Cul­tural whiplash in the Korean work­place

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - BY RACHEL PREMACK

seoul — Hwang Yun-ik would never think to call his co-work­ers or boss by their first names. Most Kore­ans wouldn’t.

For Hwang, that changed re­cently. Kakao, one of South Korea’s largest In­ter­net com­pa­nies, de­cided three years ago that all em­ploy­ees would go by English nick­names. Hwang works at Kakao as a direc­tor in busi­ness de­vel­op­ment.

The strange part wasn’t be­ing called an English name. It was be­ing called, well, a name.

The norm in South Korea is to call your col­leagues or su­pe­ri­ors not by their given names but by their po­si­tions. It’s the same for ad­dress­ing your older friends or sib­lings, your teacher or any per­son on the street. So if your fam­ily name is John­son and you were to be hired in a Korean com­pany as a man­ager, your co-work­ers would call you “John­son-boo­jang.” To get the at­ten­tion of your older fe­male friend, you would call for “eunni,” or “older sis­ter.”

This is a lan­guage where verb con­ju­ga­tions are based not on I,

they, we and so on, but on for­mal­ity lev­els. “The younger per­son must use hon­orific to the older per­son,” Hwang said. “If not, that makes a lot of con­flict.”

One pop­u­lar Korean blog was more ex­plicit on shirk­ing hon­orifics in the work­place: “Drop­ping your pants and [uri­nat­ing] in the per­son’s brief­case would be only a lit­tle ruder than call­ing him/her by his/her first name.”

But some com­pa­nies are look­ing to elim­i­nate some of this hi­er­ar­chy. The best way to do that, it seems, is dic­tat­ing that em­ploy­ees take English names. Us­ing the ac­tual name of your boss or co-work­ers feels im­po­lite. But, hope­fully, call­ing him or her an English nick­name taps into a dif­fer­ent cul­tural mind-set.

That has ush­ered Kore­ans to take on typ­i­cal English names such as So­phie or John. Or, in Hwang’s case, atyp­i­cal ones: He chose “Unique.”

Why Unique? He re­sponded sim­ply and with a smile, “I am unique.”

Unique has em­braced English nick­names, though folks else­where feel un­easy about it. Hwang Hye-rim, who pre­vi­ously worked at a trans­la­tion com­pany, said she al­ways at­tached po­si­tion names to her co-work­ers’ English names. “I was con­cerned that omit­ting job po­si­tion names would be re­ally of­fen­sive,” she Hong Yun-ji likes the lack of hi­er­ar­chy at the Seoul of­fice of SABIC, a Saudi man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pany. But, in an of­fice full of Es­thers and Michelles, she stuck with Yun-ji.

“I pre­fer to use my Korean name be­cause I am a Korean per­son,” Hong said be­tween sips of an iced cof­fee at a stylish cafe in Seoul one re­cent Satur­day. “Us­ing an English name even though you are not Amer­i­can is a lit­tle bit Your name is from your own mother and fa­ther.”

Com­pa­nies in English ed­u­ca­tion, tourism, trade or other glob­ally fo­cused in­dus­tries typ­i­cally have English nick­name poli­cies. They want to ac­com­mo­date for­eign busi­ness part­ners who can’t de­ci­pher be­tween Lee Ji-yeong and Lee Ji-yeon. “They’re thought­ful peo­ple,” Hong said. “It’s to be kind to for­eign peo­ple.”

She added with a laugh, “It’s too thought­ful think­ing some­said. times.”

The larger rea­son is a de­sire for a hor­i­zon­tal work­place as more em­ploy­ees, par­tic­u­larly younger ones, are ed­u­cated or work out­side Korea. “Younger gen­er­a­tions think some­thing’s wrong with it, and we all feel the need to fix this cul­ture,” Hwang Hye-rim said.

In the hi­er­ar­chi­cal struc­ture, em­ploy­ees can­not fol­low or share their own ideas. De­ci­sion-mak­ing is usu­ally stymied by go­ing through many chains of hi­er­arstrange. chy. And projects are not nec­es­sar­ily led by ex­per­tise but by who has the high­est ti­tle.

“‘You should, you must fol­low my com­mands over your own think­ing,’ ” Hong said. “It’s like they’re sol­diers. They are not work­ing to­gether.”

While start-ups such as Kakao have re­jected that quasi-mil­i­tary struc­ture, it’s pro­tected at chae­bol — the mas­sive, fam­ily-owned com­pa­nies such as Sam­sung, LG and Hyundai that essen­tially run Korea. Sam­sung alone ac­counts for one-fifth of Korea’s gross do­mes­tic prod­uct.

Chae­bol are in­fa­mously rigid, as are the many Korean com­pa­nies made in their im­age. Peo­ple re­ceive raises and pro­mo­tions on the same sched­ule, ac­cord­ing to age; desks are ar­ranged ac­cord­ing to po­si­tion; and hir­ing oc­curs no more than twice a year, of­ten ac­cord­ing to test scores. It’s com­fort­ingly log­i­cal.

So when a com­pany in­stills English nick­names along with a more hor­i­zon­tal cul­ture, it is re­mov­ing the back­bone of an or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Many Kore­ans, who of­ten work 12-hour days at a sin­gle com­pany for most of their lives, feel that their life iden­tity is taken, as well.

“At first, we felt emo­tion­ally de­prived,” one em­ployee at SK Tele­com, which re­moved most job ti­tles in 2006, told the New York Times in 2008.

Younger Kore­ans and for­eign work­ers hop­ing for a quicker over­haul of the hi­er­ar­chi­cal of­fice are likely to be dis­ap­pointed. This coun­try spends more time at work than nearly any other coun­try in the Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment — on av­er­age ev­ery year, 323 hours more than Amer­i­cans and 394 hours more than the Ja­panese. There’s lit­tle rea­son to want to be called “Fred” or “Sally” rather than the “direc­tor” ti­tle you have ded­i­cated your life to achiev­ing.

Even Hong, who lived in Canada and dis­likes many of Korea’s Con­fu­cian as­pects, still ac­ci­den­tally calls her boss by the tra­di­tional ti­tle.

“Some­times it comes out,” Hong said. “It’s a for­eign com­pany, but the peo­ple work­ing there are to­tally Korean. They never dis­card their own es­sen­tial per­son­al­ity.”


Em­ploy­ees as­sem­ble ve­hi­cle chas­sis at a Hyundai Mo­bis fac­tory in Asan, South Korea. Some South Korean com­pa­nies, es­pe­cially smaller ones, are buck­ing the coun­try’s hi­er­ar­chi­cal tra­di­tions.


An em­ployee uses her phone in a Kakao Friends shop. Kakao is one of the com­pa­nies push­ing work­ers to use English nick­names.

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