Why do Koreans work so late?
It is probably the question that most foreigners working or studying in Korea love to discuss and outsiders frequently ask or have heard rumours of. It’s true; Koreans have some of the worst working hours in the OECD. In fact, according to 2012 statistics, they were ranked 2nd in the OECD for Average annual hours actually worked per worker. In reality, there are some interesting and unique cultural forces in play which are causing Koreans to stay later at the office than others.
The culture of working long hours in Korean companies are a result of a variety of influences: the epic rise from poverty to middle-class power; top – bottom hierarchy structures; constant reporting; micromanagement; perception; loyalty; face; and Noonchi.
The ideal of noonchi (눈치) can have a variety of meanings. It often refers to how one can perceive the emotions and atmosphere of others by observing them without any communication which can also apply to the business setting. However, I prefer to refer to Noonchi as a silent set of expectations and rules placed on workers. Often in the Korean corporate world, people will refer to what they call the Noonchi pyramid – this is the notion that in a Korean corporate setting the junior workers are “watching” (or mindful of) the actions and non-verbal cues of their mid-managers. The mid-managers are then “watching” the managers, the managers are “watching” the department heads and the department heads are “watching” the directors and finally, the directors are “watching” the family owners. “Watching” is essentially referring to the idea of noonchi and how each level of hierarchy is concerned of how their superiors above them perceive their actions and how through noonchi they can determine the subliminal demands/desires of their managers.
This is virtually like how a junior worker, for fear of appearing stupid, will not ask “why or how” when allocated work from a superior and will instead reply with a quick and confident “yes” before returning quietly to their seat with no clear idea on how to complete the work task assigned. What holds many Korean workers back so late is this noonchi and the belief that they can’t leave on time because of the perception it gives to their superiors and the belief that the boss wants everyone to stay as late and sacrifice as much as they do. The bosses can’t leave early either because they believe that’s what their superiors want and so on and so forth. The only person who is leaving on time in this scenario is the person at the top of the noonchi pyramid. Koreans will often sit in their office chairs during overtime hours with no specific work but out of noonchi.
Perception and old-school management
Being busy in Korea is viewed as a positive rather than a negative, even in social settings. It is common for Koreans to regular reply to messages with a mandatory sorry message of “I was so busy out of my mind” (너무 바빠서 정신이 없었다). It is rare for a Korean in any social setting to admit that they are not busy. There is a lack of honesty here but it’s because in Korea not being busy can so easily, and often is, interpreted as being lazy.
Finishing all your work and going home on time is not viewed as hard working but quite the opposite – you either don’t have enough work and your position is not important or you are not working hard enough. If the office takes this view then what advantage is there for Koreans to finish their work and leave on time? Nobody in the corporate world wants to appear as if their job is easy, or that they don’t have enough work because that would be admitting that they are not adding value to the company and not working hard enough, making them easily replaceable. And in an incredibly tight and competitive job market, it is the safe play to give off the impression that your job, and by association, you yourself, are integral to the operation of the company. This is a trait that can be seen in companies all around the world.
The general rule in a Korean company is to not leave until your direct team leader has left which would be fine if not for the team leader also believing that they can’t leave until a certain time because they also want to give off the impression of working hard. Perception reigns supreme in a Korean office and giving off the impression of working hard by staying late is something all Koreans will do. In fact, although your contract will state working hours from 9am – 6pm, working until 8am – 9pm or later (and then there is Dinner drinks) will be the norm.
So who is demanding that these laws of noonchi and perception are being enforced? Many believe that a lot of these negatives of Korean corporate culture are a result of the old school management principles of the company directors. These directors have grown up and worked through one of the greatest economic turnarounds in modern history. They are from the school of hard work – long hours, personal sacrifice for the good of the company, and undeniable economic growth and results. I definitely felt that in my experience working at Korean companies that the mid-managers often in their 40s are not horrible and sadistic people who like to see young people suffer but that there is a difference in how they view working hours. Company directors are not thinking to themselves “You guys need to suffer like I did,” they simply expect the same commitment and work ethic that they contributed to building the company. The important issue now is that the next generation of directors begin to recognise the changing values and demands of young Koreans and that long hours and sacrifice are not going to produce the same results as they did in the past, there is definitely hope that the next generation will begin to see the value in promoting better work-life balance.
Hierarchy chains and bottom lines
All of these factors are intertwining which makes it hard to accurately sub-head sections. One aspect which often does not come up in many discussions on Korean overtime is that there are actually some workers, departments and companies that are genuinely busy!
Some departments and companies are very understaffed: if a person is working 80 hour weeks then a company doesn’t think to itself that it needs to hire extra staff to share the workload, they simply think that an 80 hour work week is what is expected. And since they never needed extra staff to handle the workload before, so why should they now? This means inevitably there will be staff doing the work of two or even three people for the sake of company profits. With companies casting a key eye on the bottom line and maximum profits, they have a lot to answer for in this regard.
The other issue is that of hierarchy chains and demands. This has some links to the military history of Korean leadership and also the 2 years of military service that young Korean men have to undertake. When demands come from the top they are required to be attended to first. This means real work that is contributing value to the company is ignored as staff are forced to respond to the demands of top management. This is a vicious cycle of ad-hoc reporting – I like to describe it as a fire department, teams move from fire to fire doing ad-hoc reporting on issues that the management has suddenly taken an interest in. It is unavoidable to not stay late when you and your team are forced to prepare reports to the standard a CEO expects on topics and issues which are not your expertise nor directly related to your work.
If the CEO wants a report tomorrow on the Australian HR system and its difference to Korea than you really have no choice but to spend the night preparing the report. It would be like if you had a very inconsiderate and irrational teacher at school or university who does pop-style 20-page assignments due the following day. What can you do? If you don’t do the work your position is on the line, and if you do the work then you are going to sacrifice your personal time and health. Because the CEO or another director demands that you cannot simply give a verbal report either, you want to be perceived as if you have done a good job which usually means a simple 10 minute ad-hoc briefing on a topic turns into a 1 hour, 40 slide powerpoint filled with graphs and models which essentially mean nothing!
Loyalty and Sacrifice
Korea, as we know, is a largely collective society. Personal gains are sacrificed for the group, or in a workers perspective – personal time and well-being is sacrificed for the better of the company (and by large the economy). It has always been interesting to me that this style of thinking is commonplace when clearly the elite families who run the major Korean chaebols (Samsung, LG, Hanhwa, CJ) have reached the top not by sacrificing for the group rather they have had others sacrifice for their own personal gain.
In the case of staying late – if we again look at the aforementioned pyramid model, young workers will look to stay as late as their mid-managers and so on. This is to display that they are “all-in” and they are willing to sacrifice just as much as their managers – it is a show of loyalty and of caring. If we suffer then we suffer together and this is an admirable trait but for the fact that nobody really has to suffer.
Sacrifice is glorified and expected. Of course, there are those who simply prefer to stay at the office and are avoiding their home lives (possibly another subheading) but the majority are definitely sacrificing personal time, health and mental well-being. In a society where individuals are expected to toe the line as part of the group, it becomes increasingly difficult for workers to avoid the ‘sacrifice’ of staying late for fear of being ostracised and singled out.
“Smart Days” and “Family Days”
Without a doubt, modern Korean society has had enough of the pointless overtime and there are signs of change among the big Chaebols who by-in-large dictate the corporate culture of the entire Korean economy. These major Korean companies and ambitious HR teams are certainly trying to change this culture with varying success.
Samsung and CJ both have programs called “Smart Day” and “Family Day” respectively. These programs aim to give workers more time to spend with their families and to work “smarter” by forcing them to go home at a set time. Good intentions that are unfortunately being executed poorly.
The issue with these programs is that workers are just leaving work on time at the originally agreed upon time of 5pm or 6pm. They are not leaving ‘early’ or even taking a half day but simply leaving work at the otherwise normal agreed time. The fatal flaw is that these programs are packaging what should be the norm into a type of reward. Companies are effectively telling staff that to leave work on time is something special, a reward, and an abnormality in the industry’s “normal” hours, which is essentially overtime work.
I hope I have been able to give you some insight into the complexity of Korean overtime and corporate culture and I will continuously add to this article as I am sure others who have experienced it also have valid opinions and points as to why Korean workers simply can’t leave the office on time.
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