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[Weekender] Expat office life easier higher up the ladder

Korean office culture can seem alien to outsiders, with stories of drinking and military order rife, but as with elsewhere, the differences are easier to deal with the higher your rank.

One person lifting the lid on expat office life is Michael Kocken, who writes “The Sawon,” a blog about his experiences as a graduate recruit at a mid-sized chaebol.

He says working there was a rewarding experience, but he found some things hard to fathom.

Staff were tacitly expected to work overtime, rather than leave at “knife time” ― the end of the regular work day ― and he found the induction program unnecessarily arduous. 
Michael Kocken
Michael Kocken

“At the start I was really excited about (the training),” he said. “I was keen to bond with the Korean staff on that kind of level. I was looking forward to for once not being the foreign guy.

“In that sense it was quite good, because I didn’t get any special treatment.”

He describes getting up at 6 a.m. for group exercises, followed by a full day of lectures and project work in the evening. But he said the project work was more suited to college freshmen than graduates, and thought the workload was heavy just for the sake of it.

“I just felt it was unnecessary,” said Kocken. “We could bond with a weekend away and some team-building exercises. It doesn’t need to be this stressful.”

Kocken said he suffered no repercussions when he complained about this, or when he later left work on time, though he might have been cut some slack because he was not Korean.

He also found it odd to be asked to go to personal events, including the funeral of his manager’s father. He said he was required to help greet the guests there, but remembers feeling conflicted about being there.

“It seems ruder to me to go to the funeral because I am not emotionally there. Any gesture is obviously hollow,” he said.

“People (in Australia), because they feel that way, won’t go to a funeral of a coworker’s relative.”

In nonprofessional jobs, the situation can be more difficult, says Bhing Diamzon, a Filipino-Korean counselor for the Seoul Global Center.

“Sometimes the employer wanted their workers to work much more than the Koreans do,” Diamzon said, pointing out that many foreign workers did jobs Koreans didn’t want to do. “Most of the time these foreign workers suffer from discrimination.”

But she said workers can improve their situation by learning the language and the culture.

“Most foreigners (we advise) encounter problems with their employer because of misunderstandings miscommunication.”

For high-ranking staff, cultural issues don’t generally become major problems, according to George Whitfield, president of Halcyon Search International, an executive recruitment firm based in Seoul. He points out a different potential language problem for foreign staff.

“They need to be adaptable and just realize that when you have Korean employees, it’s just very natural for them to prefer to speak to Korean when they speak to each other,” he said.

“A few people find it uncomfortable. They want to know everything that’s going on and being said.”

Kocken says that despite the impression some readers get, he values his experience here. Although he has left Korea, he now works for the Australian office of a Korean company staffed mostly by Korean expats.

“I really loved my time in Korea,” he said. “I can’t exchange that experience for anything.”

By Paul Kerry (paulkerry@heraldcorp.com)
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