An Inside View of Work Life in Korea

The work culture in Korea is very different than that of the United States.  People have a unique style of communication even in English.  The decision structure is a little more vertical instead of horizontal as it can be in other places.  

The work ethic is very strong and relationship based.  It is very rewarding if you keep an open mind and try to see things in terms of “this is different” instead of “this is right or wrong.”  It can take some getting used to.

Communication (Not Language)

“I can’t understand him even when he is speaking my language.” My boss told me the other day talking about one of our co-workers.  My boss is a native Korean but speaks English very well.  He has never worked outside of Asia but has dealt with western companies for some time.  

He understands business concepts the way westerners do.  He tells me that often times when he talks about business in Korean with a few older members of our company they tend to jump from subject to subject without a logical process.

I have seen this with a lot of Korean people.  I think it is important to understand the Korean method of communication is much more indirect than what I am use to in the U.S.  I notice this most frequently with responses to requests.  

If the main boss requests any employee to do something they always respond “Yes I will do it right now.”  I know they either do not know how to do the task or they cannot do it in the timeframe requested but they never say that.  

At first I thought this was a big inefficiency with the system.  But I realized that the response they were actually saying is “yes I respect you and I want to do what you say.” If they said what they were really thinking “Are you kidding me there is no way I can possibly do that?” then the message they would actually be sending is “I do not respect you and do not want to do what you asked.”  This is not always the case and many companies seem to be changing now days but it’s still somewhat true in general from what I have seen.

I feel like people are always over analyzing what others say.  In contrast I think most American businessmen don’t read into nonverbal communication enough.  There should be a happy medium.  But it is good to keep in mind that Korean natives who speak English will very definitely be paying attention to how you say things, how you dress and present yourself, and the mood they felt during conversation.

Hierarchy vs. Functional Expertise

I am use to good leaders in the U.S. deferring their answers or decisions to the subject matter experts.  Often times without shame citing “I’m not the expert in that field.”  I have seen many companies that structure their leadership based on these areas of expertise and functions.  For example a typical company will have a COO for operations, a CFO for finance, an HR manager, and a Sales Manager. These leaders will have their own teams and usually a CEO will lead them.

In Korea I have seen that on paper the same type of structure exists but inside the office a different culture lives.  The culture is a much more vertical decision making system.  The sales manager might be the expert in sales for example but his Korean title might be lower than the finance manager.  If that is the case, then the finance manager could make a sales decision and the sales manager will generally have to do it.

I don’t know for sure but I heard that the Korean title structure comes from a military style of governance.  Since all Korean males are required to do military service, they all know the structure.  Korean people are very proud of their title and it’s a symbol of accomplishment.

The Office Family IS Your Family

In the U.S. if you asked someone what their top priorities were you might get a response like this:

  1. Family
  2. Church
  3. Sports
  4. Pet
  5. Other Hobby
  6. Job

But in Korea almost always your Job is the first priority.  Even if people don’t admit it.  A job in Korea is much more than a way to make money, it is often a symbol of self worth.  A friend of mine was suspended from his job a few months ago and I was very seriously worried about him considering suicide.  He was extremely depressed and couldn’t eat or sleep for days.  He told me he felt like such a failure.

In my office I have had many private conversations with other employees that have told me they think their pay is too low and they really want to move to another company.  I always ask them why they don’t move and they shrug and say it’s too hard.  I feel like there is a strong emotional relationship among co-workers and it’s often difficult to break.

It is a little bit confusing at first because of the way people talk to each other.  Usually the boss will come around and tell everyone to go home around 6pm.  Then he will go back into his office and work.  No one really leaves when he asks them to.  Sometimes a few minutes later, the boss will come back out and request us to do some report or specific work.  It’s almost as if he is testing our loyalty by telling us to leave.

Another interesting example of this work ethic is when a supervisor goes on vacation. First of all it is very rare for anyone to take their allotted vacation time for vacation. Usually it is for some family emergency or unavoidable appointment.  But when they leave they are gone it is very common for their employees to call them when they have a question.  I found out that they are actually happy to receive calls while on vacation.  It makes them feel needed.

The Rewards

I really enjoy the work culture in Korea.  I am in a good position to be able to have a foot in both worlds.  I have been able to understand the differences and grow from the experience.  A lot of people say “keep an open mind” and the meaning may be diminishing but it is still very true.  

If you are an energetic worker and enjoy meeting people then you will fit in easily in Korean work culture.  I have noticed that it is very easy to make friends and create good relationships simply by greeting people every morning and starting up a conversation


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