Navigating Korean office culture

Written by on December 13, 2012 in Lifestyle

I’ve been working in the Korean office setting for years — long enough that I’m intimately familiar with a lot of the quirks of Korean office culture, but not long enough that I take any of them for granted. Whether you’re in a government office, an engineering firm, or even a teacher’s lounge, the office culture is relatively similar all across Korea.

A lot of these can be fun or even advantageous, but if you’re unaware of them you could find yourself unwittingly committing a faux pas.

Enter…if you dare.

Here are some examples of what to expect working in a Korean office.

Umbrellas

We’ll start with something I’ve mentioned before. It’s considered bad luck to open your umbrella indoors, but that’s only in western culture.

In Korea, opening your umbrella indoors is considered the most efficient way to dry it. When you come to work on a rainy or even snowy day, you’ll see a veritable garden of coloruful umrellas lying around everywhere.

 

Open umbrellas welcome bad luck but eliminate dampness.

Dress Code

Oddly, there seems to be a double standard in dress code based on gender, with men dressing up more on average than women. Even at certain companies that have uniforms, the men will all show up in their special jumpsuits and the women will wear whatever. Jeans? Not a problem.

Slippers

Dressing for work is a neverending battle between formality and comfort. Comfortable footwear is very important, and having uncomfortable shoes can really ruin your day. The worst is when your feet sweat, leaving you with an uncomfortable sensation for the rest of the day. That’s why so many Korean office workers wear slippers at their desks. There are many kinds that are considered acceptable for the workplace.

Lunches

In Korea, meals are a communal thing. In fact, most restaurants won’t let you get less than two orders of food, seemingly as a kind of passive way to make sure no one dines alone. That means at lunch everyone goes out to a restaurant together. But they still spend a long time stewing over where to eat, either through the office messenger program or while standing outside wondering which way to go. A lot of agonising thought and negotiating goes into where everyone ends up.

Brushing Teeth

Every day after lunch, there’s a steady parade of employees headed to the washrooms, toothbrush in hand to give their teeth a thorough brushing. Many of my coworkers at Korea.net seem to have their own travel kits they keep at their desks. But I just discovered from my coworker that the women’s washroom has its own cabinet for toothbrushes.

Dental hygiene is a regular part of most office workers’ daily routine.

I’ve seen coworkers brushing their teeth while at the urinal, and even once or twice in a toilet stall. I used to have one very trusting boss who stored his toothbrush right in the washroom, often directly under the soap holder; every time I washed my hands, it was a chore to make sure I wouldn’t drip water on it.

I guess good on them for the dedication to oral hygiene, but personally I couldn’t brush my teeth in a public washroom.

Napping

The first time I saw one of my Korean coworkers taking a nap at work, I had to draw everyone’s attention to him. The more times it happened, the less funny it became. I remember once walking into an office once at the end of lunch and seeing three coworkers all asleep right next to each other.

It’s usually right after they get back from lunch, a short siesta for anywhere from five to 15 minutes until it’s time to get back to work, and it seems to be treated as perfectly normal here. I can’t think of a job in the west where this would not get you fired or at least in serious trouble, or at least get a bunch of stuff drawn on your face in marker.

This is what a productive worker looks like before he’s ready to be productive.

I’ve tried napping a few times, but it doesn’t do it for me–except that one time a few jobs ago where my quick nap became a deep sleep that lasted for 30 minutes. Man what an amazing nap. But I missed a couple of phone calls, so obviously I’m not good at napping responsibly, a skill I could see being very important.

Communal Snacks

In Korea, when someone gets a raise, a promotion, or a new job, it’s tradition to buy your team a snack. I’ve seen pizza and tteokbokki in particular, as well as fried chicken, sandwiches, and doughnuts.

Most recently, we had doughnuts.

Everyone always orders the really weird pizzas with unconventional toppings, like blue cheese and pumpkin-stuffed crust and whole shrimps still in their shells, among 15 other toppings. I always warn that if it’s ever my turn to buy pizza, everybody’s getting pepperoni.

Of course on birthdays there’s cake, which leads to serious food logistical problems because cake requires plates and utensils, something the offices I’ve worked in never seem to have. Usually we end up getting our slices of cake served in paper cups, which is sort of like reinventing the cupcake.

Work Hours

Yes, you’ve probably heard that most Korean office workers work incredibly long hours. The expression “9-to-5 job” doesn’t apply in a country where standard office hours are 9 to 6. But a lot of Korean office workers stay even later, even though most companies don’t pay overtime.

I’ve even seen coworkers attempt to combat this by starting work early, coming in as early as 5 or 6, but they still inevitably stay late, meaning they’re putting in extra long hours.

I often drive by one of my old offices and see the lights on in my old floor, and I know they’re still working. I’ve seen those lights on as late as 11pm…on a Saturday night. Working on weekends is fortunately on the way out, and nobody’s expected to come in on a Saturday, but sometimes it’s the only way to meet a deadline.

Waiting for the Boss

Korea’s Confucian society places extreme emphasis on seniority, which means everyone pretty well follows their boss’s example. One of the reasons people in many offices stay late is because their boss stays late, and it’s considered impolite in Korean society to leave before your boss, even if you’ve finished all your work and you have nothing to do, and even if your boss is slacking off at his desk just watching videos (as I heard a Korean friend complaining about recently).

This is one of those rules I started off not knowing and breaking repeatedly, and nobody’s ever held me to it. At one job, my coworkers used to sometimes ask me when I was leaving, because they decided that as long as I left before they did, they weren’t being rude. So the informal rule became, “Don’t go home until either the boss leaves or Jon leaves.”

Work Parties

One of the most infamous aspects of corporate culture is the work party, or “회식,” going out with your coworkers for a meal and drinks. Often it can be fun to get together with your coworkers, but things take a turn for the mandatory when it’s your boss inviting you. Also mandatory is to drink a little, usually soju followed by beer at a second place (2차).

This can be a problem for a lot of professional workers who can’t hold their alcohol or don’t drink, who now have to either bite the bullet or lose popularity at work. There is a lot more to Korean drinking culture I won’t go into now, but these events are often be booze-fueled and raucous but still respecting the hierarchy.

Coming from a western mindset, I would not think to ever have a drink with my coworkers, let alone with superiors, and I’d certainly never dream of coming into work the next morning hungover. But these are things that are accepted and inevitable in Korea, and they bring everyone closer together.

It’s all part of the job.

Career is a much more important thing in Korea than it is in western countries. You spend more time on it, and the office is your primary social environment, your coworkers the people you spend the most time with, on and off the clock. Your coworkers are considered to be your second family, and a lot of these points reflect that attitude.

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About the Author

Jon Dunbar

Jon Dunbar is a former editor and staff writer for Korea.net. His first visit to Korea was in summer 1996 when he was a teenager, and he returned permanently in December 2003. He is involved in the Korean underground music scene and has supported local musicians through writing, photography, and occasionally planning events. He has been blogging for more than a decade, mainly on music, urban exploration, and his cats