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 helpful opinions 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.

12. International 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.
Being prepared mentally and emotionally is essential to success.
And what is success? Is it money? Is it contract renewal? Is it promotion?
NO!
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
first-hand experience about how another culture lives, works, and functions.
Living overseas 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.
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