Monday, 24 February 2014

8 Reasons Why Korea has some of the longest working hours but low productivity in the OECD

In Response to both of these articles Korea's Labor Productivity still low and Korean workers show lowest productivity in the OECD; Below is a list of 8 corporate culture issues I believe could be contributing factors to Korea's low productivity and long working hours.

1. Rigid Structures and Hierarchy
Korean corporate structures are notorious for their top-bottom approach and rigidness. Some experts even compare corporate Korea to an army division such is the influence of military service and leadership history on the corporate landscape. What these structures have led too is constant and unnecessary reporting to senior directors (Like soldiers to a general). Teams will brief department heads weekly and sometimes even the board on a regular basis. If a director wants to know about something (even if it does not concern their direct business) then a team leader will be forced to present said topic in a structured meeting in a very short time frame. The team leader will then drop whatever work they were doing (usually their real work) and have their team spend the next few days researching and preparing an over the top presentation so said director can be informed about the topic of curiosity and the team leader does not get blasted for not being an expert on a unrelated topic - It's all about perception!. This constant vicious circle ensures that their is no strategic work and movement within a company but rather a fire department type scenario where teams are on call for a fire and need respond to it immediately- never moving forward or GROWING. My previous company was a never ending merry go round of audits and presentations which meant my boss was often occupied with trivial things like making PPT presentations look pretty for the CEO, hardly the scenario you imagine you would be in after 20 years of work experience.

2. Communication Issues
Despite the regular drinking and socializing, Korean companies suffer from a lack of direct, honest and effective communication. Teams within themselves and departments will often function fairly well together but the constant socializing, eating of lunch together and drinking sessions actually create the side effect of factions. As a result, teams across departments become somewhat enemies. Inter departmental links are almost non existent and often teams from other departments become suspicious and competitive. Poor communication always results in poor performance and when there is poor interdepartmental relationships performance suffers even more.

I will also mention here the obvious issues with English language. Many Koreans frustrated with the emphasis on English often question why they need English when they never use it in the workplace. Most Koreans are wrong in thinking that English study is only useful for practical communication with a foreigner or for use in business emails which they may type rarely. Most Korean office workers look over the obvious fact that world of resources and knowledge (Think case studies, annual reports, professional tips) that is now available to the world via the internet is predominately in English and only a fraction of what is out there has been translated thus far into Korean and made available on the internet. Foreign workers will always have the advantage of a simple Google search which will provide hundreds to thousands of alternative information sources to what is available to a Korean limited to searching in Korean on Naver. 

3. Mobile Phones and Office Communicators
I am sure some were frothing at the mouth for me to mention the above reason. Korea is a truly connected society with a fantastic broadband network providing the fastest internet and LTE coverage in the world to it's businesses. However the ease and preference for communicating via online or through a messaging app on a phone is becoming a real issue. Levels upon levels of an office building will appear as if they were a library such is the silence. Everyone is tapping away furiously and you presume 'Wow everyone is a hard worker', But check again and you'll see most workers are engaging on some form of office communicator whether it be Kakaotalk PC version, Microsoft LYNC or Nateon - workers will normally be chatting away to office buddies (occasionally about work) but more often then not just wasting time. What's more ridiculous is that Korean noonchi (As discussed in a previous post) determines that talking in the office gives off the appearance of not working - So lets send messages via the intranet to the person sitting right next to me instead of turning our heads to have a real discussion! 

If it's not the office communicators then it's the mobile phones - checking them every ten minutes or blatantly getting up to go out to receive a personal phone call. Now I am all for being able to make personal calls and check your phone at work but the frequency in which it is done is the issue. Workers will go off to hide in bathrooms where you can hear mobile message tones going off like a fire cracker; the sounds of mobile games...sometimes even the sound of a youtube video they are enjoying while doing the "other" business.

4. Stressed / Hungover Workers = Lazy Workers
So yes Korean companies encourage and pay for workers to enjoy dinner and drinks together on a regular basis believing it improves loyalty and the relationship between workers. The only requirement being that they are at work the next day (preferably on time). It's amazing after all these years that they still believe that being hungover doesn't affect work. Staff may as well not be at work the next day because a heaving, headache ridden corpse of what used to be a fully functional worker is going to be useless for the entire next day without the proper rest and recovery from the night before.

Smoking too is also a major issue affecting productivity. That said I believe it does provide workers with the benefit of getting out of their seat to stretch and refresh once an hour but the time taken to smoke is so large that non smokers are the losers because they will effectively be spending on average 1 hour a day longer at their desk if we assume most smokers will take around a 10 minute smoking break 6 to 7 times a day - which is most likely. Eventually the non smokers have caught on and hijacked the coffee break which they will take 3 to 4 times a day to also enjoy in their extra hour of rest a day.


Korean smoking affecting productivity levels
Working Hard or Hardly Working?


5. Perception is King
My previous work colleague would spend two days on a powerpoint presentation adding in an array of fancy looking shapes, images, flow charts and graphs for a report which contained roughly half a day of research. That is the power of perception in the Korean office and it forces workers to spend ridiculous amounts of time "beautifying" simple reports which would take 10 minutes to present in an informal meeting or chat.

6. Poorly Equipped Graduates
This is one of the more controversial issues I've listed but it might resonate with a few professionals who find Korean graduates to be grossly under-prepared for the workplace and stuck with poor researching and reporting skills from their university days. Many young graduates come into the workforce with next to zero work experience. That's right - it's their first job...EVER which is astounding considering most Korean men are 27 - 28 when they get their first job (A result of 2 years army service, Gap years and 4 year degree courses). But what that has created is a workforce of young adults with unrealistic expectations of work and money. Poor research skills based around the use of Naver (probably the worst search engine in terms of finding real information) coupled with poor reporting and presentation skills which are all a result of developing skills based to fit a certain professors style and curriculum to ensure the best grade but not the most practical approach.

7. The Art of Looking Busy
In business or social situations Koreans have a penchant for giving off the impression of being busy. Rarely will you meet a Korean that will they say they have spent their time recently doing nothing because work isn't busy at the moment. I believe this style of thinking is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome the unproductive culture in Korea.  Being honest with themselves in the fact that they are not really "that busy" and by association that does not make them a lazy worker! Finishing your work on time and going home on time is in fact the reverse of a lazy worker - it's an efficient one!

8. Parkinson's Law of Time
Parkinson's law is the adage which states that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion". The Korean workforce all know that they will be expected to work overtime hours whether they have work or not - it's again another test of perception and loyalty so what naturally occurs is Parkinson's law. Why finish your work by 5 o'clock when you know you will be at the office until 10 anyways? Good point! 




I hope I was able to provide a little bit more insight into what issues some Korean companies are dealing with and some reasons as to why Korea has low productivity but I will just add that these are a generalized view with my own opinions and definitely do not cover every single Korean company or worker that ever existed! So take everything with a grain of salt.

Edit: This article is getting a lot more attention than I ever imagined! I just thought that I would point out that these issues are not unique to just South Korea nor do I mention that they don't exist in foreign companies. These are just my experiences from working at a major Korean company and should not be interpreted as fact - just opinion! It has also been brought to my attention by Ask a Korean that the statistics in the original Business Korea article were incorrect. I have since adjusted the article as a response to the two source articles which show Korea as 23rd in productivity and 2nd (out of 34) for longest hours worked.

86 comments:

  1. Which company did you work for? This looks exactly what I saw at Samsung as a manager.

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    2. I work for NCSoft, and it is exactly like this...

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    3. This is exactly how I felt while working for samsung as well!

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  2. lol - this was very well put together! excellent post/analysis of the korean workplace. couldn't have said it better. hopefully, the new breed of korean startups will change all this.

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    1. Thanks for the comment John. I have no doubt that the new breed of startups can change things especially if they're at headed by Koreans who are returning from overseas (and hence don't have the same culture ingrained in them 100%}

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  3. would you be ok if we translate this into korean and repost at http://besuccess.com

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    1. I am fine with that as long as I am credited and the blog is linked. If you could provide me with your email address I will send you an email to discuss.

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    2. Can I have a link to the Korea version as well???
      I would like to show some of my Korean friends this!

      syc.joyce@gmail.com

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    3. great article, i'm interested by the korean version too, could you send it to me too please John N. ? naricoree[at]gmail.com

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    4. Working on the translation as we speak. I should be posting it in the next two days!

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    5. Hi! Where can I see the Korean version?

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    6. http://thesawon.blogspot.com.au/2014/03/oecd-8.html

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    7. I would also like to translate this article into Korean and repost it in text and audio format on my blog if you allow me to do that. Can we discuss about it via email? ethan.san.kang@gmail.com
      thanks.

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  4. I'm not Korean but I work in Samsung and it's 100% as you describe. Couldn't have said it better. The useless PPT presentations, the constant reporting without meaning, the fire department mode just to put out fires due to adhoc requests that don't have anything to due with your work from top managers, the current drinking and arriving with an hangover to the following day, the late working until 10/11pm. Everything is exactly like you describe. Great work.

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    1. What's sad is when your not at Samsung all you ever hear about from other Korean companies is 'Samsung do this' 'Samsung do that' 'Samsung best practice' then one day I went to Samsung as a freelancer and noticed that it was exactly the same as what I had experienced and comments here seem to ratify! Good company or Good product?

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  5. I currently work at a large chaebol, and this post hits the nail on the head.

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  6. I'm korean but i thoroughly agree with your opinion. I think if your analysis is reflected to korean company, it would be better. I hope you do write continually it about korea like this. And as korean, I expect the posts - the prejudice about korea and your thinking with real life in korea - will be good for the foreigner who intend to go to Korea and korean policymakers.

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    1. Thanks for your comment Francisco - I will try to keep writing articles that are as popular as this one!

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  7. I think these aspects '마사원' commented about company culture in Korea were the one of the factors that develop Korea's economic growth quickly and considerably. But, my point of view, Korea has been in a slump recently by these things. In other words, the stereotypes that have been widely spread would prevent Korea's political, economical, and social growth from going forward. It's a kind of dilemma Korea has been stuck in.

    The bottom line is that your thoughts are totally correct, which makes me feel ashamed as a Korean, and you pointed out some issues Koreans should think over once again. I look forward to your next posts with regard to Korean culture. Thanks, 마사원.

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    1. Thanks for your support 김태!

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    2. Hi Tae-hyung ssi, I think some points above also happens in other country in Asia, like mine also. But to hear and read some Korean here is aware about this down side and even asked for Korean translation for others to read, I believe it is a good thing!
      We definitely cannot say all Korean is typical like above, some like you and other Korean here.

      My thought only, even with that kind of environment, Korean can still produce good products that well-known in the world..haha this is a compliment, imagine if Korean working environment situation turns better and better ;)

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  8. 9. Questioning your boss is not a good ting to do. Asking questions is a sign of stupidity. Work is done individually and no one comments on it. Your recommendations for change will be ignored because they disrupt the follow the leader attitude. All people care about is themselves. Not the work. Not the company.

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    1. I touched on the reluctance of questioning the boss about work but yes definitely. It is always '네, 팀장님' when it needs to be '왜?'

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    2. Oh... You couldn't express this better. I was working at Samsung - as developer, on new products, technically advanced products. And I felt sooo... beaten by atitude of my korean project leader. With my other (non-korean) teammates we were trying to get best possible comprehension of designs needed by them. And THE ONLY way to have clear understanding is to ask questions. Which turns out was wrong from our side.

      At the beginning there was surprise from their side, later it was slight irritation upon every question and finally there was subtle but pure humiliation expressed towards us in presence of korean team members.

      I still hear "question! question! you always have question! this all is easy work! what can't you understand?"

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    3. That's the answer you get from someone who doesn't know what they don't know! Having worked at Samsung for 6 years I can relate.

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    4. exactly my thoughts, was the 반말 on purpose? I'm LMAO coz you're so damn right about everything

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  9. Totally agree with you. Longer office hour means nothing most of the cases in Korean company. I used work at a foreign organization and worked overtime often for reasons - get the job done. I tendered resignation only a month after moving into Korean company for longer office hour for nothing - endless reporting without making any decisions, endless drinking parties without sharing information and too many coffee breaks during office hour. Hope new breed learned something better than this before our economy sink into too deep.

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    1. Thank you for finally admitting to doing nothing! I would estimate 95% of Korean office workers would never admit to doing 'nothing' in their overtime hours.

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  10. The economy ran ablaze for 5 decades because of massive foreign investment and an authoritarian government that made enemies disappear. Copying technology and cronyism beyond imagination with the chaebols all spurred growth. It worked and South Korea has been an economic marvel. The facade of external input, misaligned nationalism and truly believing the hype is all coming home to roost.

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    1. Well said - you might like this article http://thesawon.blogspot.com.au/2014/03/cultural-issues-affecting-korean.html or even a book called first mover by Peter Underwood.

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  11. As a foreigner working for a very Korean company, this was so on point! #7 particularly drives me nuts.

    Koreans say "busy" as if it's something positive, but all I can think is that it's a sign of inefficiency. I can get a day's work done in 2-3 hours, but unfortunately I'm here from 8:30-6:30/7 and my Korean colleagues stay until 8/9/10/11pm. It's ridiculous. And staying late/going out drinking just makes everyone more inefficient the next day, exacerbating the cycle of inefficiency and being "busy". Everyone is "busy" but no one is doing f*ck all: internet shopping, Nateon (your third point), KakaoPC (recently shut down in my office) etc.

    One can only hope that the next generation who all live abroad for a year in OZ/NZ/Canada/USA etc. realize how ridiculous the situation is and once the baby boomer generation retires and they get a handle on decision-making they will change things around: shorter office hours, more holidays, less "yes men", more efficiency, less "busy" bullsh*t etc.

    Finally, the point about military life to office life is so true. It's like no one has a real name. Everyone is Kim Bujangnim or Lee Dae-ri etc... and then when they get promoted up the military/corporate ladder they're replaced by the next Kim Daeri or Jung Bujangnim: it's less actual human individuals than just robots.

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    1. In reality the corporation is at the centre of Korean life in the twenty first century. Hence loyalty lies with the company that was 'so generous' to give them employment rather than with their family and getting home to spend time with them. Yes we can only hope with generational change their will be a change in office culture but there is also the strong possibility of a 'We had to go through this so you have to suffer as well' mentality which has to be a byproduct of their army service days. Actually my next post will most likely look at how the history of army leaders in government and also military service has affected business culture.

      Thanks for your comments!

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  12. Well i am a korean who works at a small company in seoul, and I do hate such aspects of this society and I am quite certain there are even more negative things in there.

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  13. some part is right,but everybody knows, and hard to change.Some parts are naive

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    1. How so? Can you give any examples. As someone who is currently doing an MBA at a SKY school I think this explains alot of things.

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  14. Totally agreed. But my question is, how should an individual who cannot get used to this culture at all continue his/her career & life in Korea? At first I thought this whole inefficiency thing was due to my lack of work experience and things would improve as I continue. Few years later, I feel so suffocated due to all the reasons listed above and when everyone is performing the art of looking busy and proudly saying how he/she stayed at work until 3 a.m. Are foreign companies in Korea any different? Do they at least stay true to the working hours and pay you OT? I'm so close to quitting, but I also fear "quitting because of long hours and suffocating culture" won't really persuade the future employers. Any advice from whoever has gone through this before would be greatly appreciated...

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    1. Even if you had been in the country for 10 plus years and spoke the language fluently any objections to such a unsustainable business culture will always be passed off as a failure to 'understand' their culture. Stick to what you believe in - go home on time and let your results do the talking. If you do end up quitting just pass it off as a family reason or that you simply just wanted to go back to your homeland!

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  15. I feel like we work at the same office! The people here are so conservative and they need to have meetings about every little thing that could be approved within in a few minutes. It takes me a tenth of the time to do the same task that takes my co-workers days to complete. Some people work overtime and on the weekends to look like hard workers when, in actuality, they are chatting with friends on Kakao or online shopping. Since everyone is doing this, how can the bosses not realize that this is unproductive and wasting the company's money? What is the point of sitting at one's desk until 11pm if they can get the work done by 5pm and spend the evenings with their family?

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    1. I've heard recently that some other major Korean companies started a "family" day campaign in which they force workers to go home on time once a month. How ridiculous that workers have to be 'forced' to go home on time when that's what should be happening in the first place (it's in their contracts) and then it is passed off as some kind of HR initiative? Deep down I don't believe that the senior managers or directors are sadistic enough to want their subordinates to rot their lives away at the desk but no one is willing to stand up and change it. I once was privy to a conversation in which a finance team leader spoke of how for a period he and his staff went home at 5pm for 3 months and their output was exactly the same as it was before the change - yet he reverted to going back into the overtime phase because of the pressure and snide remarks of other team leaders. It is truly bizarre how pathetic some high management can be to have the mindset "If I have to stay late then so do you" mentality. You all have to suffer if I can't be happy!

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  16. I can only agree.
    These mentioned issues are not only persistent within Korean companies in Korea but also, sadly, within foreign companies that practice in Korea. They are highly ineffective, everything evolves around the CEO and his opinion, be it advantageous or not.
    But this is part of their culture. It is all set in their roots and beliefs. Let's face it: to be able to actually create a functioning and effective work force you need individualistic people who can team play. In Korea this kind of people rarely exist. Even those who go abroad to study and gain some experience fall back into the old habits once they are looking to be gainfully employed in Korea. Korea is a country that does not support individualists but does feature a lot of followers. People who do not make their own opinions public but follow what they are told and what is shown to you.
    This is most present within Korean companies, of course. It is, at parts, ridicules, how people behave and what they think is necessary to do a go job, what pressures they do accept and how long they last in positions they clearly hate and/or are not fit to do.
    Don't get me wrong, I love Korea. But a lot of things would need to be changed in order to improve it's productivity. And I just don't know, if this is possible as most of the problems are deeply rooted in their traditions....

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    1. That said I have experienced an office in Seoul where the country manager and 2nd in command were both foreign and the rest of the 20 something employees were all Korean (Except me) and it functioned very well indeed - What is interesting though and is something probably for another article was the high proportion of working mothers in the office! Obvious reasons to finish work quicker and get home but I also wonder about the effects of military service and the side effects it has on male dominated corporate culture - Something for my next post!

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  17. Have you ever wondered why Koreans love overseas business trips ? Is that one of the reason the possibility to "escape" from this working culture ? What I notice is that business trips form many Koreans mean free time for visiting foreign countries and no big brother watching at them 24/7

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    1. Who doesn't love a business trip!

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    2. I don't, because I work for a large Korean company and my business trips are to Korea!

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    3. And hospital trips!! The trip to the hospital is often treated like a vacation and, along with lower costs, seems to explain why Koreans spend so much time in the hospital when they go. What is an outpatient procedure in many countries warrants a week's stay here.

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  18. I work in Korea and I agree with everything except that in terms of communication, athough it is true that it tends to create factions, I although believe on the positive side that the constant socializing and especially drinking tightens link between members of a department and especially between bosses and his subordinates. This is important to my opinion and a competitive advantage over western companies.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. I mentioned that within teams and departments it has a positive effect on communication.

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  19. Similar problems can be observed in Korean graduate schools too.

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    1. That's interesting to hear! What sort of issues are there at the big graduate schools?

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    2. [Reply from another Anonymous] AGREE 100% I went to grad school in Korea (the no.1 there) and I can't agree more with what you said. It goes the same for graduate schools, it might be even worse than what you said because they consider that a foreigner shouldn't have more privileges than Koreans. For example, if I graduate from University X in Korea and want to go to Harvard after that (let's say because I satisfy all the requirements) but someone else in my lab name Mr. Lee also wants to go to Harvard, they will make sure that Mr.Lee gets all the credentials to go to Harvard first. This my include forcing me to give him my research results and don't forget to white out my name on the published paper. Once Mr. Lee safely arrived in Boston, they will consider sending a very tiny small reference letter for me to get there too but only if the lab there is much less popular than Mr. Lee's lab etc... Worse case scenario, they will tell me that NO NO I'm not smart enough, look at all the credentials Mr.Lee have!!

      You have the big picture right? I've seen many times foreigners from various country handing out their research results, and their names wasn't even on the publication, meanwhile random Koreans who've never heard about this project will end up second or third author on the good reason that "He/She needs to publish for her graduation".

      In the case of the Harvard case, it was for a different University, one of my friend who's a MD/MMS (Master in Medicine + Medical Doctor) applied for a lab in the US and had the interview in Korea. The US PI was also a collaborator of her PI, when they met together in Korea the American Researcher told her Korean PI that she applied to his lab and he would love to work with her. At this point, the Korean PI told him she was the most under qualified research assistant with no knowledge of Molecular Biology whatsoever and more bashing blah blah blah..

      Competition between people accounts for 50% of why you shouldn't do your grad school in Korea, and the fact that you're just NOT Korean doesn't help. Plus you can all the 8 good reasons you wrote in this article. It's really sad, Korea is such a beautiful country but the work/study/research culture needs some serious re-thinking.

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  20. I'm very surprised the netizens haven't showed up. A few friends of mine who have shared this on Facebook have already been subjected to certain skeptics.

    I just want to say, though, that the hagwon experience is a very close match to what you have listed here. The busy work, the lack of communication, the looking busy, the perception battles, and a different cohort of "poorly equipped" that refers more to the owners of businesses that focus on education while many of them lack backgrounds in either area.

    Alcohol is less of a problem, though. However, if you visit websites that try to review hagwons, you'll notice some of the attempts at rebuking negative reviews always include references to a "party" culture among foreign teachers who aren't serious about their jobs. Some of these instances result from hagwon owners finding these reviews and asking current employees to rebuke them -- in cookie-cutter fashion.

    Whenever you see the word "diligent", that's an indicator. That's also part of the staying at work late, plus coming in on weekends. The "extra effort" is referred to as diligence... so as to cover up for the inefficiencies.

    Asking questions gets you nowhere in Korea. I feel that this is due to the expectation that when you approach a task, you should simply cover every single base associated with it, instead of what needs to be done in specific. I've had personal instances wherein asking for explicit directions gets me odd looks in response. Funnier still is when hagwon owners want to make you feel like you have control over aspects of your classroom management, yet will almost always have a very specific way to do so in their mind that they expect from you. It will never be communicated to you directly, you'll only hear about it in one-on-one meetings where your contract is also threatened.

    The rigidity of the communication process, when there is one, is grating. Co-teachers will many times never tell you that there are concerns over an aspect of maintaining the classroom. They will report to head teachers, who will report to the director, who will then tell you in yet another one-on-one meeting where your contract is threatened.

    Most recently, I worked for a married couple who were running a hagwon. The husband is American, the wife is Korean. They're both great people, and very fair, but the difference in their approach to running the business, as well as how to educate, was very stark.

    Koreans have a tendency to micromanage to a fault. This can include everything from the volume of the teacher's voice, how many times you mark a student's book (which is a waste of time when you have to mark each question, each page and draw smilies or stars, but done to prove to the parent that you were "teaching" the material), how many pages you need to cover in a class, the list goes on. When does the actual teaching happen?

    Then you get into managing the personalities of the students. Usually, kids are kids and they're a lot of fun. But you get parents who want the best for their child, yet have no idea what that entails in an educational sense. They expect any and all methods to be applied and refuse to accept that humans learn in different ways, and that some have learning disabilities. Also, the opinions of five and six-year-olds are weighed heavier at times than college-educated adults with international experience. It can be ridiculous when you integrate into a class, replacing a previous and popular teacher, and the kids react with comments to their parents that they don't like it. The fault lands on your shoulders and yours alone.

    Over the past few years, I've worked at a few hagwons and a public high school. This blog was excellent, I've seen so many of the same things.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. In honesty the article is more targeted at how the major chaebols run operations but it's interesting to hear that some of these issues also affect the private education industry. I'm surprised as well that there haven't been too many comments from skeptics but now that there is a Korean version I'm sure it will begin! It really is just a personal list so that's probably why it resonates more with people who agree than disagree because I'm not arguing the point that this is the truth for Korea as a whole rather I'm just saying what I felt were some unproductive traits of the major Korean companies of which I had experience with.

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  21. i work in a big company in korea and it's only 6 months since i have joined here. what you said is correct. the managers still want the subordinates to go through what they have faced many years ago. my team consists of 15 people in which 7 are foreigners and rest of them koreans. recently a korean guy joined our office. this guy is amazing as he wants to bring some changes in things, but unfortunately he is now considered as a bad guy.
    a typical example of what you have said about korean style is the lunch in company cafeteria. during lunch all these 9 koreans go to the cafeteria and finish the lunch withing 10 minutes. so i asked him, koreans sit at a restaurant for about 1 hour minimum, but they eat lunch at company cafeteria within 10 mins. he told me that once the manager finishes eating then everyone have to finish and go back. he told me that this is a strange thing, but the managers have to go through like this when they were young so they keep on following this.
    one of my friend works for a project in which his team has to sit till 8pm everyday and work on saturdays also. he told his manager that he doesn't have much work to do in extended hours, the manager replied that i know that you don't have much work, but if i let you go then other team members will complain, so you have to stay till 8pm.
    anyway recently i heard that in a meeting the VP of our department asked the new guys to suggest fresh ideas about how to change the work culture and he also criticized the managers for following the old age principles.hope that something will change..

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  22. Dear Sawon, thank you for such a brilliant article.

    Indeed confirmed all I happened to hear and feel eventhough i never experiences chaebol or hoesa in Korea in 2 years im there, since my goal here was to avoid any kind of conventional carrer.
    Anyhow experiencing big companies for 10 years in a famous european country, i have interesting thing to admit as well.
    In Germany, England and France, people are highly qualifiable as lazy too, but weirdly for different reasons.
    The office workers we are of course talking about are supposed to finish on time. Leaving after 6pm means you are unorganized, ineffective, as you rightly submitted in your post,
    But that also leaves the passionate ones, the highly professional ones that understand some sacrifices in order to respect deadlines, or the fluent flow of the company, that leaves them behind, as the recruiters would pass by and see someone is extra working, and tend to think lpwly of that fact, while the selfish, good at pretending, and devotion-detached worker would shine leaving at 6pm and arrive sharp 7.45 next morning but would actually leave their task unfinished everyday.
    Coffee, cigarettes breaks and collegues partying during the week, all included... same as in Korea.
    So that makes me even more confused, since of course, system you describe is common in Korea, and the one I describe also reflects the West in general, thus some kind of conclusion that pops out is more like companies have to change progressively to better systems aiming for pro-efficiency patterns, but the one thing that should be noticed at first is the recruiting, as there are workers that plan to use their brain for, along with the company goals, and there are some that just wait each month for the salary, trying their best to make lowest noise, and catch an upgrade if possible... case by case one can easily see who is who, but recruiters and bosses are too 'busy' to think they should watch this one closer, and from the start i.e the recruiting state, interviews etc...
    I am sincerely sorry to see that, uneffective unproductive problem coming back recurrently in different shapes around the globe, but like in politics, system is to be blamed a bit if it is not perfect, but the human variable that is in the center of it should be closely watched, not like big brother but just 'appreciated', 'examined' on real will to participate to the group's ascension and not self ascension itself.
    Cheers to you for your accuracy and i will continue read as time goes!





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  23. I agree with pretty much everything.

    No country is perfect and I am sure many of those points are common in other countries. But something I don't understand about Korea is the pride many of them take on this crazy working culture. Many of my professors, when asked about long working hours, being forced to drink or lacking respect to young workers, they would say this is part of the Korean culture. So if you criticize those practices you would be considered a moron that lacks of respect for the Korean culture.

    Being a young employee at a company is never easy but in most Korean companies it just go beyond what's acceptable. I really can't see how anybody can be proud of this.

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  24. Working in Korea for 3 years and I must say that I totally agree this article.

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  25. Great article. Sounds spot on with workplace culture in Korea.
    one typo: "loyalty and rhe relationship between workers" Fix rhe->the

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    1. Haha cheers for that. I am shocking with my grammar, spelling and double checking! My own bad habit from cruising through university!

      Delete
  26. I too am an ex-Samsung and I think this is spot-on in many regards. But we have to keep some things in mind:

    1) They are a global brand that is succeeding in the market, so what if they burn people out.

    2) If I were to live next to an aggressive state like China my attitudes would be completely different. As a Canadian I am thankful that the USA is "mostly" a great neighbor. I'm sure the USA could say the same about Canada. At least no one is lobbing bombs or missiles at or near us.

    3) Also, as a North American we have the luxury of a much lower population density. In South Korea I think they have over 64 million in a very small area. Add to that the national pride of building a global brand that makes nearly everything ... I think they do a reasonable job given all that. It just sucks being the "people" that are burned out or disposed of like .... like an aggressively growing global company.

    4) I recall a military axiom that goes something like this "the winner writes the history". Now with social media and the likes perhaps this changes, but the reality is that as a global presence they will survive based on how they are perceived. Right now they are on the way up, but who knows how long they will be able to maintain this. They have grown mostly by being "fast followers", now with legal battles increasing their military culture may lock up due to legal processes. I know that is becoming a bigger issue now, and will likely slow their advances for some time.

    5) As per the earlier point about China, I cannot help but wonder if they are less concerned about "us the people they dispose of" and are more concerned about what the next 50 years will look like. When the Chinese border opens up, and with their billions of users, we may have a flood of "wild west" companies that disrupt the world. This was never mentioned to myself (being of white Anglo descent) but I could sense some under currents that were never explained.

    6) I also feel, though never told, that they are very concerned about "big data" and the USA Patriot act that allows the USA government to observe nearly everything. Cell phone taping anyone? The reality is that there has been many allegations about collusion with LG, and how both manage their business in other countries.

    7) Lastly, and now perhaps I'm rambling, but I also wonder about how much innovation can develop in secrecy with Samsung controlling many/much of the computer industry key components, such as RAM.

    Perhaps the world has already gotten "small", with global mega companies already controlling media and consumer merchandise. Will we soon be also expected to follow the Korean military way to survive in the next 20 years?



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    1. Thanks for your comment. It's almost as if you wrote a blog post yourself!

      Delete
  27. It is indeed related to their culture n perception. A korean male friend told me once that if they go home early everyday, even their *girlfriends* will start questioning if they do hv any real function at the office.
    Another Korean expat in US made an observation to me about the difference of the countries. "The American culture seems to be centered around the family." I was like, 'Whoa... what else is it supposed to be centered around?'.."

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    1. I make that point in seminars that I give about Korean business culture. Although what you are most likely to hear about Korea being a family centered culture I believe that has changed to being centered around the company.

      Delete
  28. This is a GREAT article. It does reflect the reality of many companies, large and small. We all have our favorite anecdotes, myself included. That being said, I'm really interested to hear from other readers (or from The Sawon itself) about tangible solutions that non-Korean employees have proposed to management or implemented to correct these issues. I would be very interested to also steer the discussion towards actual solutions that have (or may) have worked in some cases. Anybody out there with good ideas?

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    1. Thanks for the comment. I too wonder about such solutions. Obviously a lot of it is deeply ingrained into their culture but I do believe it can change with the next generation.

      As for some solutions - One thing I have always been critical of is the manner in which new graduates are 'trained' by the company in their first 3 months. Usually what happens is medium to large companies will send these graduates to a boot camp style training for 3 to 4 weeks when they first join the company. During this training they are not allowed to leave the training centre (even on weekends) they will wake up in the early hours of the morning for light exercise and then a mess hall type meal followed by a full day usually of between 8am - 7pm of seminars and classes. This is then followed by group projects with tight deadlines that mean the youngsters are up until 1 - 2 am researching. Keep in mind they are then waking up at 6am the following day for their 'healthy' exercise. They will literally be subject to a month of sleep deprivation, isolated from friends and family, expected to work to the early hours of the morning and be fed with a months worth of company propaganda passed off in the form of company 'core values'. I went through this experience with my company and the young men around me would liken it to their military service. This is their first experience of corporate life and instantly they are being told to arrive early, work late and sacrifice family and friends. I'm just surprised not more of them call it quits after the first 3 months - that said over 1/3 of graduate employees do quit in their first year.

      Delete
    2. What I failed to mention is that changing the way they approach graduate training and not forcing upon new graduates poor and unproductive traits could be an effective way of changing corporate culture from the grass roots.

      Delete
    3. Has their been successful "case studies" where a non-Korean employee has been able to convince Korean management to bring about changes in key management practices? I'm interested in identifying tangible solutions that have been put in place and worked.

      Delete
  29. It has been only 4 months for me in Korea and working for Oil & Gas company. I agree with most of points which is made by writer.

    The Advantage of being global leaders in consumer and EPC market's are only keeping Korean corporate to continue what they are currently following in offices. This corporate houses would find big difficulty when they have to tackle the issue of global crisis where they would not be enough demand and their businesses will shrink then earlier.

    Somewhere in the present culture of Korean corporate, the innovation is missing, which in fact is the strong point of USA / European based companies who Korean corporates believe are following.

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  30. Hi,
    Great article and unfortunately so true. I used to work for a Korean company and I am FEMALE! That's another thing which wasn't mentioned before. As a female worker you are worth sh***. I don't know a lot about the relationship men/ women in Korea but here I speak from my own experience. Whatever effort I put in my work it was not good enough. Our manager ignored me all the time. When he had to talk to me he would ask one of foreign managers to do that. He said once that talking to a woman is below level. Imagine that!
    Greetings

    ReplyDelete
  31. Hello there, thanks for a good read.

    Before i say anything, as a foreign 사원 speaking basic korean working in a major company, I can totally relate to this article.. So just like people here, I am guessing I have a very good view of all the points you mentioned and agree 100% with all of them....

    However, i think we need a deeper discussion here...Although I would like to believe there is a definite need for change, I am not sure if the so called Western model is the only way forward... Im not saying coming drunk to work can be productive, so surely there needs to be many changes...No doubt

    I believe there HAS to be a reason for the success of Korean companies be it electronics, auto, engineering etc (maybe this kind of top down approach works great in these sectors - not sure) and the fact that a small country devoid of resources (not a single drop of oil etc) is where it is. i dont think countries like US, UK or Australia can take the resource credit……Be it their obsession with education, work culture etc, I don’t know…..are people happy here , I dont know ! But this is where it has reached and its no short of a miracle.. trust me....

    So really need to debate this further and also keep the history of the OECD countries in mind when we compare say productivity.
    I am 100% sure that this work culture cannot and will not work in the future but credit where credit is deserved....What is the way forward? I am not sure as not a lot of people (specially Western media etc) could have predicted say the rise of the Samsungs given this work environment to compete with so called American working ways at say Apple?

    Always open to discuss my views.. As I said, I am all for change but we need to be careful to say copy paste a Western approach into a different culture set…

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    1. Great post. I think your thoughts echo most here. The article just focuses on negative points because of the negative rankings but I have no doubt that most respect and acknowledge that the Korean economy and model for success up until today is truly remarkable. The core of this article is not really about exact productivity but more about the human cost of it all - High Suicide Rates, Low Happiness Index; Poor work equality.

      Delete
  32. It would be great if you could write an article on Korean Grad Schools, there are so many things to say I don't even know where to start!

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  33. It is absolutely true that hierarchical system in Korean society puts the productivity and creativity on the shelf and there are no signs of progress. I will not deny it and I, for one, want to make it for the better. But at the same time, I have a second thought. I believe there are some bright sides of it (For example, this system is good for making quick decision when urgent task comes to the fore, Especially, in South Korea where the country shapes peninsula between continent and islands.)
    I guess, this post (somewhat deliberately) focuses on negative side of South Korea. Boozy drinking session part also describes South Koreans as lazy workers. I'm feeling sad with it. That is because, it isn't that much severe nowadays, and it is going on for the betterment.
    If it briefly mentioned why the country has happened to have strict hierarchy(mainly Confucianism) or how alcohol function works in Korean society, it would be better post, I believe.
    I know this post don't have to keep neutrality though, but I believe that flipping through a book titled "Korea: the impossible country" would improve the conceived image in your mind that South Korea gives you.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. You are very right in saying that the article lacks a balance. It is because the nature of the Article was in response to the OECD rankings. If you read some of my other articles you would see that I don't have a negative image of South Korea at all. No doubt the hard working spirit of the people is to be admired and for a country with no natural resources to be where it is today is amazing.

      Delete
  34. Well. I thoroughly read it. I disagree with some of it but most of what you covered are legit. They do OT for nothing when they could go home and enjoy time with their family. As an engineer working one of the biggest companies in Korea, i wished how unfair a life of engineers in Korea could be covered.

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  35. Hey, I'm doing an internship in korea, this article point out some very true issues of the country.
    And I confirme everything. Even my korean friends are like this, pretending to be busy all the time .

    Nice article!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Still an internship in Korea is a great opportunity and wonderful experience. I hope you enjoy your time there!

      Delete
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    ReplyDelete
  37. This article is fantastic not only for the content bus also for the eruption of Korean comments showing their uneasiness towards this situation. But I think things are changing ( I want to believe!).... Look at this article about a Company in Paju that tries to follow European work hours standard....

    http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20140530001485

    ReplyDelete
  38. Hello Sawon,

    I'm a Canadian guy working at a Korean 중소기업 (medium sized company) and I am experiencing a lot of the same kinds of things you wrote about here. My coworkers are a good bunch but they spend only half of their working hours working and the other half "working" or in utterly pointless, overly detail oriented meetings where nothing meaningful happens then they "work" 2-3 hours overtime every day. Sometimes these meetings run right through lunch time and everyone acts like it's no big deal to only have a ten minute lunch break (as a foreigner I find this type of behaviour absurd especially when it's usually totally unnecessary and just the result of our boss throwing his weight around and everyone being too cowardly to say anything about it).

    I've been pulling my foreigner card here and leaving 30 minutes late or so everyday because I just can't rationalize staying like they do, especially given that I get all of my work done on time.

    My job is fine aside from all the 눈치 crap. I am feeling a lot of stress though being the only one who lives (relatively) on time most days.

    Do you think they'll ever fire me for being too Canadian and not sacrificing all my free time on the alter of making a good impression? Or do you think they'll let me keep pulling my foreigner card forever? As much as this pisses me off I don't want to lose this job.

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    1. Hi, I'm Christine from France, I used to 뻔뻔하게 pull my foreigner card to leave on time (well...as leaving 30mn late is leaving on time there) and I'm pretty sure that's not a reason big enough to fire you as you are the prestige of the company as a foreigner in a SME!(aren't you?)
      Your coworkers might tell you something but you should just not care and work well your working hours..You're getting stress enough!
      Unless you're too tired of this useless stress you're gonna eventually quit like I did or just keep on leaving the company.. well, this is what I think ;)

      Delete
  39. For sure, some people are going to work and not going in order to work ! A slight difference !

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  40. I worked in a Korean company as the only 외국인 (with over 100 koreans with me) for over 1year, and reading your article reminds me about all the things I couldn't get used to or just understand. This is EXACTLY like this, and it's a pity to see that everywhere in Korea it's just the same. Even if the company has better condition or else, as long as this basic things are happening it may be hard to get a higher productivity...Korea should react and change to keep/find back the position on the Int'l market!
    Thanks Michael for this article and for letting me live again these 1 year and a half in 10mn ^^
    Christine

    ReplyDelete
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