For three years I lived
and worked in Daejeon, South Korea, as a professor at the SolBridge
International School of Business at Woosong University. About halfway
through, I got married. We both found Korea to be a wonderful place
to live. The people were friendly and extremely helpful, especially
to foreigners. They love their country and are very proud of it, so
they want to show their national virtue to the world. They have a
great work ethic and love to come through for you in a crisis.
We both highly
recommend Korea as a place to live and work for Americans. However,
if you're going to move there, you need to understand some of the
basic differences in the ways things are done in the business world.
This is essential and can make the difference between a pleasant
experience and a traumatic one. The opinions and suggestions on this
page were gathered during my time in Korea, and they are based on the
experiences and observations of various ex-pats at different
organizations. Also, as a professional consultant on global
economics, public affairs, and international relations and a public
speaker on ethics and the global economy, I have advised clients on
issues pertaining to living and working in Korea and doing business
with Koreans and foreign countries in general.
Here are some
and suggestions based
on observation and experience:
1. Contracts: The only
contracts that are legal are those written in Korean. English
translations are provided only as a courtesy. If you enter into a
contract, you may wish to ask to see the Korean version and might
also want to have it reviewed by an independent translator. However,
a word of warning: The Korean concept of contracts is very
different than the American one. Korean contracts are sort of loose
agreements and are highly fluid. It is not uncommon for Korean
companies to re-interpret the meaning of a contract partway through,
and often in a way that results in them paying you less money or in
some way to their benefit and your detriment.
2. Payments: Further to
the notion of contracts, payment problems can be common for ex-pats
in Korea. They tend to be better with Americans, though. They may,
for example, try to pay you an agreed upon dollar amount in Won using
a rigid exchange rate. If this happens, then you will be at the mercy
of the currency markets and might be paid considerably less than you
are promised in the contract (see above about contracts). Also, if
you decide to quit your job, be sure to do so after they pay
you, or else they might refuse to pay your salary.
3. Visa Issues: This is
not such a problem for Americans and others who can come to Korea
without a special work visa. However, Korean companies often use the
threat of pulling visa sponsorship as a means to control their
foreign workers. Make sure you have an exit strategy and plenty of
money to get yourself out if you do not have an open visa arrangement
between your country and Korea.
4. The White Face:
Oftentimes white American, Canadian, Australian, and other similar
workers will be paraded in front of other Koreans, as well as
Japanese and Chinese dignitaries as "proof" of the
international nature of an organization. The knowledge of the foreign
employees for which they were allegedly brought to Korea is seemingly
not as important as the fact that they are white and foreign. It is
very likely you will be at some meetings in which your only job is to
sit there and look pretty. This works quite well for some ex-pats,
but can be frustrating to others. Just be prepared.
5. Teaching: If you are
a foreign teacher or professor in Korea, do not expect the classrooms
to be anything like in America or Europe. You will be expected to
hold the students' hands, figuratively speaking. The schools, even
universities, tend to expect the teachers and professors to ensure
that student actually study. There is no "treating them like
adults." The student evaluations will be higher if you make life
easy on the students, give them high grades, and don't catch them
cheating. Your contract renewal, salary raises, etc., will be
essentially all determined based on how high the students rate you.
One problem, though, is that cheating is rampant in Korea. They have
it down to an art form. Take as many precautions as you can to stop
it. Of course, if you actually do catch someone cheating, you turn
them in at your own peril. If you do so, be prepared to be blamed for
the incident. And, of course, the student you catch cheating and all
his friends will give you low evaluations. What is worse is that the
institutions tend to whitewash such things and try to sweep it all
under the carpet.
6. One Decision Maker:
You might be dealing with or working for a Vice President, Executive
Director, or other high and impressive-sounding personage. They might
tell you "yes" a lot, but then nothing happens. The reason
is that they cannot do anything until their boss tells them to do
something. Usually a company has ultimately one decision maker. This
could be the President, the Chairman, or someone like that. Until he
says to make something happen, it won't happen.
7. Hierarchy: There are
hierarchies everywhere, but you need to know how they go in Korea. It
is very, very, very "top down." There is essentially no
delegation. Your job is to do what the person above you tells you to
do. A Korea's skills and qualifications are actually secondary in
terms of being hired. The number one requirement, other than perhaps
family and personal connections, is that they are compliant. Just do
what the person above you tells you to do, if you're a Korean, and
you'll be fine. Well, for an ex-pat, this can get frustrating...and
probably for the Koreans as well. You'll likely expect a lot of
delegation and initiative, but you'll be disappointed.
8. Alleged Korean Law:
Be prepared when your Korean employer doesn't want to do something
that they will say they can't because "it's against Korean
Law." Of course, when you ask them to show you that law, they
cannot do so. They must have an interesting set of non-existant law books!
9. Told the Wrong
Thing: Be prepared to be told the wrong thing over and over and over
just because the person you asked does not want to lose face and
admit they don't know the answer. No matter how used you are to this
or how many precautions you take, this still has a tendency to crop
up and bite you!
10. No Personal Space:
This is actually common all over Asia. You might, for example, be
looking at the labels of some cans at the grocery store. You left a
few feet of space between yourself and the shelf...thereby providing
enough space for a Korean to pop right in there to look at whatever
they want to see. That they are blocking your view doesn't seem to
enter into their mind. Try not to get too upset with them, though.
This is how they are raised.
11. No Lines: No lines.
Nothing resembling a line. Actually, lines do get formed when some
sort of "authority figure" tells everyone to get into a
line. Usually, though, you better be prepared to push and elbow your
way wherever you're trying to go.
Doesn't Mean International: Koreans love to talk about how
international they are. This is one reason why you as a foreigner
have likely been hired to your company, school, university, Hagwon,
etc. They seem to think that having some foreigners on staff or using
some English makes them international. They seem unconcerned with
knowing exactly how things are done outside of Korea. (Stay tuned for
the picture diagram of Korea's world view.) So, don't get too excited
when you see something that you think is international. You might
find it doesn't quite measure up to what you're expecting. Then
again, as the saying goes, expectation is the root of all disappointment.
We hope that these
few observations (and more will
be added soon) have not
discouraged you from
taking a job in Korea. It's really a great place to live
and work. The
quality of your working environment will depend on the attitudes
of the place where
you work, and also on your attitude.
Be prepared for some
things to be different.
However, you also
must be prepared to stand up for
yourself and not
allow yourself or your family to be bullied.
Koreans are used to
being mistreated by their employers, but
that does not mean
that should you have to endure sub-human treatment.
In the end, you
must be prepared to walk away.
mentally and emotionally is essential to success.
And what is success?
Is it money? Is it contract renewal? Is it promotion?
Success in Korea is
finding out that you can survive and thrive in a foreign
country with a
culture vastly different from your own. Success is gaining
experience about how another culture lives, works, and functions.
truly will change the way you view the entire world forever.
All information presented is presented in good faith.
All persons are encouraged to seek current information
from official sources.
Entire Contents Copyright © 2011. All Rights Reserved.