Korean corporate culture, through an Australian’s eyes

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Korean corporate culture, through an Australian’s eyes


Michael Kocken. Teacher of Korean language, culture and corporate culture for Australian employees working for Korean companies in Australia

As soon as the clock struck 6 p.m., the man got up from his desk and packed up his things to go home for the day.

“See you tomorrow,” he said to his colleagues.

“Now? You’re leaving work at 6 p.m. sharp?” his boss asked, perplexed. The man seemed unfazed by his manager’s question and left the office with his bag. After all, he had finished all his required tasks for the day.

That man was Michael Kocken, a 29-year-old Australian who worked at a Korean corporation as a graduate employee until last year.

Kocken, who lived here for five years, can speak and write fluently in Korean. He also studied Chinese and marketing at Curtin University in Australia, and first visited the peninsula in 2009 on a scholarship provided by the Korea-Australia Foundation. After working at the Australian Embassy in Seoul for about two years, he moved on to a global human resources position at a domestic Korean corporation.

Currently, he teaches Korean language, culture and corporate culture to Australians working for Korean companies in Perth, Australia.

Kocken thought leaving work at a specified time didn’t equate to laziness. But most of his Korean colleagues thought differently.

“They thought that they had to work overtime at night, even though they finished work earlier,” he said. “They planned a work schedule for the day and included hours for night duty,” he said.

So Kocken wrote about working overtime at Korean companies based on his experiences in the country. And he uploaded the article, “Reasons why Korea posts low labor productivity,” on his personal blog (thesawon.blogspot.kr).

In it, he analyzed why Korea’s labor productivity is so low, even though Koreans work such long hours.

The distinctive features of Korean corporate culture that he cited were top-down communication; a lack of sincere conversation between colleagues, despite regular get-togethers; wasting time through in-house messenger, Kakao Talk and smartphones; corporate culture that is permissive of drinking and smoking; concentrating on packaging rather than content on Power Point presentations; and college graduates’ lack of working capacity.

When Kocken posted the article, Korean workers, as well as foreigners working in Korea, sympathized with his arguments.

Recently, the JoongAng Ilbo asked Kocken, who now lives in Australia, a few questions via email on why he decided to publish the article.

Q. Why did you write about working overtime?

A. After I worked in Korea, the study results that showed that Korea’s labor productivity is low didn’t surprise me. However, it might be difficult for foreigners to understand since they aren’t aware of Korea’s corporate culture. So I wanted to talk about Korean corporations and the problems with employees’ time management based on my experiences.

What’s the reason for low labor productivity in Korea?

In Korean corporations, employees must frequently and unnecessarily report to senior employees. So junior staff tend to devote a lot of their time researching what their bosses or seniors want to know, instead of working on their own projects. In addition, employees are often obsessed with giving the impression to others that they are busy. For instance, an employee might seem as though he or she is frantically typing letters on a computer, while most of the time that person is actually chatting with his or her colleagues on an in-house messenger or Kakao Talk.

You also criticized graduate employees who just landed jobs. Why?

I think most college graduates are getting jobs without much experience actually working in the field, and their information search skills are also at a college student level.

Among all those problems, what do you think is the biggest problem?

The routine of working overtime at night. I know too well that Korean workers consider working overtime at night as natural and normal, regardless of whether they have work to do. It’s also a way of showing loyalty to the company. And that’s why most employees waste time in the office doing other tasks during the day. If you had to work until 10 p.m., why would you finish work at 5 p.m.?

In that sense, Parkinson’s Law makes perfect sense in Korea.

[Parkinson’s Law is an adage suggested by scholar and author Cyril Northcote Parkinson to point out the inefficiency of civil organizations. Its mathematical equation states that, regardless of workload, the number of an organization’s employees increases at a constant rate, demonstrating the inefficiency of bureaucratic organizations. It could also be applied to the bureaucracy within private companies and large corporations.]

Are you puzzled by the word kaltoe in Korean, which refers to finishing your work and leaving the office on time?

When I left work at 6:30 p.m., I often heard other people around me say, “You abandoned us,” “You don’t sacrifice like us” or “You’re sneaky and lazy,” when I actually worked 30 minutes overtime.

As people regard kaltoe, which is just going home after work on time, as bad behavior, Korean office workers eventually cannot leave work at a specified time, and they can’t avoid the peer pressure. That being the case, most people prefer working overtime at night, which can also demonstrate their sincerity to seniors and bosses, instead of leaving and finishing work on time.

Also, due to that pressure, Korean employees now think leaving work at 7 p.m. is leaving the office on time, or kaltoe in Korean, even though it is working one hour overtime. It became normal to leave work at 9 p.m., and leaving work at 11 or later has been regarded as working overtime at night or a night duty.

As the situation has been repeated and become a custom, the “working time” is now a kind of an unspoken promise, despite the working time written in the employment contract.

What was a good thing about working in Korea?

The charm of Korean companies is that they treat you like a member of the family. They always eat together during the weekdays, work overtime at night together and attend outreach activities on the weekend together. They all attend other employees’ weddings, children’s first birthday parties and funerals. Therefore, not being able to spend much time with family is a disadvantage, but the company’s affection and the consideration was the best part.

Lately, large conglomerates have been introducing programs that encourage leaving work early to eradicate working overtime at night. What do you think about that?

Samsung Electronics introduced Sumart Day (Su is Wednesday in Korean), marking Wednesday as the day without overtime when workers can leave early, and CJ Group recently came up with Family Day, allowing its employees to leave work early once a month so that they can spend time with their families.

However, on Sumart Day, employees still go home at 6 p.m., which is a normal hour to leave work as written in their contracts. These companies came up with these programs with good intentions, but the message that they deliver is wrong. It’s saying that leaving work at 6 p.m. is something special or something like a present, rather than normal.

Korean employees should think that if they work 30 minutes more or one hour overtime, they are doing something as a favor to the company. I personally hope working overtime culture can be eradicated - among many other practices at Korean organizations.”

BY WI MOON-HEE [kjy@joongang.co.kr]

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