job requirement? Yes, sometimes like [we] eat lunch or dinner together with [the] boss. Umm….I can’t remember all of the ‘outside of my job’ things but quite a lot.

“Do you have to wait for your superior to be done in order to leave work? Before you go home, you have to inform him. And [you] have to [ask] ‘anything else?’

“I think this working culture [comes] from [the] Army. (All Korean men, except disabled people, must go [to] military service for 2 years.)

“Are you allowed to say ‘no’ to your superiors? [If] he orders, you should follow. Cause he’s your boss. I think this one also came from [the] Army.”

Another native Korean answered the same way:

“Such things like are you really required to go to company/team dinners? Unless you have a very special reason, you must go.

“Are they always during the week? That’s not [always] sure. Usually a couple of times a month, or more than once a week.

“Do you seem to do work that is outside of your job requirement? Most of [the workers] continue to experience such ideas before they become senior. They keep getting used to it and eventually adapt.”

“Do you have to wait for your superior to be done in order to leave work? That’s right. Some [bosses] leaves [the] company for the rest of his men. Such a boss is very grateful, but very rare.

“Are you allowed to say ‘no’ to your superiors? If you choose [to say] ‘No’ [in] a situation, you [would be in] a disadvantage. In Korean workplaces, honesty tends to be lost.”

The previous Korean gave a little more insight on how he feels military life influenced the Korean workplace:

“Korea’s workplace culture is similar to that of military culture, because there is also [a tendency] to obey [the] boss…. Rather than Confucianism, military culture has a greater influence.

“Interestingly, this culture is also found in universities. Even though they did not go to the army [yet], they seem to learn such culture form their parents or adults.”

When a foreigner questioned the idea that the workplace culture derived from the military and believed it to be more from Confucianism, the same Korean native said:

“To provide a few hints, you will be able to identify the characteristics of Korean companies or social cultures in Korea after the Korean War, without having to go to a Confucianism [conclusion].

“We had [an] experience of a long military regime and dictatorial rule….but I can say that this history has made our society[‘s] culture fully militarized. Ideas change conservatively, and people who have liberal [views] are rare. (Nevertheless, we emphasize ‘creativity’ in the field of education. That is contradiction.)”

I was also curious about overtime and paid time off, so my follow-up question was:

“I heard that using your paid time off is considered lazy. I know that here [in America] we can tell a supervisor ‘no’ when it comes to a task that is outside of our job description, and if we feel taken advantage of, we can go to the human resources department and file a complaint on them. How effective is your human resources (of course from your own experiences in your own jobs)?”

Again, this Korean worker responded with:

“As for paid vacations, few people freely [use their] paid holidays [in] their Korean jobs. Because if you [use your] paid vacation during [a] project, people around you will think you are lazy and [have] no attachment to the project…job descriptions [are] considered to be [a] reasonable behavior for foreigners, but in Korea, it is often lacking. You may complain that you are working outside of [the] job description to the human resources department, but instead…you will be estranged from the same team. We commonly call it ‘Art of War in Workplace (처세술),’ and if you are Korean, you have to learn it for a long time to survive in Korean workplaces.”

While some foreigners, from English teachers to businessmen and women, cannot adapt to the differences in work culture, others say the camaraderie with your co-workers is a great feeling and leads to a better sense of team in the office. Whatever side of the fence you land on, however, it seems like times are changing and Korean companies are becoming more Westernized in their workplace environments, especially as the companies become bigger, global names.

What do you think about working and jobs in Korea? Was your experience positive or negative? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below.

If you’re interested in a Korean drama that was critically acclaimed for its accurate portrayal of the Korean workplace, watch “Misaeng (Incomplete Life),” a drama that follows the daily work life of a young worker who joins a trading company as an intern.

Misaeng (Incomplete Life)

Panamami started listening to Kpop and watching Kdramas in early Feb 2015. She finally succeeded in getting her best friend into it a year later. Hey favorite group is BTS and her bias is Rap Monster. She also listens to Jay Park and Illionaire and loves discovering new songs with her friend. Panamami loves animals and has a dog and two cats. When not watching Kdramas or working, she can be seen working at a horse farm.

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