work culture
Updated 4 months ago

If South Korea went from a Third World country at the end of the Second World War to one of the most developed and richest countries in the world as of 2019, it is partly thanks to the monumental effort made by its population.

The professional dress code in Seoul

Both through innovation and entrepreneurship and the sheer energy invested by workers and employees in their companies, Koreans have forged the country they enjoy today. The world of Korean work is very codified, and the greatest professionalism will be required in your work and behaviour - professional attire will be your showcase. Men in companies will mostly wear suits and women will be similarly smart. In Korea, as in Europe and elsewhere, women have a little more room for manoeuvre.

 Good to know:

For expats, as far as possible, you should avoid necklines that are uncommon in South Korea. Exposing too much can reflect badly on your professionalism and reputation.

Working hours in Seoul

In 2012, the French newspaper Liberation published an article titled "Koreans After Work." There were stories of nights spent at work for a salary of 1,000 euros net, and unpaid overtime. Yet, in contrast to the number of hours worked (which was high), South Korea had one of the lowest hourly productivity rates amongst developed countries.

In response to this, the Korean government has undertaken to reform the labour culture. President Moon Jae In has continued this effort, and since April 2018, every Friday, computers in the Seoul administration automatically shut down to avoid night work. Also, the minimum wage increased in 2019.

Although mentalities tend to change, while Korean labour law prescribes 40 hours of work per week, the rule is far from universally applied for the majority of employees. This work pressure is also felt with regards to holidays. While Koreans legally have 15 days a year, most of the time they take only half this amount, so as not to be poorly regarded by management.

The culture of hierarchy in Seoul

One of the foundations of Korean culture is hierarchy. From the earliest age, children are instilled with respect for their elders and superiors, so it is hardly surprising to find this characteristic in the world of work.

While your professional position is important, your age is as significant to hierarchy, so do not be surprised if a colleague previously unknown to you asks your age. Even without relative subordination in your positions, a person will be considered your Senior (and you, their Junior) if you are younger than them. The hierarchy in South Korea is pushed so far that it is rare to see a position granted to a person younger than those who would be under their supervision.

To integrate into your business environment, you will need to follow these codes of the Korean hierarchy. Wait until the oldest person at the table sits down before following suit, something that can even apply to beginning to eat. Stay humble in front of your colleagues and especially your superiors.

The culture of family business in Seoul

A company is still - for many Koreans - much more than a job; it is a social circle of the utmost importance. It is always important to invest in the life of the company. A bad reputation in the world of work or dismissal is shameful not only for the person concerned but also for their family.

The involvement of an employee can be put to the test in various ways: by the working hours expected, even on days of rest, the presence of colleagues at a wedding, or at the funeral of one of the members of an employee's family. Most often, your loyalty to the company will be verified by your presence at dinners and after-work drinks - organised frequently and very difficult to refuse.

What's more, it's not just about going to events after work, but actively participating by accepting all the drinks your manager offers, as well as participating in drinking games. This practice, which may shock travellers from Europe, is slowly being challenged in South Korea but is only slowly abating. Your status as a foreigner can be helpful in this case, if you apologise for not being able to drink a lot of Korean alcohol. In case of a refusal, be sure to formulate it politely and indirectly - a direct refusal is often interpreted as rudeness.

The culture of Korean honour

Just as in the case of refusing a drink, you may have to revise your way of communicating. In Seoul, a company’s outside appearance and internal cohesion are paramount. To directly and publicly contradict a colleague will be perceived as the desire to make him lose face. However, it will be perfectly acceptable to speak more directly during social occasions after work. To do this, you will have to wait to be slightly drunk to make your claims or suggestions - in all likelihood, the next day your colleagues will pretend to remember nothing, but your request will be considered by your superior.

If these social rules seem radically different from those observed in Western countries, don’t panic: adaptations are made over time with the help (and indulgence!) of the Koreans you will meet.

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