Working at Korean Companies: hierarchy, structure, and business titles

korean company hierarchy, job titles and structure

Corporate positions and jobs within Korean companies are very hierarchical, probably more so than you are used to in your home country. Job roles and their attached remuneration or salary are based on the length of service and experience, as opposed to role-based remuneration. Incidentally, this makes it very difficult for non-Koreans to determine what the appropriate title is for a work colleague or contact in both English and Korean.

To help out with the confusing maze that is Korean company hierarchy, Asia Options have created a top-to-bottom list of the typical Korean corporate structure and business titles with the English equivalent title and explanation.

Korean Corporate Titles and Hierarchy

First and foremost, if you are unfamiliar with Korean language but still wish to try and address your Korean co-workers or business partners appropriately, then remember to add the suffix – nim (님) to each and every title. This is the polite form of addressing somebody. For example the CEO you may refer to as 회장님 (HuiJang-Nim). Get it?

When in doubt just refer to people of similar age as 선배님 (SunBae-Nim) which means “my senior colleague” a polite way of referring to all levels of work colleagues.

Cool, now let’s get into it!

회장 HuiJang (Chairman / CEO)

The big boss, the top of the ladder, the head of the ‘family’. Unless you work for a small Korean company or you are of very high status then it is unlikely that you will ever really get to meet the CEO. That being said, medium-sized companies’ chief executives are likely to at least make an appearance at major company functions and events.

Note, due to changing structures in Korean companies, you will often see this used interchangeably with 대표 DaePyo nowadays, although the place in the hierarchy is essentially the same.

사장 SaJang (President / COO)

The right-hand man or woman to the CEO this person usually is the head of a certain business division or separate businesses altogether if you work for a Korean conglomerate. For example, you would have the CEO of the Samsung group and then the people of SaJang status would be the heads of the different business units such as Samsung Electric or Samsung C&T.

전무 JeonMoo (Executive Vice President / CFO) 

JeonMoo is the title most commonly used for the head of the finance departments. It is generally the 3rd level of being a company director. That is the third most senior level in the hierarchy for the company directors.

상무 SangMoo (Vice President) 

Sangmoo is a title given to senior directors who are the heads of departments but have more experience than the below EeSsa.

이사 EeSsa (Director) 

EeSsa is the lowest level of seniority when it comes to being a director. This is for the “younger” department heads. It also can sometimes determine the importance of the department. Usually smaller or less important departments will have an “EeSsa” at the top rather than a “SangMoo”

수석부장 SooSeok BooJang (Department Head)

This title is confusing as it is for those who are the heads of their department but don’t have the appropriate seniority to be a company director. This is also the title used for those who are in charge of operations – those in charge of manufacturing or the entire factory (think blue-collar workers) are often given this title as they do not have the qualifications to become a company director.

실장 ShilJang (Department Head)

Literally translates to the head of the room or chief of the section. This title is used when departments are broken into different sections using the suffix of Shil (실). Slightly less senior than the above mentioned EeSsa but similar in job role/scope.

부장 BooJang (Team Leader / Head Manager / Senior Manager)

Here are the titles which most of us will be in contact with daily. The BooJang (who you will also call Team-Jangnim) is the leader of a team within a department. Like the sales team, accounting team etc. This person will be part of a group of team-jang’s who meet with the department head (Sangmoo, EeSsa or Shiljang) to discuss business and then filter down instructions to each of their own teams. Think mid 40’s worker with 10-12 years experience.

차장 ChaJag (Deputy Team Leader / Senior Manager)

This title is for those who are just below BooJang status but are more or less tasked with the same role as a team leader. The reason for their title is because they are lower in seniority to a BooJang but only just.

과장 KwaJang (Manager)

Kwajang are the late 30s / mid 40s worker with 7 + years of experience. There is usually around 2 Kwajang per team and they work as the managers of the below staff. They will lead most projects and work with the below DaeRi and Sawon to complete projects.

대리 DaeRi (Assistant Manager)

This title is used for staff with around 4 years of experience, probably the worst position in terms of hierarchy as you are off the bottom of the food chain but don’t get any power while also not receiving any guidance as you would if you were a Sawon (see below). Usually, there are 2 or more DaeRi per team who are charged with basic job tasks and working together with Sawons.

주임 Joo-Im (Senior Staff / Assistant Manager)

An in-between level. Not all companies have JooIm but they are basically the next step up from being a graduate worker. Sometimes if a graduate employee is a Masters or Doctorate Graduate then they are automatically promoted to this level. The only difference from a Sawon is a tiny increase in pay.

사원 Sawon (Regular Staff / ~ Assistant / Officer ) 

It’s a graduate employee who has now been at the company longer than a year. There is usually around 1 per team.

신입사원 Shinip Sawon (New Graduate Employee)

First-year newbies sum it up best! Graduate employees who are employed by the thousands by companies like Samsung every recruiting season. New graduate employees to mid-sized companies can expect a salary or around 35,000,000 KRW/Year while those lucky enough to be with big conglomerates will receive around 40 – 45,000,000 KRW.

I hope that cleared things up and saved you some slip-ups in the office! On a parting note, a good guide to see the interplay between hierarchical roles at work would be the infamous Korean drama Misaengwhich was a runaway hit in Korea for its realistic depiction of Korean corporate culture.

Click on other useful Asia Options feature articles to get more tips and tactics to build your career in Korea.

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Michael Kocken lived, studied and worked in Korea for 4 years and now currently works for a Korean multinational company in Australia while providing freelance Korea-focused business consultancy to Australian companies. He also runs a blog called “The Sawon” which focuses on Korean business culture and job opportunities for non-Koreans in Korea.

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