Sunday, August 19, 2007

Change in the Korean Workplace: August 2007

It seems every week I learn and experience more change in the Korean workplace. Several reasons surface, but essentially the pressure to compete in a global market dominate. This Korea Herald article points out how some Korean firms are changing...even for hiring and internal promotions.

For example...
Lee Gwang-seok, CEO of an [Korean] online recruiting company, Incruit, said that companies these days have various approaches to selecting the best applicants for their company and shifting emphasis to applicants' attitude, personality, creativity and philosophy has proven those attempts. "Sports activities, history exams and sensory evaluations can present workers' hidden sides that cannot be shown through resumes or short interviews," he said.

The article notes....
Whether it is English proficiency or sales performance, workers these days are struggling with extra exams and evaluations to qualify themselves for promotions and new jobs. Some companies have been introducing unique, some say confusing, measurements to evaluate new employees. Job applicants could face marathons, tug-of-wars (not the metaphor), tasting tests, and Korean history tests as requisites when applying for a job -- and that is on top of basic English skills, that some say are important to compete in the global business environment.

Shin Chul, a resident of Incheon City, has piles of English books on his book shelf. Shin, 49, has worked as a deputy manager in the engineering department for one of the country's major airlines for over eight years. Known for his professional dedication and his people-skills, he is often told that he deserves to be promoted to team leader. Even though he is undauntedly enthusiastic, he is not sure if he could get promoted, ever. His company requires managers to have a good command of English and a high score in TOEIC.

"Some of my colleagues and I are thinking of registering in a local English school. There's no way I can get promoted unless I get a good grade in TOEIC," he said.

Lotte Department Store, the nation's largest department-store chain, since 2005 has required all its employees to take Korean history tests in order to get promoted. A Lotte spokesperson said that this unique promotion policy started when the current CEO, Lee Chul-ho, took charge of the company's department branch in 2005.

"Lee is a firm believer in knowing yourself first in order to know your enemies. In order to raise global experts, you should first know where you come from," the company spokesperson said in an interview with the Korea Herald.

Some 1,900 Lotte employees last Monday, had to solve 50 questions in a history exam exclusively prepared for the company by the National Institute of Korean History, which publishes history books for public education and conducts National History Tests twice a year.

Kim Dae-kil, an official at the history institute said that Lotte's attempt to utilize Korean history as a requisite for promotions is a practical approach to encouraging more people to study about history.

"Of course, there is the pressure of having to take the exam, but one must understand history in order to be successful in a global business setting. It makes a big different doing business after knowing the background and the culture yours and other countries," he said.

Since the new policy began, Lotte Department Store has expanded its investment in employee education. Lotte employees must fulfill five annual credits among the seven classes offered in its E-Campus online.

"Some employees complained that it is hard to get back to studying after graduating such a long time ago but soon they got used to it and even started enjoying it," a Lotte official said. Lotte's E-Campus includes such classes as English, Chinese, Japanese (in different levels), accounting, Korean history and business administration.

Woori Bank is another corporation that is pushing knowledge of Korean history. The bank, unlike Lotte, does not require employees to take an exam before being considered for promotions, but offers those with good grades in its national history tests subsidies and added consideration for promotions. The bank stands by the same belief that a deeper understanding of Korean history and culture helps employees understand others better.

"Understanding Korean history is essential for market growth in the greator Asian market. Without knowing yourself, you can never know about others either," a Woori Bank official said.

Hana Bank is another corporation that is utilizing a somewhat unique system to evaluate employees' competences. It believes that sports activities are where employees show their true colors. The bank's Choongcheong headquarters has included a "sports interview" in their recruiting process since 2005. Instead of a more practical approach, such as a panel interview, all Hana Bank applicants are required to gather at a local gym -- fully equipped with a track suit, runners and plenty of pep -- to participate in several team sports like basketball, tug-of-war and volleyball, the bank said.

Through sports activities, bank authorities say they can see applicants' attitude, cooperation in teamwork and consideration towards others which is rarely visible in an interview of five minutes or less, said Nah Sung-soo, a public relations official of the bank. "They don't have to excel in sports to leave a good impression. We want to see their attitude and how they carry themselves in a group situation," he said.

Sunyang, which produces and distributes the potent Korean liquor, Soju, is also taking a more health-conscious approach. The company went as far as substituting the final interview with a marathon. All new employees must finish a 10-kilometer marathon in order to land the job. For Sunyang, sport extends beyond the recruiting process and is a big part of corporate culture, said a company official.

"Since we are a Soju producer, we tend to have more occasions to drink it than normal people. In that sense, a marathon, the king of all sports, is a good way to keep healthy and to bond with colleagues," said Park Jong-won, an official of the company. He said not only the workers but the company's business counterparts and local citizens are part of the marathon and sprinting events of the company held in Daejeon City every month. The company's CEO, Cho Woong-rae, himself has completed 34 full-course marathons and provides workers with financial compensation to encourage active participation, Park said.

SPC Group, a major food service group with branches like Paris Baguette, Dunkin Donuts and Baskin Robins, may be the only company in the world that subjects all new employees to tasting and smelling tests. Its sensory evaluation, since 2004, has examined applicants' basic tasting and smelling abilities with beakers of over 15 smells. About 10 percent of the applicants fail the exam every year and most of them were found to be chain-smokers, the company said.

"We require our employees to have not only a positive attitude for service but also a basic knowledge and understanding of our products. It is essential to have alert senses in food business," said Jung Duk-soo, an official of the company. "We were surprised at how many smokers could not experience basic tastes and smells," he added.

He said that their workers start the day by tasting their own products like freshly squeezed coffee and croissants. The company's "No-smoking-fund" is another effort not only to encourage workers to stay healthy but to keep their senses fresh. "So far, 80 percent of our workers in the fund have succeeded in quitting smoking and they have all been rewarded with money raised from the fund," Jung said.

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