Even if a company implements a casual dress policy and does away with honorifics to facilitate communications, managers still won’t listen to us. They are just old fogies in jeans. A junior manager, 2017 Survey Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry and McKinsey Consulting
Chapter 1 A Progressive Workplace
In November 2015, I was asked by a journalist researching an article for The Economist to comment on the Korean workplace. The journalist’s premise as a foreigner was that significant change had already occurred. I shared two points—first, office change was underway. The best example of a progressive workplace was a firm I knew well -- Hyundai Capital Services, a financial arm for the Hyundai Motor Group. And two, due to stiff competition in Korea’s key overseas markets, in lots of cases, I saw the opposite of a liberalization of the workplace. In fact, new stricter policies were in place.
These points shaped the article. Addressing the first point, the progressive Hyundai Capital, the article revealed some of their policies. I quote….
MEETINGS to last no more than 30 minutes;
junior staff allowed to speak freely with superiors;
a cut in bonuses for bosses whose teams do not take enough holidays.
My second point was that even though the new generation of workers sought change and companies’ endorsed change, older generations remain in firm control, especially in their overseas operations. Again I quote The Economist:
Don Southerton, who advises South Korean businesses on how to manage their foreign operations, says many have been “going back to basics” since the slowdown in China and other big emerging markets. Their Korean staff has reverted to working longer hours and straining to hit short-term targets, under pressure from the bosses back in Seoul.
More South Korean companies appear to be tightening the screws at home, too: a portal, found that almost half felt their company was disciplining them more than before: making them stick to a strict lunch hour, for example; or asking them to arrive at the office an hour earlier; or in stricter dress codes.
Relapsing back into old ways is unlikely to work, however, given the reluctance of younger employees to tolerate the strictures of the typical South Korean workplace. Their expectations are “totally different” from those of their parents…
Fast-forwarding three years to 2018
Today, I do see a transition underway—a lessening pushback, too. Companies have become more sensitive to work-life balance and many have broad mandates in place. Samsung and SK Group, as examples, have introduced a more simplified corporate hierarchy. Lotte Group has introduced stricter policies to support work-life balance including shutting down the company’s computers after working hours and requiring male workers to go on paternal leave.
More radical, workers are now boldly voicing publically concerns when policies are not upheld. Korean daily, Joongang News noted:
When Kim Hyo-rin, 25, started her first job at a conglomerate, she soon realized that the company wasn’t as progressive as she thought it would be.
“Even though my company practices flextime and has a 40-hour workweek policy, our department boss always looks at us badly if we come to work after 9 a.m., even though I work the full 40 hours,” said Kim.
When she started the job, Kim was optimistic about working at a company with policies that seemed so worker-friendly.
“Our company also has a policy that prevents senior colleagues from texting juniors about work-related issues after working hours and during weekends, but that rule is always ignored,” she added. “Nonetheless, our entire office is covered with posters promoting these campaigns, which I feel are just for show.”
Change is underway.
Although implementation may be slow to take root in a growing number even leadership in the private sector, academia and government continue to stress the benefits of the progressive workplace. Advocates point out the goal is a workplace in which employees are intrinsically motivated and evaluated according to their performance, not their seniority.