[Viewpoint] Veteran workers an overlooked asset

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[Viewpoint] Veteran workers an overlooked asset

The Korean word gocham, meaning senior or veteran, is very familiar to Koreans, especially to men who have undergone mandatory military service, as it is typically used to describe senior soldiers.

However, the word does not elicit positive overtones with the general public. While Korean-English dictionaries categorize gocham as a value-neutral word, when applied in the workplace the term conjures up the image of a highly paid employee whose productivity does not match his or her salary. Furthermore, it may refer to a person who avoids change and has an authoritative and complacent attitude.

Korean companies’ human resources managers say that managing gochams is the hottest personnel topic today. The main questions are: How can firms control steadily rising labor costs associated with gochams in order to raise corporate efficiency? What methods should be devised to motivate them? How can they be treated better to enhance corporate vitality?

The fact that these questions are being raised endangers the status and vested rights of these employees.

Under these circumstances, gochams are being blamed behind closed doors as the main culprit of high labor costs and are therefore being targeted in workforce restructuring efforts. They are also often considered as obstacles to communication between executives and new employees.

However, gochams should not be treated entirely as a problematic segment of the workforce, for they also can help teach the younger generation of employees. Considering how the massive retirement of the dankai generation (people born shortly after World War II) in Japan resulted in a serious loss of talent and know-how, Korean companies need to recognize gochams as important human resources and utilize them efficiently. Companies should first redefine the conditions of a “genuine” gocham as someone who can contribute to sustainable corporate growth and help cement their role as a genuine veteran with superior survival skills for the company’s use.

The first condition for a genuine gocham is to set an example for juniors to follow. Taking the initiative is the most crucial condition, as it can positively affect the behavior of juniors in maximizing job execution as well as impact the commitment of new and upcoming gocham-level employees. Even if one performs well and has strong specialized abilities, an older employee cannot be a genuine gocham without initiative.

The second condition is the power of continuous improvement. A real gocham will not seek to preserve the status quo. Rather, they will keep an eye out for arising problems and take steps to remedy them. Such activities will provide intellectual stimulation for juniors, thereby helping foster an innovation-oriented corporate culture. Former Toyota Motor Company Chairman Hiroshi Okuda said “The worst thing one can do is to change nothing.” He also emphasized the “power of continuous improvement” as part of the company’s major rehiring criteria for retired employees.

The third condition is securing specialized talent. A genuine gocham will grow into a professional through autonomous, duty-based learning and become a role model for juniors as well as cultivate a learning culture. Specialized skills or accumulation of various work experiences will be a major factor for raising the survival power of seniors.

The fourth condition is mentoring subordinates. This is a process that involves transferring accumulated knowledge that will support the sustainable growth of a company. Only when the specialized knowledge of a gocham is transferred to juniors can sustainable corporate growth be ensured.

Companies should differentiate their personnel policies to secure these four conditions and install a system that can motivate their senior employees. To have genuine gochams, companies need to devise a hard strategy to retain them and prevent their departure. Compensation above market levels and aggressive incentives should be offered to spark high performance, while companies should also strive to foster gochams as team leaders or candidates for executive positions. On the other hand, underperforming seniors must be addressed too. This should involve duty or occupational changes to help them chart a new path. At the same time, any potential negative influence from them on juniors should be blocked.

Looming in the background on this issue is the overarching imperative in personnel policy making: dissolving seniority-based practices. Age should no longer be the determinant for human resources decisions.

Gochams themselves should make efforts to break away from their current image and take steps to capitalize on their age, becoming genuine gochams with the above-mentioned four conditions.

*The writer is a research fellow at the Samsung Economic Research Institute.

by Bae Noh-jo
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