Work In South Korea For Foreigners – I have lived in Korea for over 10 years. I have worked with Korean startups, large Korean corporations, and the Korean government. I have made many memories, mistakes, successes and most importantly, friends. Now I feel comfortable to share some of my experiences and give some tips to foreigners who want to work in a company in Korea. This applies primarily to foreigners but can also apply to Koreans and Korean Americans. Foreigners working in Korea can get away with many things that Koreans cannot. Being a Korean American, I didn’t get the full treatment of an average Korean worker, but I wasn’t treated like a complete foreigner either. However, most of these unwritten rules apply to everyone working in Korea. These rules for working in Korea are based only on my experiences and certainly do not apply to all Korean companies.
10 Unwritten Rules Foreigners Should Know Before Working in Korea 1. Don’t be a minute late to work.
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Many foreigners realize that their Korean colleagues are working there when they arrive at the workplace. For Koreans, the sooner they come to work, the better the company looks. For a foreigner, being on time is fine, but the moment you’re late, you’ll be recognized the moment you arrive. Don’t be surprised if someone tells your boss, “You’re late.” Or a colleague casually mentions that they need something from you at the office…
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Not being late is a given for many companies in Korea. They are expected to arrive not only on time but at least 10 minutes early. If you happen to be late, you should make up for it by staying longer after work. Multiply by 10 for each minute, so if you are 5 minutes late, wait an extra 50 minutes to make up. Remember, just because you come in early doesn’t mean you get overtime or bonus pay. It’s about showing your company that you put the company first.
It’s one thing to be a few minutes late… but never think about being on time. If you leave on time, you can probably leave the office yourself. Now, this does not apply to teaching positions or working in banks with tight deadlines. However, for most Korean companies, at least one hour is the industry standard. It will be inconvenient for your colleagues to leave after a few minutes of work. Many companies in Korea face this ridiculous competition to see which employee leaves first, setting the stage for others to leave. No one wants to be the first person.
This is why a minimum of one hour is pretty much…again…the industry standard in Korea. Some Koreans go to extremes. It is not unusual to see some workers staying up until midnight or later on certain nights. It recently got so bad that a few years ago the Korean government had to intervene and force Korean workers to go home.
I remember interviewing the CEO of a Korean company and his answer to this hypothetical question stuck with me for years. I asked him to choose between two workers.
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At the end of the day, these two workers are done. But which worker do you think he chose? B didn’t blink before taking it. Although it had little to do with the employees liking to stay on the job for a long time, basically an employee hated the idea of leaving as soon as their shift ended. He felt this would set an unhealthy standard for other employees. It shocked me but gave me a deep insight into the mindset of a Korean CEO. It’s about the team, not necessarily being competent. If one employee stays longer, the whole team should stay longer.
In my opinion, this ultimately leads to more employees becoming less productive because they know they should stay longer anyway. Where is the inspiration? If you can’t finish your work at the end of your work day, it can only mean one of two things.
This will be something that many foreigners in Korea feel during group meetings. The team leader, supervisor or CEO will talk about the concept/strategy. The rest of the staff either sat quietly or approved and criticized. After that person leaves the room, team members talk to each other and ask how on earth they can achieve what they asked for. You think they should have announced this to the boss during the meeting, don’t you?
Never question your boss in a Korean company. Even if you’re right, it’s not a big deal. There is a reason why ideas are not exchanged at team meetings in Korea. Most of them do not want to question the ideas of the group leader. Changing ideas or strategies is seen as challenging rather than productive. Also, don’t hesitate to pull your superior aside and tell him why a particular idea won’t work. In Korea, superiors don’t want to be called and will remind you to do so.
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You and your team try the whole strategy knowing it won’t work. When it fails once and criticizes the top team, the team’s only response is to try better next time. Now, this can be useful if a superior has grandiose ideas… but, in most cases, many of their ideas are not fully thought out and planned. Many people are emotional and lead to wasting time.
I know what most people are thinking. Why not ignore the dominant strategy and come up with something better and finally present it to your boss.
Often bosses have superiors to whom they need to report. The strategy your supervisor wants to implement must be presented to their supervisor before it is shared with the team. They should show the results of that particular strategy. If they come up with another strategy, whether it succeeds or fails, the problem is that it’s not adopted. Non-acceptance, however, is still highly illegal in a Korean company and may result in disciplinary action. You do what you are told, no matter how illogical it may seem.
Korean companies speak Korean during work, which makes perfect sense. Therefore, it is difficult to assess how well a colleague understands English. There are many stories online about foreigners working in Korean companies who feel lonely and have no one to connect with. While Koreans study hard, many lack the confidence to speak English fluently. Even their English is decent in most cases.
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A lot of my relatives who grew up in America would make fun of them if they couldn’t speak English well. “Can I order a… large…?”
In Korea, it is the complete opposite. If a foreigner tries to speak Korean and totally kills him…
The answer is usually very positive. They praise a foreigner for trying Korea and many people can cheer them on with praise. Many Koreans travel a lot and I’m sure they face a lot of backlash for using (practicing) their English abroad. So many people will be too shy to talk to you if they don’t feel 100% confident in their English skills. So don’t take it personally. Therefore, the ability to speak Korean will be very useful even if it is at a low level.
Korean companies like monthly, weekly or daily reports. Everyone who works in Korea will see the necessary papers. These reports go a long way in gathering information about what is being done. Many international companies are successful in using these reports to their advantage. However, when it comes to foreigners working in Korean companies, this is a complete waste of time. Now, it all depends on how well you know your superior English skills. Of course, if they have a good understanding of English, your report is more likely to be read. However, in most cases, your superiors lack English skills. If so, it will not be read.
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Now granted, I don’t know if Korean companies review Korean reports, but from my experience reports written in English are generally not considered. It has to do with English comprehension, but mainly because foreigners represent a minority in Korean companies. Priority is set for Korean employees, so reports created by foreigners often go unread.
I had to do several of these reports and began to question whether these reports were even being read. So as a test a
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