Want to work in South Korea? Note these work culture trends…

The Korean drama 미생 (“Misaeng” – Incomplete Life) has become a hit among office workers in South Korea because it reflected the Korean work culture which may be quite different from the western culture.  If you would like to work in South Korea, it is advisable to note the following work culture trends:

Hierarchy-driven work culture

The Koreans put great emphasis on hierarchy and typical Korean companies adopt a top-down culture.  This is influenced by the Confucian values of a patriarchal society, the Japanese values during the colonial period in the early 20th century and the authoritarian governments of the 1960’s and 1970’s.   Staff are expected to be obedient and not to challenge their superiors.  Saying “no” to superiors is regarded as a sign of disrespect.

As the younger generation who are more exposed to western influence are more outspoken than the older generation but they cannot talk freely in the office, “Blind” (the anonymous gossip application launched in 2013) has become very popular among the younger generation workers in their 20’s and 30’s.  Through this app, the people can talk freely about their supervisors, colleagues, work-related stress, salaries and even labour unions.

Gender gap still exists

While the status of women in the Korean society has been much elevated when compared to the past, in 2013, there was still a gender pay gap of 39% which was the highest in the OECD and only about 10% of senior executive positions were held by women.  This may partly be due to the fact that it is common for women to quit their jobs once they get married or have child.

회식 (“Hoesik” – gatherings with co-workers)

While there are lunch gatherings with co-workers, as the people are busy with their work during the day, gatherings with co-workers are usually in the form of dinner gatherings with heavy drinking and visits to karaoke bars and there are usually 2 or 3 rounds of drinking at different places before everyone can go home, usually at around 2-3 a.m..  However, people may need to go back to the office as early as 6 a.m. the next day.  During hoesik, lower-ranking staff are expected to serve and entertain their superiors and failing to behave well may adversely affect the relationships with their superiors and the performance reviews.

Recently, changes in such hoesik culture are noted. As the younger generation workers are not so keen to attend hoesik, in order to attract the younger talented workers, some companies start to adopt mild form of gatherings in which drinking is not so heavy.  Moreover, some companies would like to prevent excessive drinking which may affect work productivity the next day.  For example, it was said that Samsung implemented a “1-1-9” rule, i.e., one round, one type of alcohol and finishing by 9 p.m. to prevent excessive drinking.

Long work hours

In South Korea, staff are expected to work overtime and work hours can be 9 a.m. to 10 p.m..  The average Korean worked 2,163 hours in 2013 which is 1.3 times the OECD average and ranked second after Mexico which ranked first with 2,237 hours among OECD countries.

According to the survey by the Ministry of Employment and Labour in 2014, 43.65% of employees worked overtime each day for at least 1 hour.  The reasons for overtime were “it was considered natural” (25.8%), “low work efficiency during work hours” (20.9%) and “pressure from the senior workers” (9.4%).  On the other hand, about 30% of employees failed to use half of their entitled leave and the reasons were “mindful of their bosses”(33.2%) and “wary of a negative performance assessment” (21.9%).  About 70% of the workers experienced burn-out.

The situation of foreign employees in South Korea seems no different.  According to the “2014 Foreign Employment Survey Results” by Statistics Korea, as of May 2014, more than half of the foreign employees  work over 50 hours a week.

On the other hand, in order to increase work efficiency, starting from August 2014, Seoul metropolitan government allowed their employees to take a nap for up to an hour between 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. in lounges, conference rooms and other places on the conditions that they submit an application to their supervisors in the morning and make up for the nap hour by either arriving to work earlier at 8 a.m. or leaving office later at 7 p.m..  Given such conditions, I wonder if the employees are really happy to make use of such afternoon nap right.

If you would like to work in South Korea, be prepared for the Korean work culture to avoid culture shock.

Happy working! 🙂

Reminder: The next blog post will be published on 16 February 2015.  Watch this space!



Claire Lee, “Origins of Korean work culture“, The Korea Herald, 2015-01-16

Ock Hyun-ju, “Corporate culture in transition“, The Korea Herald, 2015-01-16

Paul Kerry, “Expat office life easier higher up the ladder“, The Korea Herald, 2015-01-16

Foreign workers with “Korean Dream” suffer from low salary, long work hours“, BusinessKorea, 2014-10-24

Koreans work second-longest hours in OECD“, BusinessKorea, 2014-08-26

Seoul city workers allowed to nap for hour during office hours starting August“, Arirang News, 2014-07-22

Lee Hyo-sik, “City Hall to introduce siesta“, The Korea Times, 2014-07-17

Korean workers show lowest productivity in OECD, despite long overtime“, BusinessKorea, 2014-02-19

Jeyup S. Kwaak, “As South Korea tackles drinking culture, Samsung sets guidelines“, The Wall Street Journal Asia, 2012-11-29



17 thoughts on “Want to work in South Korea? Note these work culture trends…

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