Advice and Lessons for Non-Teachers Coming to Korea
Although it often seems that the only foreigners you meet in Korea are either teaching English or are in the military, it should be noted that there are a few alternative routes to the land of the morning calm. I find myself in Seoul as a result of a decision made between my wife and I to find a way to live overseas for an undetermined period. I’ll skip the needless details, but that decision and subsequent actions set in motion a both fateful and serendipitous set of circumstances that led to her finding a job with a newer Korean startup company. I was then lucky enough to be able to transfer positions within my longtime employer to their local operations here in Seoul.
While there are many resources available to help foreigners coming into teaching jobs in Korea, I felt it would be worthwhile to retrospectively list some of the things I learned in my twelve months of working and wish I would have known beforehand. For context, I should start this out by saying that when I started, I was the only foreigner in an office of several hundred, and the company I worked for was based in the US, but locally is considered fairly progressive by Korean standards (and when compared to some of the traditional giants like Samsung and LG). The nature of my job also allowed me to travel around Korea visiting a collection of customers from enormous to fledgling, which gave me some exposure to practices and customs outside of the company I worked for. Below are some of the most striking differences I found in work cultures, for which I will add the disclaimer that I am merely pointing these differences out – and certainly not making a value judgement in any way as to what is right or wrong. Your experience may certainly vary.
- Hierarchy – A rigid hierarchy in the workplace is still very important in Korea. In my American offices, I was very used to people having very open arguments in intra-company meetings. I have never once seen an open argument in a meeting in Korea. A manager may have incredibly direct questions and seemingly berate an employee in a larger meeting, but I never once saw the target of those questions fire back with a rebuttal. Similarly, I also never saw two employees argue with each other openly in the presence of a higher manager.
- Work schedules – Work times and schedules in a standard office are incredibly prescriptive. At my company, the starting time was 8:00AM. Every employee seemed to arrive between 7:45 and 8:00. There were several times I came in “early” at 7:30 and turned the lights. From 7:45 to 8:00 there would be lines at the elevators and the ride once crammed into an elevator would be a hot and sweaty mess. In the various locations I worked in the US, people had a significant amount of flexibility in when their work hours would begin and end. I think every office I worked in had at least one person who would arrive at around 5:30AM, and couldn’t be found much after lunch. Many younger individuals wouldn’t arrive until 8:30AM or later.
- Management Style – Micromanaging is still very common and is pretty much expected and accepted by employees. As a part of my job, I worked with sales people who had a Monday morning meeting talking about their plans and customer visits for the week. They were then expected to send updates 2-3 times per week on how those plans were progressing. I asked some of my Korean colleagues if this bothered them, but was told that they thought this constant communication with management was not out of the ordinary. Similarly, reviews with management were frequent and thorough.
- Business Greeting Etiquette – Upon starting my job in Korea, I was told as a foreigner that some customs (such as those related to the nuances of proper bowing) were outside what a non-Korean would be expected to know. Other customs I would need to get right, however, and many of those related to business greetings. There are many websites available that explain how to give and receive business cards, and how to shake hands. I would say unequivocally that these particular customs are taken quite seriously. If you would like further evidence, look up the number of news stories related to what happened when Bill Gates visited Park Guen-Hye in 2013. (http://www.korea4expats.com/article-business-practices-etiquette.html)
- Drinking Culture – The drinking culture as it relates to work culture is a real thing and his its own rules. Often company dinners will begin with dinner, then move on to second round at another establishment, and a few of the more energetic folk will move on to third round (these stages can last until 11:00PM or later). Many websites list the basic rules of drinking in Korea, but the ones that I found were most strictly adhered to were as follows:
- Always drink on the first round. Even if you are not a drinker, it is considered very rude to not accept the offer of a drink from a higher manager in your hierarchy for the first toast.
- When a drink is being poured for you, hold your glass (or shot glass) with two hands, or with your right hand with your left hand supporting your right elbow.
- Never pour your own drink. I found that if I had an empty glass and wanted more, the mere act of lifting it up and subtly looking at it would immediately lead to someone else offering to fill it for you.
- If a higher manager makes any kind of motion that they would like you to fill their glass, this should be considered an honor and you should pour very carefully using two hands on the bottle.
- Always turn your head away from the highest ranking member of your company present when taking a shot of soju or liquor.
- If you have had your fill for the evening, the most simple and polite way to stop drinking is to not empty your glass. Koreans will wait for you to empty your glass before offering a refill (I believe this is different from China and Japan), so just leaving your glass half-full and taking tiny sips while the toasts continue can be your escape hatch.
- Long Hours, But… – Working long hours is a well-established tent pole of East Asian culture, but that doesn’t mean every employee is killing themselves every moment they are at the office. I worked in a number of American cities, and the prevalent attitude seemed to be that people at work wanted to put their nose down, get their work done, and get out so they could get home to their families ASAP. With the vast majority of Korean children attending hagwons and often not getting home until 9:00 or 10:00PM, many of those familial pressures don’t exist. In the Korean offices I worked, there were many coffee/tea breaks, smoke breaks, casual dinners, etc. that would break up the day that typically ran from 8:00AM-8:00PM. As a positive consequence, the work atmosphere seemed much more social than anything I experienced in the US. I got the very real sense that employees genuinely liked each other as they spent significant time getting to know each other outside of their work duties.
- Phone Culture and Etiquette – Anyone who has called an Asian phone at some point will know that voicemail is just not a thing and before moving here, I had absolutely no idea why. I found out very quickly that the reason is that the act of not picking up a phone is considered rude, almost irrespective of the circumstance. In the US, if you are in a business meeting and your phone rings, you would be expected to immediately silence it with an embarrassed look on your face. To excuse yourself from the meeting and take the call would be considered extremely impolite and often disrespectful. This attitude is almost the exact opposite of Korean phone culture. I had a number of important customer meetings where the sales rep I traveled with would immediately walk out of the room when his phone rang. I had many customers I was visiting do the exact same thing. Answering a phone in a bathroom, while driving, or while eating are completely standard practice. To be frank, this was the one custom/mindset I had the most difficult time adapting to and I don’t believe I have ever been able to completely conform.
- Face-to-Face Meeting – This may seem contradictory to the previous item, but very little significant business is done over the phone other than to set up face-to-face meetings. Resolving any customer issues, introducing new proposals, or discussing future opportunities required traveling to that customer for a formal meeting. I initially found this to be somewhat annoying (after a couple three-hour one way drives for thirty minute meetings), but after further exposure I came to really accept it as a best practice. It seems like the mandatory introductions led to a much better communication overall, and led to better relationships and more success over time.
- Vacation Time – Koreans often will use very little paid vacation time in a given year. I asked some colleagues about vacations and found out quickly that they are taken sparingly and for relatively short periods. There is a Korean saying to the effect that “if you leave your desk for a week, you will find someone else in it when you get back”. While the saying itself is probably a bit hyperbolic, it seemed that at least the underlying sentiment was still very much alive. To give an example, Korean friend/colleague of mine was getting married to a Canadian in Canada, and was given special permission to take 1.5 weeks of vacation for the trip. Asking around my office, I couldn’t find another coworker that knew of a Korean ever taking that much time consecutively. The most common time to take a paid vacation is “Summer Vacation”, and everyone will ask what your plans are for that period. While public schools get about a month off between mid-July and mid-August, hagwons typically only have about one week of vacation built into their schedules and therefore this is the most common time for Koreans will hit the road. Within my company, it was highly uncommon for an employee to take more than two weeks’ worth of total vacation days in a given year, regardless what they were actually entitled to. Many of the higher-level managers would not take a single day.
- Lunch – Providing lunch for employees is still very common in Korean companies. Larger companies have lunch rooms and fully staffed cafeterias. Smaller companies give some type of stipend ($5-10/day) that is meant to be used for lunch. Large office buildings with several companies usually have a shared cafeteria with very reasonably priced food. Though the Koreans I worked with seemed to complain about the cafeteria food quality, I usually found the food to be quite good (which probably says more about American cafeteria food than anything). Business lunches can be quite long if conducted with customers. For these lunches, one party will pay for the entire lunch and the other party is expected to pay for coffee after. I had many lunches where the eating portion was about one hour and the coffee shop visit was at least another hour. It was pretty uncommon to discuss any specific business matters during lunch and the sessions seemed to be more about building relationships between the parties.
- Language Barriers – English proficiency varies widely by company size and location. My command of the Korean language was minimal upon my arrival, and I often relied on the sales rep that I traveled with to help out when English was not going to be sufficient. I found that for the large multinational corporations in and around Seoul, the language barrier was not much of an issue. I later found that the reason is that the largest corporations place a ton of importance on potential employees’ TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) scores and will have a minimum score that is required to even apply for a position. Many of my Korean colleagues told me that this was the single most stressful test they took in college, and many of them took it several times to achieve a score they were satisfied with. The smaller the company and further outside of Seoul they were located, the less importance this score seems to be given, and the more issues I had communicating.
- Presentations – There are key differences with the practice of giving a business presentation that I was initially totally unprepared for. First, it is still not extremely common to have projectors in all meeting rooms. Instead of a PowerPoint presentation given from a laptop, presenters are often expected to print their slides and give copies to each of the attendees (which allows them to take written notes directly on the slides). Second, if you are giving a presentation in English, it is a good idea to make sure all key points are clearly laid out on your slides. In the US, the perception is that the best presentations will typically have only broad points listed on the slides and the presenter will sound more intelligent by expanding on specific points and details as they talk through each of the bullet points. Due to potential language barrier issues listed above, I found that it was much better to make sure all important information was actually on the slides. The primary reason being that it can be much easier for the audience members to read the information on the slides and process it at their own speed than it is to follow a presenter who is often a little nervous and speaking too quickly and in disjointed sentences.
Without reservation, I can say the opportunity to work in Korea was the most mind-expanding and enriching experience of my career. I loved the respectful undertones and formality of every customer interaction I had, and genuine nature of all the people I met. I’m sure it was a burden for my colleagues to have a foreigner who needed a lot of help to navigate even the most basic situations, but they never once made me feel that way and for that I am incredibly grateful. Though some of the cultural workplace differences were striking to me at first, I found that they were incredibly easy to adapt to and a tremendous opportunity to step back and critically think about business customs as a whole.